In the first of a series of articles Jesse Norman and Janan Ganesh explore the meaning and importance of compassionate conservatism. The articles are extracts from a new Policy Exchange book.
Politically these are times of broad consensus. Yet, as three consecutive election defeats testify, the reality remains that the right has failed to mount a genuine challenge to this consensus. It has disputed, but it has not made the argument. It has been unable to engage convincingly with our changed political priorities as a nation. Instead, the Conservative party has had to take cold comfort from Mr Blair’s committed occupancy of the centre-right in British politics and Mr Brown’s unwillingness to tamper with the structural economic reforms of the Thatcher years. Rather than tap its own intellectual history for a new strand of conservatism, a reinvigorated vision of society that could change the terms of the debate outright, the party has allowed itself to be presented with a false choice, between betraying its own principles and defying public opinion: between either accepting the beneficence of an expanding public sector, or opposing social reform as such. This is the “Blair trap”, sprung by the Prime Minister’s remorseless focus on occupation of the centre ground.
So much is well understood. What may not yet be understood, however, is that the left has been caught in exactly the same dilemma. In equating social justice with redistribution and state spending on the public services, it has tacitly adopted a grossly inadequate conception of society itself. Even when big government has manifestly failed to relieve social ills, the left has tended to respond by calling for more government, rather than revising its views once more from first principles. In the most troubled parts of our country—such as the Glasgow housing estate where an 11 year old girl was recently found comatose from smoking heroin—the state is ubiquitous, providing the houses people live in, the schools they attend and what little income they receive. This dominance of the local economy and infrastructure, which has been in place for half a century, has coincided with the lives of residents in these areas becoming worse in many ways, not better. Yet the left still does not ask: when the state fails, what then? And even if it desired to ask this question, however, it is not clear that the intellectual space exists for it to do so, let alone to give an answer.
But “society” is not merely a set of sections or groups to be assessed and placated, of interests to be satisfied and needs to be filled through rational direction from above. It is a sprawling and intangible network of trust and reciprocity without which even the most rudimentary interaction could not occur. In society, people relate to one another horizontally: they identify each other as equal members of the same civic whole, and do things for each other at least partly through mutual recognition, mutual respect and goodwill. People relate to the state vertically: they tend to defer to politicians and bureaucrats as those in charge, and obey them in part through fear of sanction. But society is organic, not official: it cannot be established by law or fiat, but evolves through time and practice. Above all, it is delicate. An invasive state disrupts the voluntary bonds between people, linking them upwards to the government rather than sideways to each other.
Compassionate conservatism seeks to change the terms of this debate, by presenting a new and positive vision of society which emphasises these “sideways” linkages between people.
But in order to do so, it must confront two initial challenges. Call them the “old left” and the “new left” challenges. The old left challenge is well-known and widely held: the idea of compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. On this view, conservatism is about unleashing people’s basest instincts: a greed for material possessions and a fear of losing social and economic advantage. It uses markets to set people against one another, and these markets do not cure social injustice and poverty but create and perpetuate them. Conservatism is thus ideologically opposed to compassion, whatever “compassion” amounts to. In the face of this, only the state has the power and the social opportunity to stand up for people against the market.
The new left challenge is more subtle: we’ve been here before. This is just political posturing. There is a centre ground in British politics, which Thatcher redefined and Blair occupied. Compassionate conservatism is just a vague cliché, another move in the power game, an attempt to revive a dying brand and identify a line of intellectual succession from Thatcher to Blair to Cameron which is rhetorically predisposed to favour the Tories. It is not an intellectually distinctive set of ideas. Nothing genuine or new is happening here.
These, then, are the challenges. As we shall see, both are misconceived. A new vision of society is precisely what compassionate conservatism has to offer.
Tomorrow’s extract will examine different conceptions of society.