Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Cameron, Keynes, society and responsibility.

Burke’s Corner today examines the compatibility of Keynes and conservatism, urging conservatives to re-engage with Keynesian economics. For Burke’s Corner and the thinkers which it cites, the libertarian, free market strain which has predominated in conservative politics over a number of decades is an aberration. Instead, tracing its roots back to Aristotle via Disreali, Burke and Hume, this philosophy urges emphasis on society, its cohesion and protection. It is an encouraging doctrine for someone like me who has become utterly disgusted with the statist ambitions of the Labour party, but who found previous incarnations of the Conservative party somewhat uncompassionate as regards poverty and rather intolerant in other respects.

The current Conservative leader has shown every indication of sympathy with the communitarian argument. Against charges that David Cameron is developing a touchy feely conservatism which lacks authenticity, his supporters counter that it is conservatism rooted in a deep concern for society which is more surely tethered to the authentic tradition. Uncoupling conservatism from harsh free market ideology and disinterest in those who are struggling is to return to a truer reflection of its origins. Kieron O’Hara, whose book ‘After Blair’ envisaged a route to recovery for the Conservatives which would reconnect with the party’s Aristotelian, Burkean past, examines Cameron’s commitment to that template on ConservativeHome.

O’Hara wonders whether an increased emphasis on personal responsibility, centrepiece of a speech the Conservative leader delivered during the Glasgow East by election campaign, should be interpreted as a partial abandonment of Cameron’s pledges to mend the broken society. Perhaps he was repositioning Conservative policy towards a more ‘hands off’ approach. O’Hara notes however that although Cameron was prescribing a facet of society which was broken he was not offering a solution which would fix it. The change was in rhetoric rather than policy. There are policy levers which government can operate in order to benefit society, in addition it can encourage and facilitate changes in culture and behaviour. The opposition leader can urge people to take responsibility for cause and effect in their own lives without resiling from his commitment to help in other respects.

Recently I commended Cameron when he opposed measures to force mothers of very young children to seek work. When the Tory leader says that wealthy bankers should face up to the consequences of their actions, or when he refuses to commit to tax cuts for very high earners, he demonstrates that Conservatives are committed to fair play and to real benefits for the society which they purport to cherish. Responsibility is a virtue which should be encouraged, particularly at a time when financial irresponsibility has brought the world economy to its knees. If Cameron is genuinely concerned about the social fabric of Britain he should advocate personal responsibility. By insisting that bankers are responsible for their actions in the same fashion, but with much graver consequences, than the obese, he is being both egalitarian and consistent.

O’Hara’s concerns are relevant however. By articulating a more compassionate vision of conservatism than his immediate predecessors, Cameron built a strong lead over his Labour rivals. He must be consistent in emphasising the party's commitment to society, even as political discourse becomes increasingly focussed on economic issues. That is the vision of Conservatism which is attractive to voters such as, well, me.

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