Saturday, September 27, 2008

If it is broken, who broke it?


The playwright David Edgar wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian yesterday, reminding us of the truths behind the Tories sloganising over Britain's broken society and providing a clear warning of the future path that a Conservative government may take in a reversion to a socially conservative agenda.
As will be very clear in Birmingham next week, the Conservatives continue to lay claim to ownership of the "broken society" in the former, positive sense. The party wants us to believe it has both the will and the policies to tackle teenage pregnancy, family breakdown, drug abuse, sink estates and antisocial behaviour, and that Labour doesn't. What they don't want us to think is that any of this is their fault.
He points out the links to John Major's back to basics campaign of the early 90s and an earlier critique of the causes of the 1981 riots, pinning blame on social mores from the 1960s.
Major defined the "core values" he wanted to get back to as a belief in individual responsibility. In his contribution to the 1993 Tory conference, Peter Lilley waved his "little list" of perceived welfare scroungers who were to be targeted. And significantly, home secretary Michael Howard used his speech to counter claims - made, incidentally, by Tony Blair - that crime was the result of government policies.

In his July 7 speech, Cameron echoed the 80s campaign by blaming social breakdown on "a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline", insisting that poverty, social exclusion and obesity resulted from "the choices people make". A week later, George Osborne clamped the campaign directly to economics; by placing unwarranted demands on the state, the broken society is delaying the achievement of a "low-tax economy". So, there it is. The poor are ripping off the rich. It's all their fault.

Easy to advance when unemployment is concentrated among an isolated underclass, this argument is harder to sustain in an era when millions are threatened by the irresponsibility of the rich. Britain's poverty, poor health and low life expectancy are concentrated in those parts of the country whose means of economic existence were destroyed by the 1979-97 Conservative governments, demoralising whole regions, destroying social institutions and breaking up families. The growing economic divide that the Tories now complain about is between the victors and victims of 18 years of Thatcherism. Yes, Labour should have done more to reverse it. But if it's broke, it's the Tories what broke it. In the pottery barn sense, it's theirs.
I'm not convinced that harking back to the errors of the 79-97 Conservative government or even just focussing on the divisive force of Thatcherism is an election-winning strategy. Cameron has come a long way down the road of detoxifying the Conservative brand. Certainly, the front men for this revolution talk a good game - they
are genuinely comfortable with multiracial Britain and concerned about the environment; that on issues of gender, sexuality and social mores, they know the tune as well as the words
So, I'm not convinced that the general public would buy into a campaign attacking the Tories in the same way that they attacked Blair with the infamous Demon Eyes campaign. Behind Cameron, of course, is a whole bunch of rather more unsavoury characters - not just the unreconstructed thuggish wing of the Party - but the radical free marketeers, who maintain a belief that even in times of crisis, individual responsibility is the only way to go, rather than recognising that in crisis, we need to band together to sort problems out. Let's not call them out on what they used to spout, but let's challenge them on what they propose now and what their thinkers are considering. Policy Exchange were swiftly frozen out when they proposed a controlled evacuation of the North, relocating grateful northerners down to Oxford, Cambridge and London. That may not have chimed with Cameron's charm offensive on the North, but Policy Exchange represents the direction of travel for the Conservative party at the moment. The neocons may be on the retreat in the US, but they are rising in the UK - be warned.

The 80s were all about the 'me' generation - a habit that has been hard to break. Labour has restored some of that belief in the value of 'we' - some problems are too big for individuals to resolve and that they may need help. Big problems needs big government to help individuals. The Tory line seeks to abandon people to the outcome of their own decisions as they apply a form of social darwinism. Labour recognises that people need help and the fundamental truth that 'by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone' and that is a principle worth repeating and defending.

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