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  1. Politics
13 June 2010

Pragmatic Thatcherism

Free-market assumptions hold the coalition together.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

In an article for the NS last year, the Oxford political theorist and Next Left blogger Stuart White plotted a map of the changing terrain of progressive politics in this country.

White identified four strands of “progressive” thinking, which he called “left communitarianism”,” left republicanism”, “centre republicanism” and “right communitarianism”. (This last found its way into the picture on account of the “progressive conservatism” of Phillip Blond and others.)

Now, in a post at Our Kingdom, White is asking if that map is any help in navigating the “new politics”, especially in assessing the ideological and philosophical complexion of the Con-Lib coalition. (He also examines developments inside the Labour Party and elsewhere on the centre left, but it’s what he says about the coalition that is most interesting.)

White suggests the coalition is drawing on two of the strands he picked out in his earlier article: right communitarianism, with its emphasis on rebuilding civil society, and centre republicanism, which stresses the need to disperse and decentralise power (elements of both these positions were discernible in the Tories’ “Big Society” rhetoric, which I blogged about before the election.)

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It’s interesting that in connection with right communitarianism he mentions not Phillip Blond, but the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and Philippa Stroud, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice. This looks to me like an acknowledgment that we can expect to hear a good deal more about some aspects of the right-communitarian programme than others — more, that is to say, about cutting back a welfare state that allegedly saps the initiative of the worst off, and much less about “recapitalising the poor“.

A paler shade of orange

The abolition of the Child Trust Fund (CTF) suggests that asset poverty has been shoved a long way down the coalition’s agenda. Although White says it’s hard to see, given their notional commitments to spreading asset ownership, how either right communitarianism or centre republicanism could support abolition. That abolishing the CTF was one of the first acts of the coalition reflects, he argues (and surely he is right about this), “a particular brand of pragmatism that is tacitly grounded in Thatcherite assumptions about the state and the economy”.

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White says George Osborne is the key figure here, though it’s worth remembering that it was the Liberal Democrats who promised, in their election manifesto, to abolish the Child Trust Fund altogether. The Tories proposed keeping it for the worst-off.

In other words, the “Thatcherite assumptions” that White talks about are shared across the coalition — by the Clegg-Laws “Orange Book” axis in the Lib Dems, as well as by Osborne and his supporters. This, White concludes, will be a government of “Thatcherite consolidation”.

But that isn’t to say that there aren’t significant tensions within the coalition — or, rather, within its constituent parts. Alan Finlayson, in a comment on White’s post, observes that there are misgivings about the “anti-state liberalism” that is the ideological glue holding the coalition together among both socially conservative Tories — he mentions the Cornerstone Group — and Beveridgite Lib Dems.

Indeed, I think it’s the tension in the Lib Dems — between classically liberal Orange Bookers and the descendants of Hobhousian “new” or “social” liberalism — that will be the one to watch in the coming months.