Last Thursday the Institute for Government hosted a discussion entitled “The Future of Conservative Thinking”. The heavyweight panel consisted of Nick Boles MP (a member of Cameron’s inner circle), Phillip Blond (Director of Respublica), James Forsyth (Deputy Editor of the Spectator), and Jonty Olliff-Cooper (part of Demos’ Progressive Conservatism Project).
Big Society Is My Society
Jonty Olliff-Cooper kicked off the evening by saying Cameron’s goal should be to become the weakest Prime Minister we have ever had. By this he meant the Conservatives enacting the spirit of one of their campaign chants: “Power to the People”. Citizens must become authors of the services they use and reconnect with the processes that impact on their surroundings. Labour’s addiction to legislation created a mood in society where people no longer believed they could be a part of government-run initiatives. If something was the responsibility of the state it was no longer the responsibility of any individual. Why should I pick-up litter in the street? It’s too much hassle to report that bit of graffiti at the end of my road. And so on.
All those in positions of authority, whether they are ministers of state or local council executives, need to change the prism through which the policy formation process takes place. Those who have the resources need to consider how their decisions will enable people rather than how they exclusively can deliver a solution. The role of government is to make engagement easier. The environment in which intellectual officials come up with abstract solutions for problems of which they have no practical experience must change. The workings of Whitehall, and city halls, must evolve into a culture where decisions are made based on getting users to solve the problems they face. Successfully reducing the size of the state apparatus in the long-term is all about reducing the demand for government intervention.
For Jonty, if in five years time the word ‘government’ has been separated from the word ‘bureaucracy’ then Cameron can rightly claim he has presided over a truly transformative regime.
A Pragmatic Politician Reacting to Radical Times
James Forsyth made the point that Cameron himself is not a particularly ideological thinker. He is a traditional organic Conservative. The combination of the electorate’s distaste for politicians and the financial swamp which emerged after the credit-crunch, means that his government must be a truly reformist administration. Modern Conservatives’ big and radical ideas are driven by the huge and deep-rooted problems that were left on Cameron’s desk when he arrived at No10. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Britain’s senior mandarin first briefed Cameron on the true state of Britain and then asked “What now, Prime Minister?” The Big Society concept is a practical solution for the actual problems we face (i.e. over centralised control, unaffordable processes, disconnected solutions) and for dealing with the deep-rooted symptoms of alienation, disempowerment and apathy.
The two most interesting areas to observe if you are a watcher of ‘modern conservative thinking’ will be welfare reform and how different sections of the party react to the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum. On the latter point, James is convinced that at least one Tory cabinet member will campaign for AV, though he did not speculate as to whom this might be. The great unknown is whether this coalition will be an aberration in UK political history and if, in five years time, we will all return to standard first-past-the-post politics, or whether coalitions will become more common. The answer to this question will shape the future of our politics.
Can you transplant a think-tank into a ministry? Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has been working on welfare reform for over six years at his think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice. Most governments say they want to reform the welfare system only to back out when hard decisions have to be taken. The economic situation means that delay in reforming welfare is not an option if we want to live in a solvent country. Like AV, welfare has the potential to really test the foundations of the Coalition, as Conservatives and Lib Dems tend to have competing philosophies around what is important in this area.
21st Century Social Conservatism
Nick Boles MP has always been interested in how Conservatives reconcile their socially conservative instincts with a world where social liberalism has become engrained in our culture. One of the most radical advancements ‘Team Cameron’ has made is to fundamentally modernise social conservatism by making it relevant to our times. For me this shift in mindset can be best described as Conservatives focusing on promoting values to all rather than making moral judgements about some. The institution of marriage has many benefits for the individuals involved and society as a whole. These benefits should be accessible to anyone who wants to make the necessary commitment, thus it’s natural for Conservatives to be strong supporters of civil partnerships.
Nick confirmed that current Conservative thinking is a reflection of the culture of this country. Despite its wealth, Britain is not often at ease with itself. People need to be encouraged to gain understanding of their environment through talking to one another. Side-ways communication is the glue that can hold our country together and government should concentrate on making these side-ways chats happen. Some might say it is a paradox that you need the state to foster the ‘Big Society’ idea but this is only a paradox if you believe the state in all its forms is bad. The state is not bad; it was just deployed badly under New Labour. Unfortunately, certain areas of the state will be resistant to a change in mindset but like any careful gardener the government should prune obstructive branches in order to let the good parts blossom.
Tapping Into The Power of Trust
The big unknown in Conservativism is discovering the next economic model. The Cameron agenda was created in a different economic framework when everyone thought the argument over which economic system should be adopted had been won by free-marketeers. ‘Sharing the proceeds of growth’ was transformed by the financial collapse of 2008 into ‘we are all in this together’. A new sustainable economic system needs to be developed, one which allows everyone to take part in society. George Osborne has adapted his economic beliefs since the credit crunch. His team are now exploring the idea that there should be a prominent role for Government in supporting particular growth industries. Rather than subsidising individual companies, Conservatives may offer resources towards promoting specific industries. Depending on how this is done the Tories could mend the relationship that Thatcher obliterated with the mechanical North and Scotland.
Phillip Blond is adamant that free association, through non-state civic groups, can offer the UK a new economic model that has the potential to include everyone. The current systems are corrupted so any political movement that wants to be relevant must ask itself what went wrong and why the West is no longer developing. New politics and new economics will have the greatest chance of success if they are born in relationships that are based on trust. One of the roles of Government needs to be in creating open trust networks where people do not need bureaucracy because there exists ethos and intimacy. Those who cynically dismiss the possibilities of this happening should look at Zopa, the person-to-person lending service, or E-bay, the on-line auction house. In a system such as E-bay a person’s trust rating is often worth more than a single financial transaction. This fact and the innate human desire to live in a fair and orderly society means that 135 million people each year give money to complete strangers for products they mostly have never seen. By tapping into the nature of trust it should be possible to significantly reduce transaction costs.
Phillip predicts that the Coalition will deliver mass mutualism because our future relies heavily on the success of relationships in economic environments.
The Future Of Conservatism Is Now
I left the event with many thoughts buzzing round my head, and two overriding conclusions:
- Conservative thinking is very much of importance now. The Tory leadership does not have much time to reflect as the responsibility of power demands that Cameron puts in place a strategy to deal with the issues this country faces. Conservative thinking in the future will be a reaction to the success and failures of what is done today.
- Progressive Conservative ‘think-tanks’ need to become ‘do-tanks’ if they are to keep their relevance. Organisations that believe in the Big Society and Post-bureaucratic age agendas should now be able to put their thinking into action as the Government is keen to devolve responsibility to outside Government organisations. It’s now time for those who talk the talk to walk the walk.
In a year’s time, the Institute for Government should reconvene this discussion under the updated title: “The Future of Conservative Doing”.