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.