Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com.
“In a country tempted by Corbynism, in which the Overton Window has shifted towards state interventionism, the urgency for freedom-based thinking seems clear.” This is how Rebecca Lowe introduced readers of ConservativeHome to FREER – a new think tank dedicated to cause of economic and social freedom.
FREER (of which Lowe is Director) received a warm welcome from Guido Fawkes. Praising a launch event speech from Liz Truss (of which more later) he said: “At a time when the government is dominated by the anti-libertarian, anti-free market, statist dogma of Theresa May and Nick Timothy, this was refreshing to hear.”
Note that opposition between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual. Note also the context – not so much the battle between Left and Right, but between opposing tendencies within the Conservative Party.
It’s easy to forget that statism isn’t exclusively socialist. Just think about how much bigger and more centralised the British state became over the course of the 20th century – a period in which the Conservatives were in power well over half the time.
It’s tempting to blame what Margaret Thatcher called the “ratchet-effect of socialism”, but she herself extended the power of the state when she felt it necessary. For instance, in curbing the unions, abolishing the Greater London Authority and the metropolitan authorities, opposing devolution to Scotland (while imposing the Poll Tax a year early), introducing the National Curriculum and kicking off the state-directed process of decarbonising the economy. Various other examples include Section 28, compulsory seat belts, and market interventions such as the London Docklands Development Corporation.
She had her reasons for all of these extensions and centralisations – some of them good, others definitely not, but either way she abhorred not the levers of power.
As Guido points out, the Tory tradition of state activism has now been revived under Theresa May – with a little bit of help from Nick Timothy. One can question whether she’s done anything of any significance to achieve “an economy that works for everyone” or whether her true motto instead is “nothing has changed.”
But for supporters of FREER that’s not the point. They quite rightly see that the forces of statism are once more on the march – and that the threat doesn’t just come from the anti-capitalist left or the pro-EU centre, but also from the post-liberal right. In America, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and now Italy, liberal conservatism has been usurped by its illiberal shadow.
So is it time for British conservatives to take sides – choosing between liberty and authority, the market and the state?
My answer is no: we must reject this choice, and not solely out of a desire for balance. You see, there’s a third Conservative school of thought: the idea that we need mediating institutions between the individual and the state – both to reconcile the claims of liberty and authority, and to go beyond what either of those can achieve anyway.
Any free society needs a public sphere that extends much further than the borders of the state; and which also leaves room for more than the market place.
The values of the all-consuming state are deadening to the human spirit, but so are those of the all-consuming market. Here, for instance, is what Liz Truss tweeted following her speech at the FREER launch: “This generation are #Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters”.
Apart from the #soul-shriveling #mind-numbing #buttock-clenching awfulness of the Tweet itself, it reveals an impoverished conception of what freedom is all about. Unlike the crazy Corbynite dream of “fully automated luxury communism”, Truss’s vision of endless tech-enabled consumption actually exists, but it hardly adds up to life in all its fullness: not for the low-wage, poorly-housed migrant workers that service our global cities, nor for the under-skilled, left-behind native workforce in the hinterlands. As for the better-paid ‘knowledge workers’ – the supposed winners of the globalised economy – they have money to spend and a million ways to spend it; and yet, for many of them, the #home-owning #income-saving #family-starting opportunities that their parents enjoyed are out of reach.
Cut adrift from old certainties and expectations, people are looking for something more than what the market can deliver. It’s not that they’re against individual freedom – far from it. But on its own, it’s not enough. As individuals, we want to be part of something bigger.
That’s a feeling that people get when, with thousands of others, they sing ‘O Jeremy Corbyn’ or don a MAGA hat or succumb to some other form of identity politics.
Can the Conservative Party offer a better alternative? Is there anything ‘bigger’ that can be offered other than a bigger state?
The good news is that there is. The bad news is that under David Cameron the Party tried and failed to deliver it. Its name, of course, was the Big Society.
This is how the leadership put it in the 2010 draft manifesto (a curtain raiser to the real thing):
“If we are going to mend our broken society and make British poverty history, we need to address the causes of poverty and inequality, not just the symptoms. We need new answers to the social problems we face – and we believe that the truly effective answers will come from a big society, not big government; from social responsibility, not state control. So we will redistribute power and control from the central state to individuals, families and local communities.”
And here it is in the actual 2010 manifesto:
“Some promise solutions from on high – but real change comes from collective endeavour. So we offer a new approach: a change not just from one set of politicians to another; from one set of policies to another. It is a change from one political philosophy to another. From the idea that the role of the state is to direct society and micro-manage public services, to the idea that the role of the state is to strengthen society and make public services serve the people who use them. In a simple phrase, the change we offer is from big government to Big Society.”
Note how the big society became the Big Society. That capitalisation signified the transformation of something that belongs to everyone into a political trademark – the first sign that something was wrong.
The second sign was the failure of David Cameron to win a majority at the election – blamed in part on the Big Society ‘message’. In fact, despite the manifesto, the Big Society was barely mentioned during the election campaign – a vacuum of hope into which Nick Clegg insinuated himself.
The lack of words in the campaign was faithfully translated into a lack of action in government. The Big Society was ‘relaunched’ and ‘relaunched’ again – and mentioned no less than ten times in David Cameron’s 2010 conference speech. And then… well, not much really.
I’ll leave it to Steve Moore to tell the rest of the sorry tale – but I’d like to focus about what we can learn from the experience.
Firstly, the failure of the Big Society (note the capitals) was not a failure of the big society. Rather it was a failure of big politics and big government. Big politics is the politics of the PR spiv – it’s all about the simplification and centralisation of the message, about one voice in place of many. It also elevates talk above action – as if something said is effectively something done. Big politics therefore stands in diametrical opposition to the big society. It’s not surprising that the latter was neglected in a system dominated by the former.
Big government, unlike big politics, is capable of action, not just talk. Yet it too operates from the top-down, seeking control through standardisation. Empowering the big society required big government to act counter to its most basic instincts. Again, the eventual outcome was not surprising.
Secondly, we need need to recognise that the Coalition did do some good things for the big society – though not things identified with Big Society brand. For instance, there was what Michael Gove achieved with Academies and Free Schools. The other big success came through the City Deals, Growth Deals and Devolution Deals – a far-reaching decentralisation that turned the tide on a century of Whitehall power-grabbing. Having worked for the minister whose job this was (Greg Clark), I can say that getting Whitehall to act against its natural inclinations requires time, talent, bloody-mindedness and a very clear mandate from the top.
Thirdly, the big society is rather like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about obscenity – hard to define, “but I know what it is when I see it.” Ultimately the big society isn’t about political slogans, but the reality of active community institutions – working beyond the limits of either the state or the market. The test for the big society policies of the future is whether or not they create new community institutions.
Looking back at the Cameron years, one can’t point to many examples, but there are a few. The Free Schools I’ve already mentioned. Another is the growing number of neighbourhood planning groups that give communities a real say over their future development. I should also mention National Citizen Service, a project particularly close to the former Prime Minister’s heart. All of these are worthwhile, but they represent just a small part of what’s needed.
Of course, community institutions can’t be created out of thin air – no matter how willing people are to take part. They need purpose, power and assets. But even in an age of austerity, government – both national and local – has plenty of those, which it could on a small-scale, experimental basis transfer to the control of community groups.
The unsuccessful experiments need not be repeated, the successes however can be adopted (and adapted) for use elsewhere. That is how the City Deals got off the ground, and the Free Schools programme too. If this or any future Conservative Government wishes to recommit to the big society, then its ministers must be told that experimentation isn’t just permitted, but compulsory.