By Tim Montgomerie
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The latest edition of the New Statesman may boast an image of Margaret Thatcher on its front page, covered with kisses, but the main essay inside is a call from Philip Blond – the self-styled Red Tory – to form a post-liberal conservatism that is every bit as radical a departure from the status quo as Thatcher herself delivered in 1979.
Blond believes that Cameron's vision of the Big Society is the answer to the current crisis. He defines the crisis as a collapse in the social infrastructure that lies between the individual and the state. He agrees with Centre Forum's Julian Astle that Britain has long been run by a secret, albeit informal, club of thirty liberals – Cameroons, Blairites and Orange Book Liberal Democrats. I can imagine Peter Hitchens nodding vigorously. This, says Blond, has disastrous:
"Social liberalism, in freeing people from their obligations to each other and from nearly all conceivable constraints on behaviour, preached the progressive consequences of choice in anything from sex to fast food. Meanwhile, the variant of economic liberalism we were presented with seemed to provide endless credit on the basis of endlessly appreciating assets."
For Blond the Big Society is the solution to this:
"The big society should be the means whereby the self-employed can come together with small businesses to develop their own supply chains and collaborate with each other to compete with the bigger players. It should mean a stake in public procurement for the bottom-up enterprises that we need to encourage and foster. But most of all, it should broker relationships between successful and emerging business, so that the former can build the capacities of the latter. Without that, we don't stand a chance in the global economy."
Blond believes that the Coalition is doing many good things. Top of the list for him are Iain Duncan Smith's benefit reforms. He also lists the localism bill and the opportunity for local governments to innovate without restriction; elected police chiefs; free schools; the academy programme; John Hayes' apprenticeships; and the pupil premium.
For me this is an impressive list and I think Blond overreaches by then concluding that "there is no Conservative offer for the poor". "All the poor are being given," he writes, "is the prospect of less welfare and lower wages. In exchange, they will have even less economic security than they enjoy at present."
The Coalition does have an impressive if imperfect 'offer to the poor'. Blond lists ingredients of that offer. Where he is right is that this offer has no coherent explanation. The Government has allowed itself to be defined by deficit reduction. Next week at the Manchester Party Conference I hope Cameron can address this head on. Conservatives need to make three promises not just to the poor but to every person hoping for something better for their children. Something like this…
- We'll support you and your family. The tax and benefit system will never disadvantage two parents. We'll support the institution of marriage. We'll give you access to a range of support services. We'll help you afford good quality childcare. We'll police your communities properly and break up the gangs and drug dealings.
- You'll have a right to choose a good school for your children. If you live in a tough area your school will get extra resources. We'll invest more in vocational skills and apprenticeships. Academic qualifications will be meaningful. There'll be no more soft grades. If disruptive pupils are in your child's school we will remove them.
- We'll help you into work. You'll always be better off in work than on welfare. You won't pay any income tax until you earn £10,000. Small businesses are great job creators and the centres of community life and they'll be freed from red tape and enjoy special tax status. If there is no paid employment we will expect you to undertake community work.
This isn't a complete explanation but you get the idea. For Labour you beat poverty by taxing business and families to fund an ever larger welfare state. For Conservatives you beat poverty through strong families, good schools and job creation.