Labour says it can combine social cohesion with economic efficiency but so far it is just being bossy. Tories understand real institutions, not abstract communitiesby David Willetts / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Emperor hirohito told the Japanese people in July 1945 that “developments have not entirely proceeded as planned.” That is rather how I feel about recent political events. One of the reasons why the Conservative party lost the election is that many voters took the Conservative belief in the free market to mean that they were willing to destroy institutions and traditions which the electorate hold dear. This is an absurd position for the Conservative party to be in.
Labour’s first charge was that free market ideology was destroying “one nation.” Their second was that it was not even economically efficient. Tony Blair claims that it is Labour which can combine social cohesion and economic efficiency. This is the political battleground which Labour has seized and which the Conservatives must regain.
Beneath the shifting debates on particular issues, one can identify two central aspirations of the modern British citizen. First, we want freedom and opportunity-to feel that we can make life better for ourselves and our families. We hope to enjoy a rising standard of living. We want to feel that as consumers we are sovereign and that if the goods we buy are shoddy we can take our custom elsewhere. This is the power of the consumer in a modern free market economy: mobile, free, individualistic. Such a society is based on contract not status. It is strenuous, striving and enterprising.
We want something else too-to know that we have roots and are not just leading a life which is a series of meaningless acts of consumption strung together. We want to be linked to the past through institutions that are bigger than any individual. We want to live in a society where people matter to each other, because experiences which are shared are often more satisfying. We want a society with thick social ties, not one which has been finely graded into individual grains moving frictionlessly past each other. We want a society of history and traditions, cohesiveness and community.
Each one of us is trying to balance these two conflicting pressures. Do you move house to get a better job if it means leaving your friends and disrupting your child’s education? Do you shop at the out-of-town superstore or pay a bit more at the local shop? Do you split up from your partner when you are having a bad time or do you think it is a longterm relationship which you ought to stick to through a rough patch?
These are not just personal questions. This tension is at the heart of much political theory. It is the tension between Gesellschaft-the anonymous structure of transactions and rules in a modern market society-and Gemeinschaft-the close ties of community where understandings do not have to be explicit because they are deeply shared. The extraordinary political success of conservatism this century has come from offering the most credible account of how to combine these two expectations.
One way in which Conservatives have tied their commitment to a market economy into a wider ethical scheme has been through an appeal to Christian duty. Margaret Thatcher denied that her commitment to the free market meant she had no wider sense of social obligation, placing her belief in the free market within a Biblical framework. “Most Christians,” she told the Church of Scotland, “would regard it as their personal Christian duty to help their fellow men and women. They would regard the lives of children as a precious trust. These duties come not from any secular legislation passed by parliament, but from being a Christian…”
I wish that that was the last word and resolved the issue for us all. But in an increasingly secular society Conservatives cannot simply rely on an appeal to religious belief to persuade people that they know how best to resolve these tensions. Does Labour have a better answer? Blair is certainly trying to tie the individual pursuit of personal interest into a wider vision of community. But Labour’s approach to the problem is less coherent than the blend of Conservative thinking I have labelled “civic conservatism.”
Blair talks a great deal about community, as I myself have done, heavily influenced by the commu-nitarian critique of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. But the trouble with “community” is that it is rather soft and formless. A community is an invertebrate form of social life. Conservatives are more interested in communities that have backbones-namely institutions.
Because communities can be amorphous, Labour believes they need to be given shape and structure. This comes from “partnership,” another key word in the New Labour lexicon. And on the other side of the partnership is the state. The state’s job is to identify communities and assist them through political action. Often these programmes will be national and end up imposing a uniform scheme on diverse communities. There is no clear principle limiting the role of the state in forming “partnerships” with communities. Moreover, Labour’s language of “stakeholding” seems intended to blur the traditional legal and political restraints on people getting involved in other people’s business.
By contrast, civic conservatism is about autonomy for institutions. These may be private and voluntary, although some may be public and tax-financed. Real institutions such as companies or charities, schools or hospitals, have bone and gristle that may be missing from a “community.” This is why they do not necessarily need or want “partnerships” with the state or anyone else. They certainly cannot be standardised into one uniform national model.
The unbearable untidiness of institutions gets in the way of Labour’s goal of the equal distribution of services. Inevitably, the planning and distribution of funding has to be done at a much higher level than an individual institution. But this goes against the grain of human loyalties. For every one person in my constituency who knows where the local education office or health commission is situated, there are 100 who know about their local school or GP practice. It was the schools and the hospitals which came first, not the education authority and the NHS.
Before Blair came to power, these arguments were inevitably abstract but now we are beginning to get practical evidence from Labour in office. Let us start with schools. The Conservative vision is to give schools as much autonomy as possible so that they can then shape their own characters. The role of the government is to set basic standards and publish information about schools’ performances which helps parents choose. It is not for the government to endorse the path an individual school may take. The role of the local education authority (LEA) is to supply those services which individual schools cannot or do not want to provide for themselves. If the LEA throws its weight around too much, schools could escape by becoming grant-maintained. This threat of exit raised the performance of LEAs because they knew they had to behave sensitively or lose control of their schools altogether.
Labour has published a White Paper on schools. The rhetoric is about raising standards: no one can be against that. But how is this to be achieved? The White Paper makes it clear that Labour believes the way to raise standards is for LEAs to reclaim power over schools which they have lost and, more significantly, for the department for education and employment (DfEE) to have a greater role in controlling schools than ever before. There is in education, as in the rest of public policy, a limited amount of power to go around. Labour’s approach, hidden behind the language of “partnership” to raise “standards,” is for schools and headteachers to be free to do less and for LEAs and the DfEE to regain the power to do more.
Labour’s approach to industry offers further support for this argument. Let us start with the clich? that there is a new global economy in which the gales of international competition threaten even the most prominent of our domestic companies. The question then becomes what role might the state have in protecting us from these storms. One response is that of Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s first labour secretary and a significant influence on New Labour intellectuals. He believes there is a role for the state to invest in “human capital.” The better educated a workforce, the greater its ability to command high wages in a competitive international economy. So far so good. But imagine you have an unhappy group of unemployed and unskilled people and you want to help them into work. One way to do so is for the public sector to train them so that they have the skills to command a decent wage. On this model you take an unemployed unskilled person, the public sector invests in him or her and then he or she gets a job as an employed skilled person. The trouble is that there is no evidence from anywhere in the world that public sector training schemes do much good. Training involves the state taking a view on what are the best skills to earn a commercial return and it is not very good at this.
The best way to help the unemployed is different. You start with that same group of unemployed unskilled people and encourage them to take unskilled employment. Then the employer and the employee between them invest the money in training so that the individual can climb up the skill ladder.
A final example of Labour’s flawed approach is the minimum wage. Labour believes it is simply wrong that anyone should receive low pay. But maybe this is the only pay, regrettably, that some people can earn. So the price that will be paid for the minimum wage will be the exclusion of some people from work altogether. By contrast, Conservatives stress the use of Family Credit to supplement the incomes of people in low-paid jobs. The paradox may be that only a government which does not try to regulate the labour market can deliver an inclusive society and extend the opportunity to work as widely as possible.
The real threat to civil society comes not from the market but from the state. That is the point we can lose sight of through an optimistic belief in benign, all-knowing government. It is also the point which will generate a Conservative revival. The Conservative party has to reconnect with alienated voters. Civic conservatism can help us do that. It speaks to teachers, businessmen and the unemployed. And there are many other groups who will find themselves suffering the depredations of New Labour-people living in the country, pensioners, GP fundholders and their patients.
There is a certain prissy bossiness to Blair’s Labour party which will gradually alienate more and more people. Civic conservatism reminds us that the crucial battleground remains big government versus limited government.