David Cameron recently gave a speech in Chicago where he spoke of ‘reinventing government’. This Thatcher-like rhetoric is a sign of the PM’s desperation to exercise leadership, and stay in control of both the party and country. Unlike Lady Thatcher, Cameron lacks an alternative vision for government and consequently such fiery speeches lack coherence. A year on from the emergency budget and spending review it is becoming abundantly clear that public opinion has slowly shifted, both in Britain and Europe towards an opposition to austerity and an alternative vision for society. A ComRes poll for today’s Independent has shown that 72% of the public would like to see a change in the government’s flagship austerity program.
The PM has made reducing Britain’s public deficit a moral crusade, coupled with the Burkean idea that society can be rebuilt with state help by its small platoons- families, clubs, groups and civil associations. Research released by a think tank this week shows that the intermediary institutions between the state and society, necessary to enable people to help themselves, have suffered the biggest blow in post-war history. Moreover, the NPC have published research today stating that one in ten of Britain’s charities could close before the end of the year. This, together with the coalition’s assault on Britain’s institutions, the NHS, Universities and the Trade Unions is proving that Cameron’s vision for the economy can not be reconciled with his vision for society. This is the reason for recent polling results.
The innermost contradiction of Cameron’s project is in its attempt to revolutionise the economy while attempting to renew society based on the authority of the past. Economic life is to be based on de-regulation, free choice and the pleasures of unrestrained consumption; family life on duty and restraint. This is the same trap that Thatcher fell into whereby economic policies accelerate changes in society; leaving the vision for that society largely redundant, consequently the party becomes redundant. A genuine post-Thatcherite agenda for the Conservative Party is of the upmost importance and a comprehensive vision other than the fictitious charm of a ‘Big Society’.
There is no way round the need for a substantial and sustained social investment. There can be discussion over the processes and institutions, given that central government agencies are often unresponsive, bureaucratic, and risk-averse in their interactions with citizens; and there is a good case for creating more intermediate, autonomous, self-governing institutions, between state and citizen. Voters have delivered their resounding disapproval of blanket cuts, and it is time for a more nuanced and pragmatic discussion, with an outline for society taking a central place.
Cameron’s saving grace is that he has yet to outline a comprehensive vision of society and what that might look like. One of his most frequent criticisms could turn out to be an advantage when he comes to fight the next general election.RedTacking