Compassionate Conservatism and the Big Society (Dissertation Chapter 2)

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”
(David Cameron, July 2010)

As discussed in the previous chapter, David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party appears to have marked a shift in the Party’s ideological underpinnings. This shift to a more compassionate conservatism is perhaps most evident in the launch of the Big Society, which has become an important feature of the Coalition government’s policy proposals. The Big Society agenda has been described perhaps somewhat contradictorily as radical yet remaining firmly in line with Tory tradition. This suggests simultaneously both a fundamental shift in Conservative social policy compared to that of the last 30 years and also a return to a more traditional form of conservatism. This chapter will explore these ideas and analyse the Big Society agenda before concluding whether this central example of compassionate conservatism does indeed mark a fundamental shift in Conservative social policy.
David Cameron is often regarded as responsible for changing the direction of the Conservative Party towards a compassionate conservatism; however, the discomfort with neo-liberalism and the desire for a new conservatism can be traced back at least to 1992 (Dorey,2010). David Willetts, Conservative MP, played a key part in debates regarding the ideological direction of the Party. In 1994, he produced the Civic Conservatism pamphlet, which marked the first considerable shift in recent Conservative thought. Willets’ expressed a lack of confidence in the key neo-liberal policy on free markets and stated that they could not be relied upon to solve social problems. What was needed instead, he argued, was collective action and the reinvention of Burke’s ‘little platoons’ which would enable local organisations and community groups to solve social problems (King, 2011). An acceptance of neo-liberal conservatism, however, persisted during this period as the Conservatives had achieved their fourth consecutive general election success.

It was not until almost a decade later, when the Conservatives were heading for their third consecutive general election defeat, that the need for change was recognised. Key Conservative MPs, such as Damian Green and Oliver Letwin, expressed concern for the widening inequality gap which they understood was caused mainly by the neo-liberal policies of the Thatcher era. They suggested that the Conservative Party should aim to revive ‘neighbourliness’ and shape policy towards supporting local institutions to enable the creation of a multi-agency approach to tackling social problems (King, 2011). Whilst there were calls for the creation of a more civic society and a move away from neo-liberalism, this did not mean a reigning in of the free markets or an expansion of the welfare state.

Arguably, the most significant indicator of a fundamental change in Conservative thought with regards to social policy was the publication of Iain Duncan Smith’s Breakdown Britain and subsequent Breakthrough Britain reports. Breakdown Britain (CSJ, 2006) identified five ‘pathways to poverty’ and examined how the third sector may be supported in offering more help to the most disadvantaged in society. The report also distinguished between the welfare state and the welfare society; the latter referring to individuals, families, community and voluntary groups which provide welfare outside of statutory services, and were implicitly stressed as the most desirable form of welfare. The report also explored poverty in relative terms rather than absolute terms which too marked a distinctive change in the Conservatives’ approach to social policy as it essentially signified an acknowledgement of the need to control inequality.
The follow up report, Breakthrough Britain (2007,CSJ), set out a number of policy proposals aimed at tackling the perceived breakdown of society which has created an underclass characterised by ‘dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown’. Policy recommendations included strengthening the welfare society through greater decentralisation, the contracting out of services and the expansion of the role of the third sector in delivering services at a local level. It is fair to state that these reports appeared to cement the modernisation of the Conservative Party and fundamentally shift it away from its neo-liberal Thatcherite legacy.

Although a fundamental shift had occurred in the Party towards a compassionate conservatism this was not fully recognised until the launch of the Big Society. The Big Society, although encapsulating many aspects of the proposals set out by the aforementioned Conservative MPs, was formally established and influenced by Philip Blond, who, through his writings on Red Toryism, attracted the attention of David Cameron. Blond criticised neo-liberalism and argued that the free markets had led to the breakdown of the moral fibres of society, and further claimed that Thatcher had abandoned large parts of the British population ‘to a life of permanent unemployment’ (Blond, 2010). Under Thatcher, inequality increased at an alarming rate and the incomes of the poorest 10% in society declined by 18% whilst the incomes of the richest 10% increased by 61% (ibid). Blond also put forward the argument that neo-liberalism, in its attempts to liberate society from the state, actually made the state more powerful whilst rendering local organisations and communities redundant (ibid). Blond proposed that the Conservatives should ‘develop a full blooded “new localism” which works to empower communities and builds new, vibrant local economies that can uphold the…civic vision’ (Blond, 2009).

Despite being at the heart of the Conservative Party’s vision for change, the Big Society was not mentioned until 2009. In a speech at the Hugo Young lecture, David Cameron announced his alternative to big government, the Big Society (Cameron, 2009). Reiterating the findings of Philip Blond and Iain Duncan Smith, Cameron emphasised a new compassionate conservatism. Attempting to distance the Party from Thatcherism, Cameron contrarily declared that there was such thing as society after all rather than only the individuals and families noted by Thatcher (1987).

