David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

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Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.

9 thoughts on “David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

  1. I’m puzzled by “McSociety” – some kind of Scots jibe? Something else? A good heading should at least be comprehensible.

  2. Excellent considered article.

    I’m sorry our scots friend was so easily distracted by a reference to the organisational system of a certain burger chain – why would anyone wish to brush over the sustained criticism of the Conservative party in the content, unless…?

  3. oldnat: I do think from the context (specific reference to franchises, “from EasyBarnet to McSociety”) that it was clear this was not some kind of attack on the Scottish people. It certainly was “comprehensible” but I make no apology for forcing you to read the article before you could appreciate it.

  4. Thanks for the explanation. I enjoyed the article and the vid was excellent! I simply missed the connection with the franchises. EasyBarnet I didn’t understand either until I googled it just now. The goings on in a London borough got no coverage here, so I’m afraid your references were rather too esoteric.

  5. I think it’s slightly flawed to equate a more redistributive and bigger spending state with a bigger one — it’s entirely possible Cameron’s referring to the Bureucracy and the dependency created by means-tested benefits as “big statist”, rather than the spending per se.

  6. How is it flawed? It is just a statement of fact. Most people – including Cameron – measure the size of the state by spend. And how can you crack down on the bureucracy but not introduce universal benefits?

    To answer my own question, you could introduce universal benefits but perhaps lower the tax threshold, but is certainly not a Tory proposal.

    The real flaw is to question the “size” of the state rather than the quality of what it does.

  7. “Most people – including Cameron – measure the size of the state by spend.”

    Do they? I wasn’t aware there was an actual way people measure the size of the state — it seems to always be rhetorical, dependent on what the person means at the time.

    “And how can you crack down on the bureucracy but not introduce universal benefits?”

    You can’t. However, you could argue that by increasing spending through universal benefits whilst reducing bureaucracy, you were slimming down the size of the State, because it would be less active despite spending more.

    Not that I think the Tories will do this, of course.

    “The real flaw is to question the “size” of the state rather than the quality of what it does.”

    I know — and I think it’s also a flaw to equate activity with spending. The State could be very redistributionist whilst being quite small — indeed, one criticism of over-large government from the left is that it tends to be *less* redistributive than more mid-sized government.

  8. I wish you were right Dave but whenever I suggest that we should spend more on XXX I get told I am an evil big statist. I have yet to meet a single rightwing libertarian agree with the supposition that more redistribution would actually lead to a “smaller” state.

    To quote Cameron’s speech on Tuesday: “Since 1997 the Government has spent £473 billion on welfare payments alone – that’s as big as our whole economy in 1988.” So yes, he does define the “size” of the state with spending.

    Nonetheless, I certainly agree that by spending more in fewer areas we could end up reducing bureaucracy and have a less niggardly state. I think it goes to the heart of the equality agenda and gets to the heart of what social liberalism is all about.

  9. “I wish you were right Dave but whenever I suggest that we should spend more on XXX I get told I am an evil big statist. I have yet to meet a single rightwing libertarian agree with the supposition that more redistribution would actually lead to a “smaller” state.”

    Yeah, I guess you’re right — consistency isn’t all that regular a feature among the right on this issue. That said, I have debated with a libertarian who appeared to be supportive of a Negative Income Tax, which I’m almost sure would work out a more expensive benefits system if it were to be the size it needed, so…

    “Nonetheless, I certainly agree that by spending more in fewer areas we could end up reducing bureaucracy and have a less niggardly state. I think it goes to the heart of the equality agenda and gets to the heart of what social liberalism is all about.”

    Definitely agreed.

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