Are the Tories under David Cameron a genuinely new party? What do they mean by social responsibility?by Anthony Giddens / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Dear David 3rd April 2007
The next couple of years will be absorbing ones in British politics. Over the past decade Labour has won the ideological battle, in spite of the public disillusionment that has now set in. A succession of Tory leaders who clung to a form of Thatcherism have been seen off. The Conservatives have been forced to change ideological direction in order to re-emerge as serious challengers for power. No doubt you will wish to play down this change, but it is clear that the centre ground of British politics has been shifted in a social democratic direction.
Both the main parties now claim to believe in strong and well-funded public services, the need to counter inequality, the importance of reducing child poverty, the centrality of green politics, being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, decentralisation in government, healthcare and education, and in taking forceful measures against illegal migration and the threat of terrorism.
On the surface, the main differences between the parties concern the role of the state and Britain’s place in the EU. The compassionate conservatism that David Cameron has come up with, like that of George W Bush, emphasises the role of voluntary associations in delivering social policy. And Cameron seems even more Eurosceptic than Margaret Thatcher.
Labour is well behind the Conservatives in the polls, and the wind seems set fair for the Tories. But as I try to show in my book, Over to You, Mr Brown: How Labour Can Win Again, Labour stands a good chance of landing a fourth term, while the Tories look vulnerable in the medium term. There are four big question marks hanging over the Tory revival.
First, how real, and how sustainable, is the Tory conversion to a more social democratic stance? George Bush seemed serious about compassionate conservatism when seeking office, but once in government more or less completely ignored it. He introduced tax cuts that favoured only the rich; far more people are in poverty now than at the end of Clinton’s presidency. And he sought to cut back on social welfare, but has given very little support to the voluntary groups that were supposed to step into the gap.
What is to stop the same happening here? Aren’t the Tories much more divided than Labour was when Tony Blair took over? The tax-cutters are still probably the dominant force in the party.
Second, isn’t it a mistake for the Tory regeneration to concentrate on spin rather than substance? Cameron looks like a lightweight figure because he has proposed no concrete policies. Don’t say this is how New Labour got to power, because it isn’t. New Labour was successful partly because it had a detailed policy package to offer the country. It was based upon a coherent analysis of the changing nature of our society under the impact of globalisation, the emergence of a knowledge-based/service economy, and demographic changes affecting the welfare state. I don’t see anyone in today’s Tory party coming up with a comparable analysis. A sprinkling of policy groups will not produce an integrated policy package.
Third, Cameron’s key idea, that of social responsibility, seems pathetically weak. Just what would the Tories take out of the hands of the state, and to whom would they transfer it? Take the field of health. Cameron has expressed a 100 per cent commitment to the NHS, which must mean a publicly delivered health service. Voluntary organisations or NGOs can play a certain part in healthcare, but mostly it must be delivered by professionals, acting within a regulatory framework provided by the state.
The prime emphasis should be that of reforming the state itself, as Labour emphasises, so as to provide greater choice and voice for users. Removing key services from the state is another thing altogether. Does anyone seriously think that education or social services could be provided mainly by local vicars or well-meaning ladies’ associations?
Finally there is the EU. By refusing to sign up his party to the mainstream right-of-centre groups in the European parliament, and by his dismissive attitude to the EU, Cameron has given up any hope of becoming a significant European leader.
Moreover, this is an area where the Tory approach is manifestly self-contradictory. On the one hand, Cameron says the Conservatives are the first party to put green issues at the top of its agenda. On the other, he wants no truck with the agency that is the world leader in combating climate change, the EU. In the interests of the country and the wider world, can’t you persuade him to change tack? Why try to modernise almost all other aspects of party policy yet leave crude anti-Europeanism intact?
All best Tony
Dear Tony 5th April 2007 It is only courteous to start by responding to your four questions, even though they are formulated so mischievously.
