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Dr Tim Bale is Chair of Politics at Queen Mary University and is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron and of The Conservatives since 1945: Drivers of Party Change.

The centuries-old and still widespread idea that the poor will always be with us resonates neatly with both the sceptical and the compassionate Tory mindsets. The former, perhaps best represented by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, holds that trying to do much more than the bare minimum is a fool’s errand—a well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive exercise, indulged in only by idealistic and interfering busy-bodies, which will either make no difference or make things even worse. The latter, commonly associated with the one-nation Conservatism was rooted in the “organic” Toryism of Burke and Coleridge and which supposedly went on to characterise the party under leaders such as Disraeli, Baldwin and Macmillan, holds that helping out those at the bottom not only makes moral but also economic sense.

However, to another kind of Conservativism—the neoliberal strain which came to dominate the party after Margaret Thatcher became leader in 1975 and which continues to dominate it today—poverty, or at least involuntary poverty, shouldn’t exist at all, at least in any permanent sense. After all, if someone is willing and able to sell their labour, then the market should provide, even if the ups and downs of the economic cycle mean that it will occasionally be tougher to find work than usual. Of course, people can price themselves out of work by refusing to take a job at the going rate, but the drop in living standards that they will, or at least should, experience as a consequence should soon see them mend their ways.

For Thatcherites, then, unless someone is incapacitated (for instance, by poor-health, by disability or simply by their age), long-term, structural deprivation can only be the consequence of hindrances to the operation of the market —state-imposed regulation that can and should be swept away, for example—or else the unwillingness of the poor to take advantage of the myriad opportunities to find work that will allow them to look after themselves and, of course, their children. The existence of long-term need is down to the individual and his or her family rather than being the product of a society and an economic system bound to create structural inequalities and to fail to generate sufficiently plentiful and well-remunerated employment.

Such a stance dovetails nicely with the belief that state-supplied welfare carries with it huge collective costs that might be more efficiently borne by the individual and/or by charity and in any case carry with them massive moral hazard—which is why any help given to people by government should do no more than ensure access to the bare necessities and should certainly never mean that those who cannot or, worse, will not help themselves end up better off than those who do.

It is this Conservative credo, as much as the country’s fiscal crisis or the party’s desire to find “wedge issues” that will eat into Labour’s support among increasingly hard-pressed and (if polls are to be believed) increasingly hard-faced voters, which explains the coalition government’s welfare policies—policies which many of its self-styled progressive opponents regard not just as wrong-headed but harsh to the point of being punitive. In other words, the Tories in government are only doing what comes naturally, as well doing what they sincerely believe has to be done and will in the end turn out to have worked.

True, by reducing and restricting help only to the deserving poor—a category which in their minds still exists even if, as is the case with its logical corollary, the undeserving poor, they never explicitly refer to it—their policies will help to further “residualise” the British welfare state, making it more American and less Scandinavian, so to speak. But those policies are not simply an attempt to detach the middle classes from state provision, the better to shrink it. On the contrary, they may well be a considered response to the palpable failure of 13 years of New Labour government to solve entrenched problems by supposedly “big state” (as opposed to “big society”) means. But they are also more than that. The coalition’s policies to combat poverty, such as they are, represent what has, since 1979, become the Tories’ default setting—one that David Cameron (who, after all, only ever sought to re-style rather than fundamentally re-engineer his party) has done little or nothing to alter.

That said, there is one aspect of poverty in the UK that has always presented—and continues to present—something of a quandary even for Thatcherites: the continued existence of large numbers of British children living deprived and therefore stunted lives on the margins of society. Since, on the one hand, many, possibly most, 21st-century Tories still don’t buy into the idea of relative deprivation, notwithstanding a short-lived and presumably cosmetic flirtation with the concept by one or two modernisers when the party was in opposition, there is considerable reluctance to provide sufficient assistance to families in order to mount a serious attack on social exclusion. On the other hand, a situation in which millions of children in this country are going without what many people, for all their growing lack of sympathy with so called scroungers and skivers, would regard as the essentials of a decent life suggests that all is not well or as it should be.

Nor is child poverty easily blamed, even by the most zealous fan of the free market, on the victims themselves. It is also associated with poor educational outcomes and with social and economic costs that even most Tories would agree are best dealt with sooner rather than later. Given this, recent news that the number of British children living below the breadline appears to be increasing rather than declining, as it did under New Labour, presents the Conservative-led government with a serious problem— one that is not merely presentational but practical and philosophical, too.

This could of course be a blip—a temporary consequence of regime-change that will right itself soon enough as the economy picks up, the market is allowed to clear and welfare changes force parents to face up to their obligations. And even if all this takes more time to happen than the Conservatives would like, child poverty, in and of itself, is unlikely to cost the party the next election. However, if things don’t get back on track reasonably soon, then voters as well as campaigners will have every right to call into question not just the sincerity of David Cameron’s commitment to mending what he once liked to call “broken Britain” but also the credibility of his party’s still-Thatcherite approach to reducing deprivation more generally. The Tories may have “won the argument on welfare” with Labour and with the great British public. But if they lose the war on poverty— particularly child poverty—it could well prove to be a hollow and very short-lived victory.

This essay is a shortened version of a collection including contributions from AC Grayling, Leanne Wood, Roger Scruton and Rowan Williams, published in partnership between the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Prospect Magazine. To read other essays or download the full report, please click here.

30 comments for: Tim Bale: After Thatcher, can the Conservatives ever talk credibly about poverty?

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