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By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-07-22 at 08.39.48Fleet Street was briefed over the weekend that the Prime Minister's anti-internet porn plan marks a return to the early David Cameron – the one who campaigned against British Home Stores selling padded bras for children, and against W.H Smith for placing chocolate oranges near checkouts.  This is true as far as it goes.  The parent in the Prime Minister doesn't like the sexualisation of children.  And the politician in him doesn't want a policy agenda only for Conservative loyalists: an EU referendum, a tougher welfare cap, tighter immigration controls, Abu Qatada deported, local vetoes on wind farms.  He will want a broader prospectus as the next election nears – with more than a touch of what the first George Bush called a "gentler, kinder" conservatism.

This truth offers a clue about the Prime Minister's wider motives.  He will be worried about the effects of the Lynton Crosby controversy – in particular, about the claim that Government's cigarette plain packaging decision means that it doesn't care about smoking-related deaths.  So he is proving his caring credentials by homing in on an unpopular cause: poorer voters may not approve of government targetting the cigarettes they buy, but they don't disapprove of it tackling the extreme porn that they don't (on the whole) consume.  This unpopularity runs especially deep among mothers and women.  Cameron's standing is lower with them than with male ones.


His anti-porn push should therefore be seen as part of the drive that includes the Theresa May's funding of rape crisis centres and William Hague's campaigning with Angelina Jolie against rape as a weapon of war.  There are a score and more of objections to the Prime Minister's proposals.  They include claims both that he has no plans for new anti-porn filters at all that his proposals are an unacceptable intrusion on personal freedom.  (One of these assertions might be true, but both can't be so at once.)  It will also be maintained that it is puerile posturing for him to put internet providers in the dock: that it's not in the public interest for Google or bankers or tax avoiders or any part of private enterprise to be framed as pantomime villains by a cynical state.

It is undoubtedly true that Cameron is playing to the gallery, and arguably so that his plans will make no difference to anything much.  He apparently wants to give the providers a chance to clean up their act, and to legislate only if they fail to so so.  This gives him months of glorious publicity, as he casts himself as the friend of embattled parents against the callous providers.  But for all the ropiness of his plans and questionableness of this motives, his grasp of the role of the state is more sound than that of many of his critics.  It is correct that the big state is a more dangerous enemy to civil society than a small one, and that conservatives can and should therefore make common cause with libertarians to fight the former.

But is is none the less also true that conservatives aren't libertarians: we do not simply believe in a nightwatchman state that provides law and defence, and almost nothing else.  Very simply, the role of the state runs wider and deeper than either legislating or not legislating.  It has other means at its disposal, such as tax and regulation, and to say that these should be used sparingly is not to say that they shouldn't be used at all.  There are tax breaks to encourage, say, saving for a pension and giving to charity.  There is regulation to discourage pollution, safeguard the quality of medicines and safety of workers.  Even were taxes to be much flatter (which they should be) and regulation to be less intrusive (ditto), this framework would necessarily remain.

Nor is the duty of a company simply to provide the maximum return to its shareholders.  Jesse Norman quotes no less an authority than Milton Friedman to this effect in this column on this site today.  (Friedman wrote that companies should conform to "the basic rules of…society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom".)  In short, most voters don't want to live in a country in which there is no legal protection for workers at all, there are no laws against violent child porn, there is no regulation of drugs whatsoever, planning controls don't exist, the monarchy can be privatised, and so on.  Cameron's plans may be flawed, but his instincts are acute – at least, if polling is any guide.

A survey conducted for this site by Tim Montgomerie found, as he put it, that "a measly five per cent of Britons would vote for an anti-state party".  "It's time," he added, "for Tories to drop the libertarian language".  Other polling suggests that he's right – even that which is claimed to prove the opposite.  That young people are suspicious of welfare or support same-sex marriage indicates that attachment to the 1945 settlement is fading and social attitudes are to marriage are changing.  This is not to be confused with visceral hostility to the state.  (It is the state, after all, that registers marriages – same-sex or otherwise.)  YouGov confirms that Labour maintains a significant lead among younger people – who, of course, are less prone to vote in the first place.

It's worth remembering when it had a much bigger lead right across the age range – during the early New Labour years.  Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell pounced on Margaret Thatcher's declaration that "there is no such thing as society", and twisted it to suggest that Conservatives care for no-one but themselves.  It took Iain Duncan Smith's enduring and patient work, much of it conducted at the Centre for Social Justice after he lost the Party leadership, for the Party even to begin to correct the lie – and a lie it certainly was.  Thatcher was a conservative, not a libertarian.  She believed in liberty, not licence.  Her worldview was shaped by the country and culture in which she was raised: one that was Christian (generally) and Methodist (specifically).

Labour would love nothing more than to resurrect the charge, and for it to reverberate in the midlands and northern marginals which the Party must hold and win at the next election.  Cameron's anti-porn proposals are a small but telling detail in the struggle for those seats.  It may be that they are unworkable – though to say that controls can be evaded isn't also to say that they would have no effect.  But the way in which conservatives debate them over the next few months will say much about how they see conservatism's future, and that of the Conservative Party.  It will be a baleful sign if that debate is preoccupied by a hostility to the state rather than the concerns of parents – particularly mothers.

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