George Osborne’s speech to Demos today tackled a number of major themes, tying all together to a Conservative notion of fairness. Following the release of the Unfair Britain dossier (PDF), the speech  set out the party’s vision of a fair society and how to achieve it. The content was striking in places for its intellectual self-confidence in meeting and tackling head on the left’s principles. Some highlights:

Reliance on the state: “At the root of the left’s failure on fairness in government is a stubbornly-held by severely mistaken belief, best expressed in Gordon Brown’s assertion that “only the state can guarantee fairness”. It is a belief with which I profoundly disagree, and a belief which helps explain how so much money could have been spent in the last decade, but so little achieved.” He noted that since 1997 education spending has doubled and NHS spending tripled.

The three characteristics of a fair society: “on each, it is the right in British politics which is now making the running”.

  1. “… people are properly rewarded for their effort and ability”. Notably, Osborne did not start by defining fairness in terms of the disadvantaged.
  2. “… equality of opportunity, so that people can achieve their aspirations regardless of their background and no one is left behind. And I believe here in Britain my party is now winning the argument that the progressive goals of reducing poverty and increasing mobility are best achieved by Conservative means”.
  3. “ … the current generation should not saddle the next generation with the costs of its own mistakes, be they environment, social or fiscal”.

Policy: Osborne detailed at some length the ways in which Conservative policies on welfare reform and education would contribute towards reducing poverty and increasing opportunity. In public services, the state cannot guarantee fairness through monopoly provision. Osborne noted Gordon Brown’s claim that by 2020 Britain would require 14 million skilled workers, and observed that the assumption that a Prime Minister could know this, and ensure it, was the essence of state planning.

Ideology: At some length, the Shadow Chancellor discussed philosophical and ideological figures, praising Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, and quoting approvingly the “invisible hand” and the “asymmetry of information” that ensures the state can never have access to all the knowledge that the free market makes use of. He then spent some time stressing a belief in the need for some intervention and his opposition to entirely unfettered free markets, distinguishing between conservative and libertarian ideals. He cited John Rawls in support of the view that society needed not merely economic liberalism but equality of opportunity – but “we reject the goal of guaranteeing equality of outcome”. This means the Conservative Party will advocate for consumer credit controls and charges for non-domiciles. In answer to questions, he said that ideology did matter, and there were ideological differences between politicians on the role of government. But there was a continuum of views rather than a straightforward binary ideological battle.

Poverty: “We all agree that relative poverty matters as much …”, Osborne began before correcting himself, “… matters as well as absolute poverty”. He praised the report of the Centre for Social Justice, and noted how sharply the benefits trap impacts on someone currently on 100 a week: for every extra pound that they earn above this, they get to keep only 6 pence.

Taxation: Turning to the third part of his notion of a fair society, Osborne attacked Brown strongly for increasing debt that future generations would be required to repay. “… all the leaks and briefs coming out of Downing Street at the moment suggest that the Prime Minister is preparing to try to buy his way out of trouble, by bribing people with their own borrowed money”. Again, language suggesting increased government spending is an electoral bribe is notable for its intellectual confidence, given how often in recent years this charge has been made about tax cuts, not higher spending. He denied that his proposed tax changes were overly beneficial to the well-off, and mentioned that of the three tax announcements made at last year’s conference, by far the most popular was on inheritance tax – even if this change did not affect as many, people’s aspirations for the future do contribute to their current conception of fairness, and they identified most with this proposal.

Osborne concluded by arguing that just as Conservatives had in his political lifetime won the arguments on the free market, now Conservatives are winning the argument that goals such as reducing poverty and ensuring equality of opportunity must be done by conservative means. This is the new centre ground of British politics.

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