First, you ask how real is our supposed conversion to social democracy. It is always tempting for a politician (and a man) to insist in any argument that nothing has changed and his position is exactly what it always was. But the truth is that the Conservative party is changing. We are not the same old Tories. Shaun Bailey, the young black man from the estates of north Kensington, whom we have just selected as our candidate for Hammersmith, summarised in one word everything that he could not take in the old Conservative party—”tweed.” That is just the outward sign of an inner change. I do not think it is anything to do with social democracy, however. It is the rediscovery of the richness of our Conservative tradition. In the 1980s we were above all focused on tackling Britain’s deep-seated economic problems. Desperate times meant desperate measures. But times change, and now we have a new set of problems to tackle. That means focusing on the environment, on public services, on society. We can do all this without sacrificing our belief in a flexible market economy. Indeed, if there is one consistent thread in my writing on conservatism over the years, it is the attempt to show how all this can come together in a coherent whole. That makes British politics a choice between different attempts to combine a market economy and a sense of community. But our distinctive Conservative version isn’t social democracy, because we have more respect for the independence and character of all the institutions which stand between the individual and the state. I hope that our exchanges will help to crystallise what the difference is between these two blends.
Your second challenge is that we are concentrating on “spin over substance”—and that from a Blairite! You ask for more policy detail. But we have learned something important during the long years in opposition. It is no good having lots of policy detail if people aren’t listening. And they only listen if we get the tone right—no more Mr Angry—and if everything we say forms a coherent whole. What they can see already is that under David Cameron, we are more local, more green, more family-friendly. That is a good start. The policy detail can follow over the months and years to come.
Third, you are worried that social responsibility is “pathetically weak.” But it brings together several rather important ideas. There is the old Burkean observation that manners and morals matter as much as law. It is also a recognition that the problems facing people on our toughest estates are so deep-seated that conventional public action through state agencies just does not work on its own. It is only the voluntary sector that helps the whole person. By contrast, the state seems all fingers and thumbs.
As for Europe, you may be underestimating the practical realities of European negotiation. Continental leaders would work with a Conservative government to get things done without our having to pretend to be federalist when we are not. You are right that the environment is an important area where it does make sense to work at a European level. If only the EU stuck to those things which do rightly require European co-operation and never just engaged in harmonisation for the sake of it, then Britain’s attitude to Europe would be transformed.
Your book is an admirable attempt to help Labour with what is one of the hardest tasks for any governing party—in-flight refuelling. It is never going to be an elegant exercise. But despite your best efforts, I do not think your book gets anywhere near managing this.
Your problem is that you want to say that Blair is marvellous and that Labour can change direction under Brown—and that will be marvellous too. But what the voters want to hear from a party that has been in office for ten years is some recognition that serious mistakes have been made. That is the only way you can wipe the slate clean and start again. It is what John Major did when he abolished Margaret Thatcher’s flagship poll tax.
Imagine a new Labour leader who could stand up and say the following: “We meant well in Iraq but we got it wrong; we went overboard on targets for the public services and failed to value the ethos of the professions in health and education; we are deeply disappointed that there are not now more young people in education, employment or training than when we started in 1997 because it was never supposed to be like that; tax credits may have boosted the incomes of many families, but their delivery has been a disaster and caused real distress; we hoped to reform the way Britain is governed, but have ended with even more distrust of our political system than when we started.”
If you said this kind of thing, then I think the electorate might sit up and take notice. But even the title of your book reveals the feebleness of the renewal. Over to You, Mr Brown sounds like an exhausted nursing assistant handing over a patient to a colleague at the end of the night shift. It just does not have the intellectual excitement you generated with your arguments about the third way.
By contrast, I do think there is, at last, real renewal going on in my party. That means showing that we understand why the electorate booted us out in 1997 and doing something about it. It is much more real and exciting than anything going on in Labour right now. Over to you, Professor Giddens.
Yours David Willetts
Dear David 9th April 2007 I don’t agree with much of what you say, as you might expect. I don’t dispute the fact that the Tories have changed their storyline, almost beyond recognition. What I rather doubt is that this change has come about through conviction. Rather, it has been enforced because the Conservatives were getting nowhere with their traditional mixture of Thatcherism and xenophobic nationalism. You have been forced to recognise that Labour has changed the country significantly, and to adopt what is essentially a third way for the centre-right.
