Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham and a long term volunteer with charities and social enterprises in the central South and English North West.
For the late Keith Joseph social justice was a will o’ the wisp, but for the current Prime Minister it has emerged as a leitmotif of a fresh Conservative ethics. It is a clarion call most often associated with the Department of Work and Pensions, but given a new urgency by David Cameron’s post-election return to the language of ‘One Nation’. How, then, as the Conservative party gathers in the North West, can the government draw – and be seen to draw – from the widest possible pool of knowledge when it comes to defeating want and dispossession at home and abroad?
First, the government needs to break its over-reliance on a two-person social movement to refresh the party’s social policy making. It began by Tim Montgomerie ‘listening to the churches’ and the rise of the ‘Glasgow Modernisers’ around Iain Duncan Smith. Through the Centre for Social Justice this strand has gained significant policy traction. But their errors have been gently swept under the carpet – for example, Theresa May’s department reporting after the 2011 riots that they were not, after all, as the CSJ had claimed, a ‘clear product of gangs’ which needed a ‘Gangs Unit’ at the Cabinet Office. Indeed, it seemed that the CSJ’s analysis had not drawn adequately on US literature teasing out the variable interplay of family-state-gang and ethnicity. Nor the significance of geography. Scottish Glasgow, after all, is nothing like English Bacup, Byker, Boston, Basingstoke, Birmingham, or Brent which face their own distinctive challenges.
The Government should long ago have done more to support such innovators as Danny Kruger to launch trail-blazing early intervention focused ‘children’s zones’ as he is now doing in London. And a more diverse Conservative social policy community would have noticed that President Obama has already been working to duplicate the first Harlem Children’s Zone through his ‘promise neighbourhoods’ initiative for a good while. Visiting the White House Office for urban development this year, it seemed clear to me that Steve Hilton’s understandable enthusiasm for George Bush’s historic work on volunteering – for example, those replicated in Number 10’s ‘Big Society Awards’ – had meant that emerging US success stories after 2010 had been missed.
Second, the Conservative Party needs to face up to its dangerous European omission: while a love of ‘sovereignty’ came in in the late 1980s, out ever since has gone an instinctive inclination to drink deeply from mainland European responses to social challenges when they worked. Just under 25 years ago, I attended a private colloquium convened by the European Peoples’ Party (EPP). Comprising cabinet ministers, European parliamentarians, senior advisors, academics and more, the gathering focused on the emerging social questions of our time.
Within hours – from delegations as diverse as the German CDU and CSU, the Belgians, Dutch and French – a consensus formed around a view that demographic shifts alone would mean that the single biggest challenge for a future EU would be North African, Mediterranean rim and Middle Eastern migration. Only, they concurred, an inter-governmental response from Marrakesh to Calais would suffice. Today as refugees from those regions – long ago identified – flee from the dual evils of Assad and ISIS one cannot help but wonder if British moral slow-motion has been in play.
Five years ago in Bucharest, Erhard Busek, the former Austrian Deputy Chancellor, reminded me how the EPP had judged the Serbians correctly during the Bosnian and Croatian wars of independence while Ted Heath and others blindly defended what was later recognised as genocide – a genocidal and enduring violence manifesting itself especially in the most exploitative of behaviours especially towards Muslim women.
It’s notable, then, that at this year’s Srebrenica commemoration service in Westminster Abbey the Foreign Secretary, represented by the Secretary of State for Communities, was at pains to emphasise the UK’s friendship with Bosnia and Herzegovina, acknowledge the ‘shadow’ that the Potočari cemetery casts over Europe, and affirm the UK’s active support today for both the International Tribunal on Yugoslavian War Crimes and Bosnia’s ‘speedy’ entry in to the EU.
Meanwhile, Busek has stayed engaged in the region: the Erste Bank Foundation that he chaired for many years is investing across central and south-east Europe to reduce social division. The pioneering social enterprise ‘bank for the unbanked’, arts, economic development and conflict resolution work that has emerged as a consequence is worthy of scrutiny at all levels, no matter where one stands on a putative European Referendum. It is at least as significant as the work of the micro-finance pioneers of Bangladesh, and every Conservative parliamentarian should be aware of its impact and potential replicability.
Third – and perhaps as a consequence of the first two points – there has emerged in parliamentary candidate selections and some local party cultures the narrowest appreciation of public service. which has only just begun to be broken in the new intake of 2015. The Conservative front bench has for a long time drawn scantly on members who earned the majority of their spurs in NGOs, public sector leadership or domestic civil society.
Consequently, the absence of a healthy Conservative network for nurses, NGO workers, teachers, carers and public sector staff send electric signals of disinterest to an electorate who know that the needs of the elderly and disabled alone will double by 2025, and that families left to their own devices will simply not be able to carry the immense burdens that are already rising.
This pans out abroad, as well: the Government has trail-blazed legislation to reduce slavery and human trafficking, but the after-care of victims in the global south is lamentable. In Africa, there is one psychiatrist per million people. In India, the provision is not much better in cases of severe trauma. A pro-poor, pro-family, pro-life (in its richest sense) government has more to do.
There are of course striking exceptions to the rule: David Burrowes has undertaken important work on addiction, as has Baroness Williams on domestic violence. Rory Stewart has championed the outstanding NGO Mercy Corps International which, with Gates Foundation backing, has trailblazed micro-banking at scale in South East Asia. Alastair Burt has stepped up the Department of Health’s work for carers since May, and Gavin Barwell secured ground-breaking legislation to reduce discrimination against those who have faced mental illness. Under the Coalition, DFID made its first steps to tease out a response to the inadequacy of support for especially those with psychosis in the Global South.
But as Jeremy Corbyn’s easy call to national renewal gives way to the light of day, more is required: the Conservative search for social justice needs to move beyond a short-hand call for ‘responsibility’ and easy focus on tax credits, and towards a complex recognition at home and abroad that there are still citizens against whom the whole system is stacked. More radical interventions and innovations that transform the chances, assets and aspirations of the weakest are needed. And it is likely that such hopes will most likely be articulated by fresh voices, by those alienated by Corbyn’s metropolitan ethics, and by the renewal of forgotten – or under-stated – Conservative traditions.
Left to a single department, or as an add-on to the ‘real work’ of the economy, a single Conservative narrative and analysis of social justice and one nation is likely to attract the scepticism which in many quarters it still does. More to the point, it will lack the moral urgency that the Prime Minister so powerfully conveys.