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”.

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 main 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.

6 October 2010, IEA blog

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