Because it has been driven mainly by opportunism, and, as you admit, is largely devoid of policy content, it is difficult to know how genuine the “new Tory” outlook is, or what it will amount to in practice. In spite of your party’s poll lead, you could be blown out of the water when Brown gets going. You say you have learnt a lesson during ten years of opposition—that it is no good having policy detail if the voters aren’t paying attention. That isn’t the point. Voters gave up listening not because you had too many policies, but because they were the wrong ones.
Get the overall tone right, you say—become a nice rather than a nasty party—and the policies can follow later. Do you really think it will be that easy? There are still quite a few nasties around in your party, and they are influential. They will want clear commitments to reduce taxation. When push comes to shove, they won’t accept a green agenda. Look what the response was, inside the party and among the business community, to your proposal to increase airline taxes.
Your defence of “social responsibility” is weak indeed, and shows how far away the Tories are at the moment from any such framework. I find it hard to see what you are in fact arguing. “Manners and morals matter as much as law”—well, yes, but what has this observation got to do with social responsibility? “The problems facing people on our toughest estates are deep-seated”—indeed they are, but do you think that they would diminish if we left those problems to the “voluntary sector” to resolve? In any case, how do any of these comments help us to understand what social responsibility is?
Much the same applies to your observations about the EU. I’m glad you agree with the point about the environment. But how could the member states of the EU forge common and binding policies to combat climate change if the EU were nothing more than a common market? The same applies to energy security, the management of migration, the control of transnational crime and the many other problems that can no longer be dealt with only, or even primarily, at a national level. The Tory approach to Europe at the moment is simply incoherent—driven again in some part by the nasties, people who want to revert to an insular and anachronistic isolationism.
Labour has been in power for three successive terms. In electoral terms, it is the most successful major party in Europe over recent years. It doesn’t make sense to argue, as you appear to, that the government has got most things wrong and should now own up to its errors. Of course, Labour has had its failures and I analyse them in some depth in the book. They include a poorly developed transport policy, lack of effective regional devolution in England, too much reliance on a lock-’em-up approach to crime and other areas besides. The debacle in Iraq overshadows everything else, but the Tories supported that intervention.
You say the Tories have the new and exciting ideas. Well, what are they? I don’t see anything new there at all. New to the Tories, yes, but not to anyone else. Social responsibility? As I’ve said, unless developed much further, the notion is as empty as they come. Wellbeing? But that’s being discussed by everyone. Devolution and decentralisation? It’s the flavour of the month in all political camps. Defending marriage? That’s traditional conservatism anyway.
You are perhaps the one person who could produce a substantial agenda for the Tories. Why don’t you go ahead?
All best Tony
Dear Tony 12th April 2007 Your arguments have driven me to an embarrassing confession—I think I may be one of those people you describe as the nasties. You see, I do believe in bringing down the burden of taxation, in the EU doing less, and in marriage as well. These are not atavistic beliefs that will disappear as part of some progressive consensus. They are deep-seated, and contain quite a lot of wisdom. Moreover, they are quite popular, provided that they are expressed in a human and reasonable way. At last, under David Cameron, my party has started to explain that we believe in these things because we want people’s lives to be better—not because we hate public servants or Europe or single parents. Put the right way, they strike a chord with many people. Indeed, I am willing to make a modest bet with you. Within six months of Gordon Brown becoming prime minister, he will have written an article for the Sun on how he wants to reduce taxes, for the Telegraph on his opposition to a European constitution and for the Mail on the importance of marriage. So who will be triangulating with whom? And whom will the electorate trust to deliver them?
Now let me turn to your critique of the idea of social responsibility. As one of our leading sociologists, you know better than just about anyone the classic distinction between Gesellschaft—the abstract rules of a modern market economy—and Gemeinschaft—the cultural and ethical ties that bind us into a community. One of the reasons I am a Conservative is that, partly because of historical accident, my party has ended up as the embodiment of both of these principles and accumulated greater wisdom in resolving the tension between them than almost any other political party in the western world.