The Big Society programme itself was not set out until the end of March 2010 in the Party’s manifesto, Invitation to join the Government of Britain (2010), which led some to comment that it was just a political slogan used to gain votes rather than a programme of substance (King, 2011). The Conservative Party also released the paper Big Society, not Big Government (2010) which clearly set out the Big Society agenda and arguably offered more than a political slogan whilst reinforcing the move towards compassionate conservatism. The Big Society, not Big Government paper sets out the agenda’s three main themes: public service reform; community empowerment; and the support of neighbourhoods, charities and social enterprise. Its themes offer continuity of some of the more traditional conservative principles, such as localism and civil society, which have not featured so prominently in recent neo-liberal thought.
Upon his election as Prime Minister and leader of a Coalition, rather than a Conservative government, it was thought that the Big Society agenda would be scrapped, however Cameron remained passionate about the Big Society, aiming to put it ‘at the heart of public sector reform’ (Alcock, 2010). The Agreement set out a range of policies aimed at encouraging social responsibility, philanthropy and volunteering (Pattie & Johnston, 2011) and also set out a number of initiatives aimed at empowering communities to address local issues, to run local amenities and to influence planning and development in their areas. Initiatives such as the National Citizens’ Service for 16 year olds and the creation of community leaders were included to encourage a culture change in Britain which would establish community engagement and active citizenship as a social norm. The Coalition also committed the government to supporting social enterprises, charities and voluntary organisations in a bid to open up public services to local groups which are considered to have a more personal approach towards helping the most disadvantaged in society than state services. In order for these organisations to be able to bid for state contracts, the Coalition pledged to establish a ‘Big Society Bank’ which would be financed through funds in dormant bank accounts and would enable these third sector organisations to flourish and compete more effectively against other organisations – particularly from the private sector.

These themes are underpinned by a notion of human altruism that sets Cameron’s compassionate conservatism apart from the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher years. Whilst the neo-liberal framework that has dominated recent British Conservatism holds that people are driven more or less exclusively by self-interest, the Big Society agenda explicitly assumes human nature to be more selfless and social. Here, this seemingly near polar opposite conception of human nature may be taken to mark a fundamental shift in the Conservatives’ approach to social policy, yet many remain unconvinced.
On the contrary, a number of significant similarities between the current brand of compassionate conservatism and the more neo-liberal policies of the Thatcher era can be identified. This suggests that any apparent divergence is merely superficial and that there is a closer resemblance between the two than Cameron would like to admit. Firstly, Douglas Hurd, who served as Home Secretary during Thatcher’s government, has argued that Conservative social policy was underpinned by three principles: ‘civic obligation’; the ‘diffusion of power’; and ‘volunteering’, all of which can be found to echo throughout Cameron’s Big Society agenda (Kisby, 2010) and which may indeed have influenced its creation. Secondly, whilst Big Society rhetoric emphasises its potential to expand the scope of voluntary organisations and community groups in public service delivery, it in fact opens up public services to private companies as well. This has prompted criticisms that the Big Society in reality is more a blueprint for stealth privatisation. Thirdly, Cameron’s compassionate conservatism is underpinned by a similar emphasis on individual responsibility and extends this conviction to encourage individuals to also take responsibility for their communities and local amenities (Kisby, 2010).

David Cameron has set quite an ambitious task in creating the Big Society and, if the change he promises is to be achieved, it is going to require significant investment from the Government (Alcock, 2010). Securing this investment during one of the greatest periods of austerity Britain has ever known will be one of the biggest challenges in delivering on this promise (Alcock, 2010). Indeed, the Government has already heavily cut public spending as well as funding to charities and voluntary organisations. Almost a third of voluntary and community organisations receive funding and grants from their local authorities (NVCO, online), and, as local governments have seen their grants from central government cut by a total of £1.2billion, cuts have often been passed on to funding for these organisations. This leaves one to question how these groups will create the Big Society if they cannot afford to continue providing existing services, let alone taking responsibility for delivering new ones. This weakening of the third sector’s ability to compete with private companies for public service contracts also lends support to the idea that the Big Society is a cloak for privatisation. In an apparent attempt to solve this problem, an emphasis on volunteering has featured throughout the discourse surrounding the Big Society agenda. It is unclear, however, whether this reliance upon volunteers will adequately sustain a Big Society as volunteering rates have fluctuated over the past 20 years (NVCO, online).

Another obstacle to the Big Society is the more fundamental question around whether communities even want power to be localised at all. Research shows that current levels of ‘civic activism’ are low and are not sufficient to sustain effective decision-making at a local level (Pattie & Johnston, 2011). Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (2002) also note that most people are content for politicians and bureaucrats to make the decisions. This has been described as a ‘stealth democracy’ and suggests that as long as everything is going well people are happy to leave politics to the politicians as they are too busy and have their own business to attend to (Pattie and Johnston, 2011).

It appears, then, that any shift within British conservatism and its Big Society agenda has so far been primarily rhetorical and superficial as there has been a failure to build upon the associated discourse with effective policy action. Although there has been some progress towards a more compassionate approach to policy, such as through the establishment of the Big Society Bank and the implementation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which requires local authorities to consider the social value of contracts they agree, there has also been, through the Government’s austerity measures, challenges to the Big Society as third sector organisations are struggling to maintain their level of service provision. It is, however, still early days and as the Big Society is a long term policy goal it would be unfair to fully and finally evaluate the agenda in practice.
As has been discussed in this chapter, there are a number of key challenges which pose a threat to the success of the Big Society, especially with regards to the spending cuts, and it is difficult to see the Big Society really progressing unless more resources are available. The following two chapters will continue the analysis of compassionate conservatism and will also further discuss elements of the Big Society agenda with reference to current health and welfare policy.

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