David Cameron’s conference speech lacked intellectual coherence

David Cameron’s conference speech has arguably provided observers with important insights into the ideologies helping to drive coalition policy. Worryingly, there were strong elements of collectivism and egalitarianism in the Prime Minister’s address.

His discussion of “citizenship” was highly collectivist. He spoke of leading the change from “unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose”, a phrase which could easily have been uttered by a fascist despot, while the conference’s theme is “let’s work together in the national interest”. The question we should be interested in is “who checks individualism?” – the state or ourselves individually and as voluntary communities.

Then there were the references to “fairness”, protecting the NHS, ensuring that those with “broader shoulders” bear the brunt of the deficit reduction programme (despite the fact that they have not been the beneficiaries of the public spending splurge) and that children from the poorest backgrounds go the best schools. A whole host of interventions were lauded, on regional aid, high-speed rail, carbon capture and bank lending to small businesses. Yet there was also some anti-government content in his criticisms of New Labour’s record, as well as talk of decentralisation, free schools and transferring power from the state to society, leaving an overall message that lacked intellectual coherence.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, there are several alternative interpretations of Cameron’s approach. One view is that he is genuine conservative who supports free markets but deploys the language of egalitarianism and collectivism in order to maintain the successful rebranding of the Party away from Thatcherism. A second hypothesis is that Cameron and his close confidantes are “progressives” who through an entryist strategy have successfully taken over the Party in order to move policy in a leftward direction. Another possibility is that neo-conservativism – an ideology which combines some facets of conservatism with a strong collectivist element – is influential in Cameron’s thinking. Finally one shouldn’t neglect the insights of public choice theory: there are strong incentives to satisfy interest groups as well as maintain voter support, while the need to satisfy Lib Dem coalition partners complicates matters. Ideology is often subsumed by political expediency.

However, recent policy decisions suggest that collectivist ideas are proving very influential within the Conservative-led coalition. There is a strong emphasis on redistribution, exemplified by the “fairness” agenda and by decisions to raise capital gains tax and to cut child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers, while raising child tax credit payments to workless households. Last week’s Equality Act imposed significant new costs on private businesses and was imbued with the kind of politically correct “cultural Marxism” that would have made it completely unacceptable to a genuinely conservative administration.

More generally, the first months of the coalition have been marked by huge tax rises and a raft of costly new regulations. The former might be justified by the politics of deficit reduction, but the latter signal that the new government’s economic philosophy is decidedly interventionist. If a free-market Cameron is failing to prevent new extensions of state power then this suggests weakness. If such policies have been directed from the top it suggests collectivism has poisoned the very heart of the Conservative Party.

Cameron said he didn’t believe in laissez faire; and I seem to remember Thatcher saying (at the IEA’s 30th anniversary dinner): ‘Let no one call us a laissez faire government’. (I have always regretted not shouting out at that moment: ‘No one IS calling yours a laissez faire government.’)To say: ‘Your country needs you.’ carries echoes not just of Kitchener’s appeal in the First World War, but also of Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.’In general, political leaders seem to like ambiguity, as a way of seeming to appeal to the widest possible constituency. I must admit that I shudder when I hear politicians talk of ‘fairness’.

All politicians tend to operate within a very narrow range around the centre ground. What differs is the jargon they, their friends and their enemies use to describe them. Many on the left see the current government as ‘extreme right’ and portray Mrs Thatcher as the very acme of laissez faire. I remember a discussion with an Oxford professor a couple of years ago who insisted that Gordon Brown was a laissez faire liberal. This was just after Brown had nationalised several banks. I was waiting for him to laugh, but he didn’t. What this shows though is that labels often bear no relation to actions.

Hayek always claimed not to be a supporter of laissez faire (where his teacher, Ludwig von Mises, would claim to be a supporter); but his political philosophy and ‘programme’ seemed to me to be pretty close to that. Laissez faire is not synonymous with anarchy. My shorthand definition is: government non-interference. Obviously my full manifesto would be more than two words. (I am an academic after all!) But I think that conveys the gist reasonably accurately.

I’m very interested in the use of the term ‘progressives’: in the late 19th century, Anglo-Canadian Tories meant a broadening of the ‘night watchman’ powers of the State to help the least advantaged. These programmes, such as healthcare, are now accepted broadly across the political spectrum.In America around this same time, though, progressivism took on more ominous connotations with respect to natural law and the Constitution and in relation to economic laws, as M.N. Rothbard and W.L. Anderson have shown.