You should see what David Cameron is saying on social responsibility as the latest exploration of this powerful theme. It is, for example, why we are trying to recreate some understanding of the importance of professional ethos, it having been so undermined by Labour’s target culture. Blair himself did, of course, try to capture some of this, with his talk of community. But we understand that often a community is embodied in real, live institutions, which have to be left room to govern themselves as part of a rich civil society. My biggest fear about Brown is that he just does not get this. I can give you an example from a conversation with the leaders of one of our great universities. I asked about their dealings with the government. They said they were regularly phoned by one of Gordon Brown’s closest advisers, asking when they were going to change the governance structure of their university closer to what the treasury preferred. This university is one of the best in the world. It is supposed to be a self-governing institution, though with enormous public responsibilities. What role has our finance ministry trying to tell a university to reorganise its governing body? I fear that Brown does not get what civil society really means. Our commitment to social responsibility is evidence that we do get it.
But there is something else, and it is also to do with strong institutions. We are all used to the idea of a society divided by class or culture, but what about the growing division between the interests of different generations? I increasingly fear that our generation—the baby boomers —have constructed a social and economic model that works well for us but not for the generations coming along after us. It is evident in everything, from the difficulty of young families trying to get started on the housing ladder through to climate change. One of the most important roles of institutions is to link past, present and future in a contract across the generations. In fact, it is one of the most important jobs governments can do. Labour has got away with living for the present because people thought Conservatives were stuck in the past. One of the greatest tasks for the next Conservative government will be to repair the broken contract between the generations. Very best wishes David
Dear David 14th April 2007 You seem to be floundering around here. You haven’t answered my question about where the new ideas are that you claim that the Tories have put forward. I see none in your text—which is rather a mishmash of notions that have been around more or less forever. Burke may have had some worthwhile things to say, but he lived in the 18th century. I would be extremely depressed if, as someone trying to understand the likely trajectory of the 21st century, I felt obliged to go back to people like Proudhon or Saint-Simon to do so.
You invoke Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. It is an archaic idea—I do not know any leading social thinker who would lean upon Tönnies today. If you want to explore the relation between market transactions and social norms, you’d be better off with Mark Granovetter, Jon Elster or others who have written recently about these issues.
Did you really mean to write that “my party… has accumulated greater wisdom in resolving the tension between [market principles and moral commitments] than just about any other political party in the western world”? This is pure hubris. The Tory idea of social responsibility still seems to me as vacuous as it did when we started this correspondence. As you discuss it here, it seems to mean two things—leaving power in the hands of professionals, and supporting civil society. You give universities as an example of both.
Universities receive £7bn a year in public funding. I can’t believe you think this sum should be dispensed without any concern that the public is getting good value. Professionals must have a good deal of autonomy. No one disputes that. But all professions, including university teachers, have their own vested interests, which don’t necessarily converge with the public good; they have their own restrictive practices, which can be complex and arcane; and they sometimes treat their clients with indifference or even disdain. Government has an public-interest obligation to help contest these traits. I worked in universities for many years. There were many Lucky Jims around in the old days, but there aren’t now, because the output of universities is more effectively monitored.
When you speak of university governance, I take it you have Oxford in mind. Oxford, like other universities, is a public institution in that it is there to provide research and teaching that benefit us all, not just those who work or study there. As such, it should be governed in a way that is transparent and effective. In my view, John Hood, the vice-chancellor, is right to try to promote reform, and along the lines the government suggests too.
When I became director of the LSE, its governing body consisted of nearly 100 people, and decisions had to be ratified by this body at the end of each term. Like the governance structure of Oxford, it was designed for a much slower-moving age. We introduced a new governing council of 26, with representation shared between academics and others from the outside world. It was a much better mix of democracy and efficiency.
On marriage, the issue is whether there should be tax breaks to encourage more people to wed. It’s a bad idea, because it would stigmatise those who are not in traditional family arrangements, often through no fault of their own. On both taxes and Europe, you want to have your cake and eat it. If the NHS is the priority David Cameron says it now is for the Tories, it will have to be well funded. The EU doesn’t need a constitution, but it does need to introduce some of the proposals that were in the constitutional document. I hope and believe Gordon Brown will support these.
Your point about the generations is doubly puzzling. What does it have to do with your other arguments? You say we should forge “a contract across the generations.” But that is exactly what I argue for—and spell out in detail—in my book. I call it a “contract with the future.”
