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Where has the Broken Society gone?

I was reading this rather snazzy looking document entitled Labour’s Legacy over on the Conservative website. It concerns itself entirely with the state of the economy, and lists a few of the things Conservatives clearly feel are important enough for them to reiterate whenever the opportunity presents itself. Which is fair enough. After all, if the Tories are to push through their plans to pay down the deficit, possibly damaging their (somewhat limited) popularity in the process, then the best way of providing the necessary covering fire for doing so is by highlighting just how dire the finances allegedly are, and how irresponsible Labour were for having let things get so bad in the first place.

But the document is far more interesting for what it doesn’t say, than what it does.

When the Tories were flying high in the opinion polls, they had a popular and coherent narrative about a Broken Society. They hadn’t, at that particular time, settled on any kind of cure, but their diagnosis, however much some thought it unfair or inaccurate, nonetheless resonated with a large chunk of the electorate who waited eagerly to hear what solutions the Tories proposed. The recession changed all that, and blew the Tories away from their Broken Society narrative and into the realm of budgetary cuts and the (still raw) memories of the Thatcher years. The polls narrowed and the Tories lost the unlosable election – though the reason for that loss is something that will keep political obsessives debating for years to come. And now, as with this document, one barely hears the phrase at all. All political talk is about reducing the deficit, generating growth, paying off debt, and avoiding falling into the same trap again in the future.

Which is wholly understandable, but not wholly necessary. Put simply, the economic agenda needn’t be cut from the social vision that once distinguished the Tories from their political opponents, not least because it is patently obvious that the two things are very much two sides of the same coin. The broken ideology that has guided our approach to the markets is much the same as the broken ideology that has guided our approach to the state, and both of them are the broken ideologies that have guided our approach to society. Debt, state power, tax, the markets, growth – all of these things form a small part of that scattered jigsaw puzzle that the Tories were once bold enough to address.

So why the apparent abandonment of the project? Why limit the scope merely to our economic poverty, and not our increasing social poverty?

Well, I think it’s three things. Firstly, David Cameron is and always has been a committed social liberal, instinctively opposed to socially conservative policies (as his wobble on marriage tax support initially illustrated, and his eagerness to ditch it post-election merely confirmed). In fact, he openly derides social conservatism. This meant that his talk of the Broken Society always seemed to come with a caveat, a clarification, or an escape clause, and this cost him in the credibility stakes.

Secondly, the coalition has meant that the LibDems, who are essentially socially liberal but split between fiscal conservatives and fiscal lefties, have been able to neuter the social conservatism that underpinned much of the Broken Society narrative.

And thirdly, many Conservatives are modern day disciples of Thatcher, meaning they care much more about the fiscal wealth than they do about ‘social wealth’ – indeed, some even think that the former is the prime generator of the latter. Additionally, even when evidence is produced to underscore the economic benefits of promoting certain socially conservative policies, their commitment to an emaciated account of ‘freedom’ precludes them from supporting such moves. In short, they conflate their conservatism with libertarianism, and in doing find social liberals to be affable bedfellows.

Which means that the Conservatives run the very real risk of confining their vision to the economic and in so doing simply resurrecting all those caricatures that they have tried so hard to shed. Worse, there is every danger that such a narrow approach may well exacerbate that very social breakdown that they have previously claimed to be so pernicious, a consequence that remains the prime accusation levelled against Thatcher – if this happens, after such forthright talk of the Broken Society and, latterly, the Big Society, then the Conservatives will come, in a very short space of time, to be every bit as despised as Labour were towards the end of their own, in the end inglorious reign.

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