Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. His biography of Edmund Burke will be published in May. Follow Jesse on Twitter.
In politics, so the cliché goes, there are the surface waves, and there are the deep currents. Sometimes the two connect: intellectually, or emotionally, or both. When the two Eds attack reductions in the rate of growth of public spending, the surface wave is an argument about economics, the deep current a visceral attempt to turn voters against the government.
As has been well charted by Peter Oborne and others, it has been part of the Labour playbook from 1997 to treat the general public as fools. The left has thus lost no opportunity to exploit the country’s current economic difficulties for political advantage, with only the barest admission either of its own prior culpability, or of the degree to which Coalition spending has tracked its own early plans for the Parliament. They expect people not to notice.
But they do; and the facts, alas, often get in the way. If you remember one key fact about Labour’s record, remember this: bank borrowings were a steady twenty times their capital for four decades before 2000; that is before, during and after the Thatcher and Major years. After 2000, however, bank borrowings rocketed to fifty – yes, fifty – times capital in just seven years.
Is it surprising, then, that the City was so weak when disaster struck? Enough said—and goodbye to the claim that the financial bubble was caused by deregulation in the 1980s. It took Blair, Brown and Balls to create, not merely ennoble, Fred Goodwin of RBS and Dennis Stevenson and James Crosby of HBOS.
But the most dangerous attack for the Tories has been not on austerity but, via another deep current, on the idea of compassionate conservatism itself. On this view, compassionate conservatism was always just empty rhetoric, used as a cover for cuts; or if it wasn’t, then austerity itself has killed it. For who can afford to be compassionate when, in the immortal words of Liam Byrne, the last Blairite left on deck, “I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left”? In other words, the Tories are either knaves or fools.
Let’s take these two charges in order. That of empty rhetoric falls over immediately. At root, compassionate conservatism is a resurfacing of fundamental conservative instincts first made intellectually coherent by Edmund Burke and then given canonical political expression by Benjamin Disraeli in the idea of “one nation”. These are not trivial ideas; on the contrary, they have shaped British politics for two centuries. The Prime Minister thus stands in the centre of a very distinguished conservative political tradition.
This compassion is one of fellow-feeling, not of pity. Its focus is at two levels: on the empowerment of people as rounded individuals, not merely economic automata; and on the re-energisation of the institutions that lie between individual and state. It is not merely about such things as volunteering, philanthropy and mutuals, important though these are; on the contrary, it is a philosophy of government as such.
So has austerity killed compassionate conservatism? Absolutely not. But it has made its life harder. For compassionate conservatism implies a drastic shift from habits of centralisation and deference to Whitehall which are now highly ingrained within the public, third and indeed private sectors. The business of government is difficult enough at the best of times, and any administration would prefer to act in a time of plenty, when the costs of such a shift could be eased with more cash. It is inevitable, then, that there will be conflicting agendas and outright mistakes, big and small.
But look across the government as a whole, and you will see the broad principles of compassionate conservatism everywhere at work. There has been a consistent emphasis within the Treasury on controlling the institutional excesses of crony capitalism and supporting small businesses. The Department for Education’s academies and free schools programmes reflect a desire to empower and energise schools as independent institutions. TeachFirst has been expanded, with great success.
The same focus on empowered institutions is evident in DCLG, through the devolution of power to local authorities, the abolition of ring-fencing and the localisation of planning. In my own county of Herefordshire alone, the Council’s new core strategy, while far from perfect, has been vastly improved by devolved responsibility and greater localism.
Meanwhile, the government’s drive to publish vast amounts of previously secret local and central government data makes Whitehall and Town Halls more accountable to individuals. The same is true of the Home Office’s crime maps for the Police. Within DWP, benefit changes have improved the incentives to get back into work and stay in work, while allowing people to work more if they want. The new flat rate state pension is designed to create a clear long-term settlement so that people can save knowledgeably and responsibly. All this reflects the principles of compassionate conservatism.
Is it working? Well, governing by such a philosophy is an intrinsically long-term matter, and cannot be fairly judged after just three years, let alone in a howling economic gale. Of course, if you’re a Labour activist, or just caught up in media rhetoric, then denunciation often comes easily. But not in the wider world. People know this country has been living beyond its means, and they broadly support the Coalition’s drive to reduce dependency, save money and streamline incentives in the welfare system. Provided there is a sense of overall fairness, they will continue to do so.
And even at this early stage some of the wider signs are remarkably encouraging. Thanks to the Cabinet Office, this year 50,000 young people will help their communities through National Citizens Service; by 2014-15 it is expected to be 90,000. After a knock from the recession, volunteering has risen sharply, while rates of charitable giving are close to pre-recessionary levels. People say they are more happy with their local councils, not less. Recorded crime is down by ten per cent since 2010.
These figures come not during a time of plenty, but during the longest and deepest economic slowdown we have ever experienced. They suggest that compassionate conservatism is starting to work, and helping to make our society stronger and more resilient. That, every bit as much as economic recovery, will be the story for the 2015 general election.