David Cameron is legacy conscious, that is the take away from a speech he made earlier in the week. He wants to be remembered as more than an administrator in chief, someone who made a few reforms and reduced (but did not clear) the deficit. He wants to change society in a way he will be remembered for. Margaret Thatcher brought the language of the market into everyday life. Tony Blair oversaw huge social liberalisation. Cameron has survived three referendums and that is it.
Cameron started out wanting to be a moderniser. He wanted to ditch the Tory's "nasty party” image and occupy the centre ground of British politics the way Blair did for Labour in the 1990s. Now Cameron is legacy conscious; he is drawn back to the idea of compassionate conservatism that he championed in his early days as party leader. Cameron wants the Tory party to tackle the social ills and deep rooted problems of Britain.
I believe that Cameron really does want to tackle the country’s complex problems and leave office with more people from all walks of life better off than when he arrived. I also believe this goes further than a nebulous desire to help people and that he has ideas about how to tackle Britain’s social problems. However, these ideas have never come together into something tangible. Cameron has spent none of his political capital being a compassionate conservative.
The argument made by Cameron’s apologists is that he has not been compassionate because of circumstance. Cameron has had to jump from crisis to crisis, which has gotten in the way of his vision. I dispute this, as a lot of these crises were of Cameron's own creation. The EU referendum, Cameron's rebellious right wing backbenchers and the trouble with UKIP eating away at Tory marginal support were created by Cameron's timidity and his reluctance to confront the right of his own party. He has allowed the right of the party to consistently undermine him because it is easier than standing up to them. If Cameron really wanted to lead Britain to a future of compassionate conservatism then he should have started by convincing his own party to stay in line.
Other events (AV referendum, Scottish independence, etc) Cameron could also have avoided, had it not been convenient to allow them to happen at the time. The other obstacles to the compassionate conservative project, cited by its defenders, are part of the cut and thrust of politics. These are mainly elections and circumstances created by the opposition. Did Cameron expect to be able to govern in a vacuum? Did he think that the Labour Party would just allow him put his grand, but ill defined, vision in practice?
We have to evaluate governments on what they do, not what they say or what they intended to do in an ideal world. The Tories have introduced the Bedroom Tax, penalising benefit recipients whose family members die, which is the opposite of compassion. The Tories have created a blame culture which accuses the unemployed and disabled of being scroungers. People with bad luck who lose their jobs or who have medical and/or physical disabilities are people who need our compassion, but the Tories have created an atmosphere of accusation and imply that these people are just workshy and are therefore not deserving of our compassion.
The day to day governing of the country is filled with compromise and maybe Cameron felt these not so very compassionate moves were necessary. He may still intend on being a compassionate conservative, but I doubt this when I look at some of things Cameron attempted. Under Cameron the government proposed cutting tax relief to people in work who are struggling to get by as well as raising council rents for people in work but with low paying jobs. Surely people who are working hard but still cannot a pay their rent and put food on the table without government aid are people who need compassion. However in the eyes of the Tories the working poor and also scroungers who need to be bullied into making more money rather than being shown compassion.
In the last week Cameron has shown his lack of compassion as the Tories voted against an amendment to the housing bill to ensure that all rental properties are fit for human habitation. People living in substandard accommodation are apparently not deserving of compassion according to the Tories.
Then we come to Cameron’s greatest absence of compassion: child poverty. Even someone who blames the unemployed for being unemployed or the working poor for not having better paid jobs, must acknowledge that children are not responsibility for the poverty they are born into. The government should be compelled to tackle child poverty, to give every child in the country equality of opportunity.
Under Cameron’s government the number of children living in absolute poverty in the UK has increased by half a million Cameron’s response is to redefine child poverty as a social condition and not an economic one, thus dodging the government's obligation to tackle the issue. This is a shocking lack of compassion for children born into poverty and amount to Cameron turning his back on millions of poor children.
Cameron's flagship compassionate conservative policy is the Big Society. The most generous assessment that of this plan is that it aims to encourage ordinary people to take a stake in their community and local government and to use their expertise to improve local services by tailoring them to the needs of the community. It could be described as a plan to provide socialism without state interference. To make ordinary people care for each other and work together to improve the lives of others without the need for a draconian state that involves itself in the personal lives of its citizens.
That is when I am being generous. Most of the time I see the Big Society as a means to transfer services that were offered by the state to ordinary people and use social pressure as a means a to do this. The neo-liberal drive towards maximum labour market flexibility has created a society of workers disconnected from their communities, moving to where the work is (mainly London). The Tories have no plans to oppose this as it would involve standing up to private businesses who do quite well out of a flexible labour market. However in the towns and villages workers have vacated no one is available to look after the elderly people. The state could provide this service but that would be expensive.
Enter the Big Society. By using social pressures of the 1950s, workers are encouraged to provide social care or management expertise to cut back state run services. We will still move to where the work is, but we are supposed do our bit for Blighty while we are there and to slot into a community care, health and education network that used to run by the state. It is social democracy without the state or a lot of people working long hours and then providing care services and running schools in their free time. The time we are supposed to spend with our children or being idle for the sheer joy of it are not accounted for as they have no value. Compassion has been removed from this equation. It is the worst combination of the strict social pressure of the past and the austere state of the present.
Cameron may want to be a compassionate conservative but by victimising the unemployed, the disabled and low paid workers he is behaving like the same old nasty party that he wanted to move the Tories away from. His Big Society dream is a means to create a state that does not care for its citizens and little England nightmare of social pressure where overworked people provide the services the state used to run. This is a compassionate conservative vision of a future without leisure time or any collective responsibility.