Thursday, 8 May 2008

The missing link

I re-read the article in Prospect by Danny Kruger, one of David Cameron's court that was referred to by Jon Cruddas in his speech on Tuesday night. I have to say it was a brilliantly constructed piece, intellectually dense, but nonetheless felt a bit contrived when it moved from the theory to practice. Was David Cameron's attack on supermarkets really an example of 'fraternalism' in action or did it just make a good headline at the time?

Having said that, it is clear that a substantial amount of intellectual work is being done on the right of British politics in a similar way to the 'Third Way' and 'communitarian' debates that influenced New Labour thinking in the 1990s. In fact, Kruger takes Giddens' 'Third Way' as much of his reference point for the construction of a modern conservatism.

In a nutshell (with a lot of texture removed....) Kruger argues that both the left and right of British politics have been trying to free themselves from their historical positions in politics- the left grounded in 'equality' and the right 'liberty.' Modern conservatism is based on a liberty-loving fraternity. He defines 'fraternity' quite eloquently as the 'sphere of some.' It is about small groups, cooperatives, communities, families, and so on. In other words, it is the spontaneity of civil society that provides security and prosperity. Kruger doesn't mention Burke's 'little platoons' but he could well have done. Essentially, small is beautiful but this is not the same as Conservatives pursuing an individualist 'society' (if there is such a thing in the neo-liberal creed.) It is easy to see why the Conservatives have courted the voluntary sector so effectively.

Essentially, what Kruger is attempting to do is glue the incoherence of conservatism that has been at the root of its crisis. Thatcherism has also been described as 'liberal conservatism.' It is good term because it demonstrates the crisis quite clearly: liberalism is chaotic, radical, subversive whereas conservatism is about stability, continuity, and certainty. Thatcherism unleashed market forces and in so doing tore apart the very type of society that conservatives hold dear. That societal damage was the source of new Labour's intellectual and political opportunity.

So does fraternalism provide the glue? Is it the missing link between liberalism and conservatism? Well, let's just take what David Cameron has been saying about poverty. He wants to combat poverty but asserts that the old statist solutions have failed. So in a new alliance with the voluntary sector mixed with some conservative tax allowances to promote marriage, hard-core poverty will be tackled. But the problem with this analysis is that a lot rests on the ability of the voluntary sector to meet these expectations. The work of the voluntary sector is critical but its weaknesses are obvious: capacity, comprehensive coverage, and variable performance. I'm not saying that the state doesn't have some of these weaknesses also but there is a danger of relying too much on the voluntary sector to achieve enormous social policy goals.

Perhaps the Conservatives are aware of this? Perhaps that is why they have lowered the bar on the definition of poverty from 60% of median adult earnings to 40%?

So the critique of the new conservatism can't be that it's just superficial or it's not real. It is. The better criticism, and this was a line pursued by James Purnell on Tuesday, is that it is wistful and ultimately won't achieve the aims it sets for itself. It can't deliver in other words. To make that argument effectively, Labour has a great deal of thinking to do itself.

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