Conservative philosophy has always been a troublesome concept. There was one in the days when Tories stood for Church and King. As they too became troublesome concepts, we had a difficulty with our intellectual definition. It is easy for the Socialists; they have a secular teleology: socialism, and can subordinate everything to that ultimate end. For us, it is much harder. Modern conservatism is best defined as an unending dialectic between principle and possibility. Like common lawyers, we Tories try to reason from old doctrines to new circumstances. This involves an endless challenge. For intellectual Tories, there is a second unending dialectic, between frustration and fun.

Which leads one to David Cameron. Mr Cameron is widely believed to be a pragmatist, which is a fair summary. He is interested in what works, not in its deep intellectual roots. He was in charge of drafting the 2005 Manifesto, which was criticised for its lack of philosophical content. Mr Cameron was unmoved. "If people want philosophy, let them read Descartes". There is an irony. David Cameron did some serious philosophy at Oxford, as part of his first-class degree. But that might have lead him to an obvious conclusion. Philosophy appears to consist of fascinating but unanswerable questions – the meaning of life – or dull but equally unanswerable ones: the meaning of meaning. Dr Johnson was once asked what he thought of Bishop Berkeley's contention that the world was merely an idea in the mind of God. "I refute it thus, Sir" said the Doctor, kicking a stone. Although that is not actually a refutation, one can see why someone of an activist temperament might conclude that Samuel Johnson's boot was the wisest of philosophers.

The PM has an activist temperament. But this does not mean that he avoids philosophy. On the contrary: he has engaged with one of the most important questions in political philosophy, the nature of the state and the individual's relationship to it.

Church and King Tories would not have seen the problem. Via the semi-sacramental person of the ruler, the institutions of the state derived from divine ordination. Not many of us believe that now. So, switching to the other extreme, why should we obey the law? There is an obvious answer: because otherwise, we would be put in prison. Yet that is penal exigence, not political philosophy. Why do we have a moral obligation to obey the law? Because it is in our interests? Well then, suppose the populace of the South-east of England decided that it was in their interest to secede. What higher power than coercion could command them, not to servile subjection, but to willing, even joyous, allegiance. I can only think of one answer: patriotism and its eternal symbol, the Monarchy: no longer Church and King, but at least nation and Monarch.

Under the aegis of patriotism, the state can flourish. But there is an immediate problem. What sort of state? Partly because of the need to fight wars, the modern state has grown so unconscionably as to become a threat to prosperity and liberty – and to patriotism.

In Carlyle's words, the state must be more than anarchy plus the constable. But it must be a great deal less than little Hitlers and jobsworths spending vast sums for little return. To turn from the plasticine of easy rhetoric to the granite of intractable reality – how much less, and by what criteria should we proceed? Here, Margaret Thatcher is no help. A recurrent weakness of Thatcherism was the absence of a theory of the state. The Lady smiled on the uniformed services; she often gave the impression of regarding much of the rest as an unprivatisable residuum staffed by idlers and mediocrities.

That will not do, either philosophically or politically. If you seem to despise the services on which most of the population depend, do not be surprised if they are reluctant to vote for you. As society grows richer, it is both natural and desirable that the demand for public goods should increase. Tories should welcome this, insisting that as well as policing and defence, the British are entitled to first-class education and first-class medicine (although pensions are more complex: because of the savings question, those who are unable to work need a strong safety-net). This does not mean that the state should be directly involved in running schools and hospitals. It does mean that the state should have financial responsibilities, which Tories should embrace with enthusiasm, as David Cameron has.

He has also tried to come up with an over-arching intellectual framework to explain all this: "the Big Society". In part, this was an attempt to move beyond an unfortunate phrase of Mrs Thatcher's. At one stage in the 1980s, sociology was fashionable in the law courts. After Basher and Cosher had been convicted of multiple robberies and assaults, their briefs would have the daunting task of constructing a plea in mitigation. Hence the suggestion that society was to blame for turning these otherwise lovable characters into arch-villains. Margaret Thatcher would have none of it. When she said that there was no such thing as society, she was really acting as society's defence counsel.

Mr Cameron amended the record. There was such a thing as society, but it was not the same as the state. So rein back the state, roll forward society: replace the big state with the Big Society.

From the start, that was an unfortunate choice of words; the "big" suggested early and dramatic changes. It also sounded Orwellian, when Mr Cameron was really talking about the little platoons. (When Burke used that phrase, he was trying to encourage people to stay in their own social milieu. Coming from him, that was hypocritical; in our time, it is out of date. So let us redeploy those platoons.) Moreover, David Cameron was too influenced by his parents' Oxfordshire village, where little platoonism was part of the warp and weft. It is not so easy in conurbations.

But even if the Big Society language was unfortunate, the idea is sound – and the state is being rolled back. Michael Gove's education reforms mean the triumph of the little platoons and an epoch-making defeat for the big state, which is why the Lefties hate them and him. They are the beginning of a new ethos.

More is needed. There needs to be a drive throughout government to ask two questions. First, why is the state doing this? Second, if it is necessary for the state to do this, can it be done more efficiently? There should be a guiding principle. Where the state is needed, it should be strong. Where it is not needed, it should get out of the way.

This will all take time, for it amounts to a revolution in government; no wise Tory should expect that to happen overnight. Even so, the Gove reforms prove that momentum is possible, and exciting. Equally, when was the last time a Tory government introduced a big new idea withan unfortunate choice of words? Privatisation, in the early Eighties, and that is a word to which we have all grown accustomed. Perhaps the same will be true of the big society. If David Cameron is a successful Prime Minister – as I believe he will be – in twenty years' time, people will be talking about his revolution in government, and about the new theory of the modern state to which it gave rise.

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