All best Tony
Dear Tony 24th April 2007 The direction of our debate is very revealing. We began with your book Over To You, Mr Brown, which is supposed to set an agenda for a Gordon Brown government. But the real focus is David Cameron and the Conservative party. That is what everyone is interested in—which perhaps tells us something about the direction in which British politics is heading.
This dramatic shift in the debate is partly the result of the decay of the Blair government. It is also because the Conservative party has at last broken free of the preoccupations of the 1980s. We have recognised that free-market economics, like patriotism, is not enough. What we need as well is to value public service, respect civil society, strengthen social responsibility. This means discovering strands of the Conservative tradition that have been lost. It also means focusing on issues that matter to people today—and it certainly isn’t the same as the social democracy which you claim is now the shared ground of British politics. But I think it is clearly good news—both for the Conservative party and the country.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done in developing these ideas, but we have already made great progress—in, for example, trying to define a new, more mature relationship between the government and professionals, like teachers and doctors. Yes, government does have an essential interest in how public money is spent. But it doesn’t follow that there are no limits to its interventions in institutions like universities—and incidentally, it was a conversation I had at Cambridge rather than at Oxford. Just saying, “it is public money, so we can bloody well tell you exactly what you should do” isn’t good enough if we really want responsive public services and a genuine professional ethos. In fact, one of the main reasons that neither party has successfully reformed public services over the past 20 years is that neither of us has grappled with a kind of new settlement; a settlement that defines the legitimate roles of the government in providing the money and expecting high-quality performance, and the roles of professionals exerting their judgements, and shaping the distinctive character of a hospital, a school or a university. This is what we are now trying to do, and we are finding a real hunger for it.
Very best wishes David
Dear David 25th April 2007 I agree that “the direction of our debate is very revealing.” You simply won’t answer any of my questions! I have to conclude that you are pinning all your hopes for electoral success on public support having drifted away from Labour. The Tories simply have no new ideas to deploy. In Over to You, Mr Brown, I have sought to set out a detailed agenda for Labour to consider for the future. I wanted to escape the vague talk that is so easy to embrace. To take an example from your letter: what we need, you say, “is to value public service, respect civil society, strengthen social responsibility.” Who is going to disagree with platitudes like that? You provide no concrete examples, except the wholly unconvincing one about universities, and tackle none of the problematic issues that always arise when actual policy strategies have to be considered.
You might be right that the Tories don’t need any new ideas or concrete policies. But this is dangerous ground to tread. A Brown-led government is bound to have weight and substance—and could surprise many people with the freshness of its outlook. We will see where Labour stands after Brown has had a year in No 10. You have given yourselves only the flimsiest of foundations upon which to build should he be successful, and should the current interregnum mark the nadir of Labour’s fortunes.
I have enjoyed our exchange, but I have been a bit taken aback to see how empty the Tory locker actually is.
All best Tony
Dear Tony 25th April 2007 Governments have policies on everything—it’s part of their job. Even in its dying days the last Conservative government had policies on everything, just as this Labour government does now. The question is whether the policies are fresh and have some kind of strategic coherence. You say “a Brown-led government… could surprise many people with the freshness of its outlook.” It would indeed be a surprise. Even your new book has failed to persuade me that there is any freshness or strategic coherence to the Labour project any more.
Opposition parties have a very different role. Above all, the task of an opposition is to give a clear sense of a different and better direction in which to take the country. Of course policies are part of that. But the world changes so fast that a detailed policy in opposition could well have been totally overturned by events long before anyone is in office and able to implement it. What the electorate needs, above all, is a sense of the character and substance of a political party. You think that talk of social responsibility and respecting the professions is just empty rhetoric, but the professional judgement of teachers, doctors and police officers has been completely overwhelmed by the target culture. You think that talking about an enhanced role for the voluntary sector is just a cliché. But every time you talk to a charity worker, you hear a story of an over-elaborate bidding process and detailed conditions attached to funding, which stops them living up to their ethos.
There is more work to be done—which is why we have a policy review under way. But I think our exchange has already revealed a big difference. It’s a choice between a party that has only got detailed policies but has run out of strategic vision, and one that has the vision and is developing the policies to deliver it. Churchill’s advice to RA Butler before the 1951 election was that we should be a “lighthouse, not a shop window.” That advice is as true as ever.
Very best wishes David