David – I think/hope that rather than shudder at fairness, that Cameron is seeking to refine it to cover procedural justice, and accepting the consequences of peoples actions, and a moderate degree of support for the poor and suffering – instead of just greater equality. See for example, Jeremy Hunt on Newsnight last night once he had faffed around for a bit. The joy of ‘fairness’ is that it is all about balance, rather than having a built in rachet in one (leftish) direction.

Yes, but if when taxes have to go up, it is regarded as ‘fair’ that the better-off pay more than proportionately more; while when taxes can be cut, it’s only ‘fair’ that most of the benefit goes to the poorer, the outcome is likely to be an ever more steeply graduated tax system. Income tax top rates exceeded 90 per cent for nearly all of the forty years between 1939 and 1979. And the 1955 Royal Commission said: ‘We are bound to assume that the present tax rates are related to a present necessity of raising a given sum of money from the direct taxation of income.’ But considering whether that was the case (it wasn’t) was precisely one of the main reasons for their appointment.

Two points: 1) I’m a little confused – given that we’re having a terminology discussion – about Richard Welling’s use of ‘conservative’. The whole point of conservatism is that it seeks to defend an existing status quo/social order and will take any measure – collectivist or liberal – to do so. Thus Cameron is a genuine conservative with perfect intellectual coherence from that perspective – if you want my take, he’s a Blair character who values office-holding and protecting the status quo over any sort of ideology, ‘progressive’ or not. Hence use of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘fairness’ (in this sense of discrimination aganst the wealthy) are not so surprising given Cameron’s position.

Cameron is not a libertarian/Whig – there a precious few about – so as usual the Whigs must make cause with the conservatives in order to further their goal as the alternative (Ed Milliband et al) is far worse.
2) On the other hand, some coalition policy has been libertarian and has a liberal ideology behind it. This seems to back the thesis that this is a government of expediency not ideology (aren’t they all to a degree – especially the Tories, who thought up the 3rd way? MacMillan – we don’t even need to be aware of PCT to see that democratic govts need to appeal to voter groups!). As much as we’d love ideological purity it isn’t in the nature of democratic politics or party systems.

…sorry to go on. But I thought it was a bit strong to argue that the Tories have been poisoned by Cameron towards statism – they’ve always been a big state party (especially on law and order) just a little less big state than Labour. Once the vested interests of a big state are created it’s unlikely any party with an interest in being in government will be able or willing to do away with it except piecemeal or under the direst necessity (like now).

The Equality Act was enacted by the last government, it just happened to come into force under the new administration.Cameron’s intellectual incoherence would be complete if all he could do was just undo all the acts of the previous government. It would be like the last Labour government abolishing all the Thatcher anti-Trade Union laws.Are the same people bleating about the new restrictions on overseas working visas as the new Equality Act? You cannot have it both ways.Why not invite some contributions to this blog from beyond the current interest group? Open up minds to ideas. e.g.International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE)http://www.iaffe.or

By their defenders shall thee know them!

The main aim and concern of government should be to reduce its own range of activities.
Let’s say, cut every budget by an average of 10% over the course of a five year parliament.
And cut every tax and benefit rate by the same amount.

@Jonathan Harris – I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘the current interest group’. The restrictions on overseas working visas are another example of additional (and economically damaging) regulations imposed by the coalition. And would undoing most of the acts of the previous government – including repealing the Equality Act – really be such a bad idea? @Whig – There is more to conservatism than defending the ’status quo’ inherited from a previous government, including a belief in long-standing customs and institutions, which, importantly, include private property. A genuinely conservative government would therefore seek to protect such customs and institutions rather than undermining them with new regulations.

@Richard Wellings – clearly I didn’t mean the status quo as it exactly is (hence using the term ’social order’). It is exactly those long-standing institutions such as private property that constitute the existing social order and that Cameron is seeking to defend; clearly he has to strike a balance between defending institutions and adapting them so they don’t get destroyed altogether by political agitation (e.g. an employer’s ability to reward their employees as they see fit rather than as dictated by the state).
The problem for conservatism is that the redistributive taxes or the welfare state could also be presented as long-standing institutions customs. But do we wish to preserve…

…such traditions? As such a doctrine of conservatism has no obvious means of resolving this discrepancy (especially where two institutions are exclusive such as redistribution and property rights). That’s why Hayek was a Whig after all.
Conservatism is an inherently incoherent position – and given that Labour and the LibDems are also a basically conservative all our politics are ideologically incoherent, although this is partly necessary as most voters are the same (economically liberal and socially conservative and vice versa). The question really is whether the ‘bad’ aspects of Cameron’s govt outweigh the ‘good’ – or would you rather Labour?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.