Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Tories on social justice: back to the future

Just when you think that the Tories have changed, along comes a sharp reminder that there is a Thatcherite instinct lurking within. Tim Montgomerie, Editor of ConservativeHome, argues that the Conservatives are becoming the home of social justice.

Montgomerie's argument is without content. It is a broadside at the deeply ingrained social problems that we face with some random policy solutions. Quite why this claims the mantle of the 'party of social justice' is beyond explanation. If this is representative of the depth of thinking in the modern Tory party then Labour can breathe a little easier.

What are these 'values' to which Montgomerie refers? Take 'commitment to the family' as a case in point. Well, this is just as much an outcome as a cause of deprivation. Of course it is desirable that kids are brought up in a stable home environment. That stability can not be legislated for or incentivised using the tax system. Instability at home is corollary of unstable communities characterised by casual labour, uncertain futures, an absence of hope and self-confidence, and infected with organised as well as petty crime. It's all well and good discussing family breakdown as a adjunct of 'social breakdown' but a hectoring approach will reap few if any rewards. It may actually cause more harm than good.

Into the fray, enter the Leader of the Opposition stage left. Previous posts will demonstrate that I take the intellectual and political challenge posed by the new Tories deadly seriously. Yesterday David Cameron announced that the Tories will issue sentencing guidelines that anyone convicted of a knife crime should receive an automatic custodial sentence. The vast majority already do of course. What was interesting though was the language that David Cameron is now deploying:

"We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion - it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.

"Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

"There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong.

"We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said.

"We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.

"Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.

What is this if it isn't Thatcherite moral posturing? More seriously, it is yet another attack on the public sector which actually has a fundamental role to play in fighting knife crime. Instead, Cameron is going to rely on the likes of Ray Lewis to deliver his social policy.

Self-styled community leaders and reformers are a mixed bag, some are inspirational for sure but you never quite know what you are dealing with. Working alongside the police, social services, the schools, and local authorities they can be effective. To contract your entire welfare policy to them, without proper vetting or oversight, is absolutely barking mad. The impact on deprived communities will be patchy and minimal and the waste of state money will be serious.

So with their voluntary approach to social policy shaken to its foundations, the Tories have reverted to type. We are now back to hectoring the poor for being poor. Public policy ideas have a habit of coming back around every decade or so. In the Tory universe, you can watch the policy cycle on fast forward, ideas swing back around every few months. The only conclusion has to be that they haven't really decided who they are and what they are for. Whatever it ends up being, this vacillation will in no sense claim for them the mantle of the 'party of social justice' no matter how many times they assert it.

Post script: The Spectator launches a predictable attack on The Mirror's predictable attack (as the arguments are roughly similar, I guess that makes my attack predictable as well. Everyone's predictable just like the English Summer!)

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