do social justice”, he growled, before storming off muttering more discontent.
Another delegate uttered exactly the same sentence minutes later. “People
are poor because they choose to be poor” said someone else. And so it
continued. My first day at the 2007 Conservative party conference,
working for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), didn’t start well.
I have encountered the Conservative Party's strange unease about social
justice. Many reject it, some dabble in
it and a few live by it. But nobody seems
to mention it.
silent surrender means social justice tends to be an uncontested concept for
the Left. Often wary, many Conservatives
consider it a cloak for mass wealth redistribution, uncontrolled public
spending or intrusive statism. Others, like Friedrich Hayek, famously dismissed
social justice as ‘meaningless’ and ‘impossible’.
absurd. Some of the country’s finest reformers, from William Wilberforce
to the Earl of Shaftesbury (and as Paul Goodman noted earlier
this month, lesser-known figures like Henry Willink) demonstrated a
distinguished Conservative tradition for radical social transformation and
concern for the vulnerable. Add to that the outstanding service of numerous
party members in their local communities – helping the disadvantaged and supporting
those less fortunate – and a mysterious Jekyll and Hyde identity crisis takes
pushmi-pullyu Conservatism is damaging for people, democracy and the party’s electoral
health. It regularly crowns Labour as the nation's political conscience,
and along with other issues, it goes some way to undermining unity, purpose and
credibility. Earlier this year a YouGov poll found that 71 per cent of
people see the Conservatives as a divided party. Further polling has found that
six in 10 voters see Conservatives as ‘a party of the rich, not ordinary
the Right should also need no reminding that last November, in the United
States, Mitt Romney was trounced by Barack Obama by an 81 to 18 per cent margin
on the question of which candidate ‘cares about people like me’. Empathy – the
compassion creed for modern British politics – matters.
opinion polls or well-trodden philosophical debates, nothing more than a quick
glance across the country should forge a strong commitment to compassionate
conservatism from party members who place a high value on duty, national
interest and stable economics. Any One Nation Conservative should be
heartbroken by what the CSJ uncovers on a regular basis.
of the British population has broken away from the mainstream with devastating
consequences. In parts of the UK, life expectancy is as low as 54-years-old,
lagging behind Rwanda and Haiti. Half of all children born today will
experience family breakdown – breakdown which wreaks poverty and havoc in the
most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
of children taken into state care hit a record high last year and the
equivalent of 56,000 school pupils in England and Wales play truant every day. One in five UK
households is workless and the number of households where nobody has ever
worked doubled under the previous Government.
million children have a drug or alcohol addicted parent – though many don’t
feature in the child poverty statistics because their household income might be
a few extra pounds above the so-called ‘poverty-line’.
illegal lenders charge eye-watering interest as the poor clamour for credit,
and 60 per cent of our £40,000-a-year prisoners are re-convicted within two
years of release – half of them have a reading age of 11.
acknowledge what many politicians and our liberal elite will not: parts of
British society are badly broken. In 2012 a YouGov poll for the CSJ found that
55 per cent of people – the equivalent of almost 35 million citizens – say at
least one of their local communities is plagued by broken families, crime and
Ed Miliband’s audacious One Nation move, Benjamin Disraeli has come to write political
slogans once again. But beyond the
modern day platitudes we should recognise that Disraeli actually wrote about two nations. The poor and the
rest. And today in Britain, if you summon the courage to look close enough, his
diagnosis remains shamefully relevant.
Conservatives have told me that these are peripheral problems – a mission for
another day – issues to deal with when the economic mess has been cleared up. These
objections miss the point entirely.
breakdown is a noose around the neck of the British economy. It costs well in
excess of £100 billion a year. The collapse of stable family life accounts for
as much as £40 billion on its own and crime – fuelled by so much of this
dysfunction – more still.
the hard numbers, in the chaos of this other world, a section of the British
workforce has become woefully uncompetitive – a key reason why welfare dependency
and immigration soared during a period of job creation and record economic
growth under Labour. The daily pattern of life in too many of these no-go
neighbourhoods undermines economic recovery.
Conservatives would be wrong to define a compassionate creed as a
charitable extra, or a worthy but non-essential cause. A watertight charitable
case can be made, and should be enough frankly, but this is about investment
too. Saving lives will also save money.
why compassionate conservatism has much to offer to those left behind. Its commitment to a strong, empathetic and
efficient state overrides the hands-off approach to social problems many small-state
Conservatives adopt. It is defined by a belief that when the social market
fails there is moral cause to step in. Crucially, as well as a
willingness to intervene, there is a firm belief in civil society and the
brilliance of the social sector. Recognition
that charities, faith groups and social enterprises are pillars on which to
build a second chance society and tackle the root causes of deprivation that
hold Britain back.
default statist solutions at the same time as embracing the ability of
Government to make a positive difference in people’s lives. And it confronts the disastrous idea that a Government's
compassion can be measured by the size of its welfare cheque.
That narrow belief has limited too many lives. Instead, the
starting point should be policy that gives people the power to participate, take
personal responsibility and control, build stable families and meet their
aspirations for economic independence.
need not threaten other important priorities. Nor, obviously, does it win
elections on its own. But a long time ago politicians on the Left
recognised that the spirit of the British people is for the underdog. As a 2005 CSJ pamphlet argued, that means
government which is 'good for me, good for my neighbour'.
As I have
spent time in the UK’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods one thing has become
clear. As long as the perception
persists in those areas that Conservatives are heartless bookkeepers – or as
one mother once told me “wealthy people who don’t care about families like
mine” – they will falter. It’s Labour,
they say, that cares about me.
political party has all the answers, but the Conservative Party has a decision to
make. Beyond this Government, perhaps beyond David Cameron, will radical
reformers remain rare on the green benches or will a new generation rise-up to pursue
a new, permanent philosophy?
the latter, our country stands a better chance of being remade once more. Our inner-cities and the families living
there could be transformed. Conservatives could play their rightful part
in building a nation where nobody is written off, discarded or left
behind. And in the
process I wouldn't mind betting that those Conservative parliamentary
candidates sent to fight their ‘unwinnable’ inner-city seats, might just find
they are not so unwinnable after all.