Modern politicians often sound as if they are speaking the same desiccated, drearily technocratic language. That has been true for much of this campaign, but, for all that, there have been some conceptual and rhetorical innovations, and even phrases that appear to be the freshly minted coinage of spin doctors and campaign managers turn out to be made of older metal than we might have expected.
The big society
David Cameron’s big idea of the campaign is the “big society”. This was launched with some fanfare at the end of March at an event in London, and made it into the Conservative manifesto. Three weeks later, it was being buried by Cameron’s colleagues, one of whom said, “We need to turn Oliver Letwin’s Hegelian dialectic into voter-friendly stuff.” (Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department, has a PhD in philosophy.)
That shadow minister meant to dismiss the idea, but in doing so he revealed a finer appreciation of the philosophical antecedents of the “big society” than he might have wanted to admit to. For what Hegel called, in his Philosophy of Right, “civil society” – the stage “which intervenes between the family and the state” – looks very much like the network of voluntary organisations to which the Tories propose to “redistribute power” as they seek to weaken the power of Labour’s big state.
There’s no reference to Hegel in the Tory manifesto, but there is an allusion to one of the founding fathers of conservative thought, Edmund Burke. The “institutional building blocks of the Big Society”, the document reads, “[are] the ‘little platoons’ of civil society”.
“Little platoons” is a phrase that occurs in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the classic expression of conservative scepticism about large-scale attempts to transform society in the image of abstract ideals. The Tories today use it to refer to the local associations that would go to form a “broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.
The problem is that, for Burke, little platoons weren’t groups that you volunteer to join; they were the “social subdivisions” into which you are born – the kind of traditionalism you would have thought Cameron’s rebranded “progressive” Conservatives would want to avoid.
The Conservatives have promised to create an army of “community organisers”, an idea with a somewhat less predictable ancestry: it derives from Saul Alinsky, denounced by the ultra-conservative commentator Melanie Phillips as an “extreme” leftist. Alinsky was a formative influence on Barack Obama.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are as enthusiastic as the Conservatives about “communities”. In a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society on 26 April, entitled Why the Right Is Wrong, Gordon Brown wrote that “liberty entails . . . engagement in the community, not shutting oneself off in a totally private sphere”, a formulation whose debt to the Edwardian “New Liberalism” of L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson Nick Clegg would have recognised.
The communitarian inflection to much of Labour’s rhetoric is a reminder, too, of the influence that the German-American social theorist Amitai Etzioni briefly enjoyed in the mid-1990s over Tony Blair.
Etzioni’s influence is also evident in the new version of Clause Four of Labour’s constitution that Tony Blair imposed on the party in 1995, asserting that “the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe”. Echoes of Etzioni’s idea that “for the ship of state to progress everyone must pull the oars” can be detected in the emphasis that all three party leaders place on “fairness”.
Clegg has described fairness as an “essential British value”, while Cameron has frequently appealed to notions of “fair play” when invoking ordinary voters who “abide by the rules” and “do the right thing”. Brown, in his Fabian pamphlet, also mentions the notion of justice-as-fairness propounded by the great American political philosopher John Rawls.
Rawls thought that the best way to work out what a just society would look like was to imagine a situation he called the “original position”, in which people are ignorant of their circumstances and natural or biological endowments. If people don’t know how gifted they are or what their social position is, then the distributive arrangements they settle upon won’t be distorted in favour of those blessed with advantages that they didn’t earn.
For Rawls, justice entails equality. Each of the three main parties’ manifestos mentions the need to promote equality (for Labour, it is a “public duty”) or the desirability of reducing inequality (the Lib Dems say that a fair tax system should “redistribute wealth and power to alleviate [its] worst excesses”).
Most politicians talk about the need for greater “equality of opportunity”, but only Brown has come close to acknowledging that Rawlsian justice requires a conception of equality rather more demanding than pallidly meritocratic bromides about “progressive ends” would suggest. “Equality of opportunity is desirable,” he writes, “but it is only fully possible if we embrace fairness of outcome, too.”
This may be an acknowledgement of Rawls’s point that inequalities of income and wealth reflecting differences of talent or ability cannot be justified. In other words, just because you are more talented than I am, that doesn’t mean you deserve greater rewards.
