By Paul Goodman
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Compassionate conservatism, social justice, the fairness agenda (all these overlap) exist with two groups of poorer or disadvantaged people in mind: those who aren't in work and those who are. The first group are by definition on benefits or pensions. Many of the second are on tax credits – themselves a form of benefit which, as designed by Gordon Brown, stretch up the income ladder to help further his ideology of state dependency. The conventional view is that one is always better off working than not, and that those on benefits therefore need special protection.
Iain Duncan Smith's fury with Nick Clegg, reported this morning in the Sun, challenges this assumption – and helps to prove my assertion that compassionate conservatism, as a vote-winning idea, will be stalled by the Eurozone crisis. The Work and Pensions Secretary is angry that the Deputy Prime Minister sneaked a tax credit freeze through the Quad without consulting him. So in simple terms, the non-working poor will receive an benefit rise in line with inflation but the working poor will not.
Recession and depression has a record of moving ideas to the left, but voters to the right: ten years ago about half the EU member countries had left-wing governments, but today only Austria, Denmark and Cyprus do so. Many voters already correctly believe that the cats-cradle of the tax and benefit system mean that one isn't always better off working. Rightly or wrongly, workers and families facing higher fuel prices, soaring electricity bills and rising shopping costs are likely to be even less sympathetic to welfare claimants during a bust than a boom.
Compassionate conservatism is alive and well – in the work and action of Government Ministers (for example, in Duncan Smith's work programme, Michael Gove's free schools project, and John Hayes's drive for apprenticeships) as well as in the voluntary work and giving of party members and the efforts of Conservative councils to cut waste and not services. That there is such a thing as society – but that it's just not the same thing as the state – is a truth proof against the deepest downturn.
One view of compassionate conservatism is that the more the state withdraws from the public square, the more civil society will prosper. This is not what David Cameron's Big Society (of which we already hear far less than we did) is about. It accepts that the state should purchase services that people need – schools, hospitals, social services, homeless shelters, treatment for those with alcohol or drug dependency problems – but that it shouldn't always provide them. This view is right. But it will grow more difficult to effect, given the coming squeeze on public spending.
The most effective populiser of compassionate conservatism in its modern form was George W Bush – that is, the pre-9/11 Republican candidate, not the post-9/11 American President necessarily preoccupied with the "war on terror". In other words, the projection of compassionate conservatism was a boom phenomenon. It will find it hard to get its message across during an era of bust.