A couple of weeks ago ConservativeHome noted David Miliband’s unimpressive attempt to mount an intellectual attack on ‘Cameronism’. Antonia Cox was also underwhelmed on Monday’s Platform. Oliver Letwin, Tory policy chief, has responded to Mr Miliband’s critique in this week’s Spectator.
First of all, Mr Letwin defends the force of the whole idea of social responsibility:
"Cameron’s ‘social responsibility’ is indeed a big idea. It is one of the biggest ideas that human beings have ever had — a deep part of our intellectual heritage. It is the idea that between government and the individual citizen there lies the multitude of relationships, from the family and friendship outwards, that forms the fabric of our lives. The power of these relationships and of the culture they embody vastly exceeds the power of government. A government that wishes effectively to guide a nation towards social justice and wellbeing must therefore do so in and through civil society."
Other conservatives have attempted to draw a distinction between the feed-and-forget welfare state and the holistic care of the welfare society. They not only provide different kinds of care they are also competitors. A growing welfare state – because of the taxes it consumes and the moralities it spawns – can undermine the welfare society. Oliver Letwin uses his piece to unpick Miliband’s words and then concludes with this flourish:
"Thatcher wanted to roll back the frontiers of the state. Brown wants to roll forward the frontiers of the state. Cameron wants to roll forward the frontiers of society."
That’s clever. Conservatives know that a big, feed-and-forget welfare state doesn’t offer the relational care that every human being needs. Voters know that the institutions of society – from the family to the church to forms of mutual aid – are currently too weak to take on the inadequately-discharged responsibilities of the welfare state. That’s why they won’t support a Thatcherite, all-guns-blazing cutback of the state. What is needed is a steady increase of the agencies of society so that can rescue more and more vulnerable people from the embrace of the state.
The crucial question is: Can government help society to grow?
The more libertarian conservatives think that the best thing government can do is get out of the way. I’m in favour of government being more proactive. I favour, for example, elimination of the marriage penalty, investment in voluntary groups that provide relationship education, fair funding of faith-based charities and voucherisation of public services.
‘Rolling forward the frontiers of society’ isn’t an expression that will work on the doorstep but it’s the best intellectual conceptualisation of Project Cameron so far.
Related link: What is social growth?