Cameron has said many times that reducing inequality is one of the aims of “progressive Conservatism”. He and his party remain committed, at least if their manifesto is anything to go by, to meeting the “progressive challenges of our age: making opportunity more equal [and] fighting poverty and inequality”. Yet it is not immediately obvious how the Cameroons propose to square their idea of “progressivism” with their professed Burkean conservatism – at least if they are using the language of progress in any but the most banally general sense. (Naturally, it is possible that this is exactly the sense in which they are using it. However, let’s apply what philosophers call the “principle of charity” and take what they say as seriously as we can.)
The problem is that since the Enlightenment genuine progressives – Marx, for instance; or social democrats such as Anthony Crosland, who assumed that Keynes had solved the problem of mass unemployment once and for all – have regarded progress as an effect of historical necessity and the clunking fist of the central state as its enabler. But today’s Tories profess to believe that the role of the state is not to be the embodiment of history with a capital H, but rather to act as a stimulus to “social action” in neighbourhoods and “communities”.
Redistribution of power
So talk of “progress” sits rather uneasily with the anti-statist rhetoric of the “big society” and Tory calls for the devolution of power to the “little platoons” – or, at least, to “individuals, families and neighbourhoods”.
The Lib Dems have spoken a similar language; their manifesto says that a “failure to distribute power fairly between people” is at the root of
the problems Britain faces today. This is an impeccably Liberal thought, because it derives from the greatest liberal philosopher of them all, John Stuart Mill.
In his masterpiece, On Liberty, Mill wrote that one of the besetting “evils” of politics is “adding unnecessarily” to the power of government. For that reason, he recommended that the state function primarily as the “central depository” and enabler of “municipal corporations and local boards”, “individuals and voluntary associations”.
There is something of Mill in the enthusiasm displayed by all three parties for mutuals – organisations, whether public-service providers or private firms, which are owned by their employees. Labour’s commitment to reorganising public services using mutuals is a reminder
of an underappreciated strand in the party’s tradition: the “guild socialism” of G D H Cole, which took the depredations of unaccountable power as seriously as it did the injustices of capitalism.
The “contract with the voters” that Cameron launched in the last week of the campaign attempts to speak a similar language of “accountability”, while the Tory manifesto says that the employee-led co-operatives that public-sector workers will be encouraged to form will result in the “most significant shift in power from the state to working people since the sale of council houses in the 1980s”.
The echo in that phrase of Labour’s avowedly “socialist” manifesto for the 1974 general election, which promised to bring about a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families”, was, one assumes, unintentional.
If Cameron’s contract requires greater “accountability” on the part of the state, it also demands much of the electorate – that it work with the government to repair the “broken society”. Poverty, family breakdown and welfare dependency are all symptoms of brokenness in the Tories’ diagnosis of our predicament.
The principal influence on this strand of Conservative rhetoric has been the work of the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which has sought to restore the kind of One-Nation Toryism that was suffocated by Thatcherism (minus a recognition, it ought to be said, that the original One-Nation Tory, Benjamin Disraeli, understood that the state had a significant role to play in repairing the fractures and fissures of industrial society).
There are echoes here, too, of Jacques Chirac’s successful 1995 campaign for the French presidency, in which he promised to heal “la fracture sociale”. No doubt the unreconstructedly Eurosceptic Tories would want to keep that particular affinity quiet.
The great ignored
On the first day of the campaign, Cameron addressed a portion of the population he called the “great ignored” – “the people who grow our food, police our streets, pay their taxes and obey the law”. We didn’t hear much about the “great ignored” later in the campaign, possibly because the allusion that most commentators, if not voters, picked up was not to John F Kennedy (Cameron had shamelessly channelled Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your government can do for you. Ask what we can do to make our country better”), but to the man JFK defeated in 1960, Richard Nixon.
In 1969, once he had finally made it into the White House, and at the height of the campus rebellion against the Vietnam war, Nixon appealed to the “silent majority of [his] fellow Americans” who weren’t protesting, and who remained unembarrassed by their patriotism and conviction of “national destiny”.
Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman.