If Rowan Williams makes Cameron put the moral case for Conservatism, he will have done some good.

The controversy over Rowan Williams’s article in his guest edited New Statesman, for all its inaccuracies and misunderstandings, should be a wake up call to all inspired by what has appeared to be a resurgence of the communitarian conservatism inspired by the vision of Burke and the achievements of Shaftesbury and Disraeli.

Dr Williams is clearly a man of the Left.  His approach in the article suggests a man whose thinking assumes that benefits and services should not only be paid for but provided directly by the state.  His support for the ‘Big Society’ idea is of one “whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism… adopted enthusiastically by the Conservatives.”  Even to think such a thing suggests a worrying lack of appreciation of political thought, for the principle of the ‘Big Society’ is anything but socialist, associational or otherwise.  It is an idea encompassing communities in all their forms and of all shapes and sizes: from charities, clubs, and regiments to churches, mosques and (dare I say it) trade unions.  These ‘little platoons’ have one thing in common: wherever the origin of their funding, they act not by state dictat but by the workings of human nature and, most importantly, of human charity.

Moreover, Dr Williams is plain wrong to argue that ‘nobody voted for’ the policies on education, health or welfare.  The Conservatives could not have been more explicit about their commitment to Free Schools and the expansion of Academies – indeed, this has long been the principle plank of their education policy.  Anyone familiar with the political landscape of the last Parliament cannot fail to have been impressed by Iain Duncan Smith’s commitment to welfare reform – leading to proposals strikingly similar to Coalition policy.  And, paradoxically perhaps, it was the Liberal Democrats who pioneered the idea of abolishing Primary Care Trusts  (see page 43 of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto).

Yet the reaction to Dr Williams’s comments demonstrates a lack of recognition of the failure of presentation and argument his article addressed.  While it was entirely fair for David Cameron to say that he ‘profoundly disagreed’  with the Archbishop, the Conservative Party and its supporters would do well to reflect on what he actually said.  For Dr Williams, notwithstanding the limitations of his left wing approach to the Coalition programme, made some points that were as insightful as they were important.

Dr Williams argued that “the widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for “big society” initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale.”  This is entirely correct.  The term is stale not merely from its overuse but from the failure of Conservative Ministers and supporters to attempt a systematic explanation and argument of the purpose and moral depth of the idea of the ‘Big Society’.  That this has allowed ‘many to dismiss’ the programme is unarguable – if only because one can read them for as long as one is able to put up with the Guardian, Independent or New Statesman.  Joking aside, how many more sympathetic commentators have attacked the inadequate propagation of the idea of the ‘Big Society’; and how many of the public can give an adequate explanation of what it means?

To answer the question of why Dr Williams is able to make these points with such validity, it is worth stepping back from the immediate, media inspired row and asking two questions.  What is conservatism about and how is it reflected in the ‘Big Society’; and how do Conservatives best propagate its moral message? 

Of course, conservatism is a set of principles its adherents have long been shy of describing as an ideology; and for good reason.  The tapestry of societies and communities  – leading to the ultimate society of the nation itself – are no more than a reflection of the evolution of human civilisation.  Conservatism is organic because it tries not to challenge human nature but to work with it; it strives not to reorder society according to idealistic programmes but recognises that it is through their freedom that men and women, families, societies, institutions and charities have built a caring society.  The Big Society is nothing more or less than a reflection of this.

It is through understanding the power of this message that Conservatives will best persuade people not merely of the practical but the moral message.  In this respect, what the Party needs is a concerted effort to take on the Left’s claim to the moral high ground; to demonstrate the failures and lack of compassion of the State.  Examples from the macro – the scandal of welfare dependency – to the micro – the inability of numerous state organisations to prevent the torture and murder of Baby Peter – should be used with unremitting force.  The Party would do well to learn from the free market campaigns of Keith Joseph in the 1970s.  Margaret Thatcher did not win three General Elections merely by adopting successful policies, she did so by engaging with the arguments, by using the intellectual power of her supporters to explain, to persuade, to cajole and to convince the public of the failures of socialism.  If David Cameron is to succeed in pursuing his vision of a Big Society – as I fervently hope – he couldn’t do better than to learn from his great predecessor.



  1. Jon Rollason said,

    13 June, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Almost forever, the State was organised by and for those who owned everything. They paid little tax, chiefly to fund foreign wars, doggedly resisted things like minimum wages, decent working conditions or basic employment safety, provided education, healthcare, liveable housing and the like only when it suited their consciences, and called out the cavalry and the hang-man to deal with the nascent trades unions. The people of Britain got by as best they could.

    With the advent of democracy in the United Kingdom in 1918, this inevitably changed. At the end of the second world war popular democracy ensured that the state was finally organised by and for the people of Britain.

    It is working, after a fashion: reducing abject poverty, ill-health, lack of education and increasing human dignity and potential faster and more effectively than any method ever tried.

    But despite half a century of redistributive social policies, something like 1% of the population still owns 70% of the land, and 10% owns about 50% of all of the wealth in Britain. The people who own everything have weathered the late 20th century.

    They want their state back. They don’t see why it should be organised in the interests of the 90%. So it will be dismantled, brick by brick. The only things it will do are fight foreign wars, call out Vince Cable to abolish the right to strike if it is exercised, guarantee the profits of monopolists and underwrite the gambling of speculators.

    The rest of it, that is the “Big Society”. If you want anyone to care, do it yourself. The 10% have grown bored of sharing.

    Defining the “Big Society” without incurring the rage and contempt of the people of Britain is a fruitless task, because it is nothing more or less than this: the people who own everything, who used to own your state, and want to again, telling you to fuck off.

  2. Michael Ranson said,

    13 June, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    “Joking aside, how many more sympathetic commentators have attacked the inadequate propagation of the idea of the ‘Big Society’; and how many of the public can give an adequate explanation of what it means?”

    Joking aside, how many Tory MPs can give an adequate explanation of what it means? We both know it is far from 100% of them.

    For the reasons Jon suggests above, The Big Society as we are seeing it played out in Britain today is a Big Cover Up for lower tax and a smaller state. Those on the progressive left of politics, those who care about the people of this country too poor or too weak to have a voice should not stand idly by and watch the institutions of the state be dismantled. In particular when the institutions are being dismantled by politicians whose background means they have never had a need for them and no understanding of how important they can be to those who have no choice but to rely on them.

    As for harking back to Thatcher in support of your arguments, please would you urge your party to do this at every opportunity between now and 2015. It will make my job on the doorstep considerably easier if the Tories revel in their divisive past when pushing through some of the most divisive reforms attempted for many years.

  3. francishoar said,

    14 June, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Mike, your first para is the argument I made throughout the article! That there has been inadequate explanation because the principled argument has not been made.

    And then you drift into the self-righteousness of the left, the tired nonsense my call to arms is all about.

    The ‘institutions of the state’ you say are being dismantled are actually being given back to the communities they provide care for. The funding will invariably come from the same source, the control will not. The control of these ‘institutions’ centrally or by local government has invariably been disastrous – I didn’t use the Baby P example for nothing.

    As for ‘harking back to Thatcher’, if you read that bit of the article you will have seen that what I was ‘harking’ back to was the sense of purpose of the prophets of her free market reforms – Keith Joseph, Victor Rothschild, the Centre for Policy Studies and so on – who prepared the way for her administration. The argument was different then – this one is about giving society back to its own communities and responsibility back to individuals and institutions – but it needs to be made just as urgently and as stridently.

  4. Michael Ranson said,

    14 June, 2011 at 11:05 am

    So who should have looked out for Baby P? A collection of Eric Pickles-ite nosy neighbours? “Child abuse? Not in my back yard.” The Haringey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children?

    Your argument seems to be that isolated examples of state failure means that we should tear up the institutions of the state and go for full blooded localism.

    Frankly that might be fine for wealthy and well-educated people like you and me, but I’m not convinced it will help the poor and the weak. I think the Big Society might inevitably involve people like you and me retreating behind gates and barbed wire to our own Little Big Societies a la South Africa where we enjoy free schools and excellent doctors, and live happy lives just so long as we do not peer over the high walls and glimpse the real society which does not enjoy our wealth.

    I am tempted to ask whether you want to roll back the frontiers of the state when it comes to the military and all their silly bearskin hats, gold braid and medals but that might be too off-subject and provocative.

  5. francishoar said,

    14 June, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Mike, the point about Baby P isn’t that we should abolish the social services, but that state institutions often work extremely badly. In that case, obviously social services will need to remain a public sector organisation but that doesn’t mean that the failures of the huge number of state agencies involved doesn’t cast an unforgiving light on the abilities of the public sector.

    As for the armed forces, apart from the fact that that is very much one of the ancient institutions that are part of the fabric of a nation, there are clearly some institutions that have always been and will always be the direct responsibility of central government. That isn’t the case (for example) for the management of individual schools.

  6. Michael Ranson said,

    14 June, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Right, so the solution for Baby P is to improve the provision of state services. I entirely agree.

    My view is that the solution for failing schools is to improve the provision of state services. On that I anticipate we will not agree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: