It’s fashionable to knock George W Bush and attacking America is the surest way of raising a cheer on BBC1’s Question Time. It is understandable, therefore, that the defenders of David Cameron’s modern compassionate conservatism should want to distance themselves from George W Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Distancing Project Cameron from Project Bush was one of the themes of an excellent Radio 4 investigation of compassionate conservatism (broadcast tonight on the Westminster Hour).
In November 2004, when I was still with IDS at the Centre for Social Justice, I wrote Whatever happened to compassionate conservatism? I concluded that the promise of compassionate conservatism had been unfulfilled but I also noted that enormous progress had been made before President Bush entered the White House and since (at state level).
If David Cameron’s compassionate conservatism is to mean anything we have more to learn from America than we have to dismiss. I would highlight six top learnings:
(1) The 1996 welfare reforms enacted by a Republican Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton. These reforms put a huge emphasis on limiting entitlements and getting people into work. They also emphasised family structure. Fewer American families depend on welfare than at any time since 1969.
(2) Rudy Giuliani’s zero tolerance policing. Overall crime fell by 57% and murder rates dropped by 65% and who benefited most? The poorest New Yorkers. Crime has always been a regressive social force and a July 2002 opinion poll for New York’s Citizens Crime Commission showed that the city’s poorest voters were most supportive of the ‘quality of life laws’ that targeted graffiti and aggressive begging.
(3) Support for freer charities. The state fails to tackle society’s most stubborn social problems because it is invariably risk averse and bureaucratic in method. Many of Britain’s biggest charities – because of their closeness to government thinking-and-funding – are not much better. Americans have been experimenting with forms of stakeholder-directed funding that ensure money gets to more mission-driven and innovative voluntary organisations. Britain has many such voluntary organisations and, if you really want to know what compassionate conservatism looks like, you should attend Wednesday’s night second Centre for Social Justice awards evening when Britain’s most effective poverty-fighters are saluted.
(4) Support for healthy marriages. President Bush has eliminated the marriage penalty that disadvantaged the institution that does more than any other to raise children and care for the elderly. Just as significantly his ‘family minister’ – Dr Wade Horn – is overseeing a major programme of investment in marriage education and support for fatherhood.
(5) School choice. Slowly but surely, key US states are giving parents choice over schooling and slowly but surely, the poorest children, in particular, are breaking free from failing school monopolies.
(6) Economy-boosting tax relief. This is the most controversial ingredient of American compassionate conservatism but noone needs a healthy, job-creating economy more than those living on the margins. The Bush tax cuts were skewed towards the wealthy – arguably too skewed – but they have helped to create a strong economy that is lifting millions of families into work.
Has America got everything right? No. Should British Tories talk about America as an inspiration? Perhaps not. But should we learn from America’s successes? Yes, absolutely.