Modern politicians often sound as if they are speaking the same desiccated, drearily technocratic language. That has been true for much of this campaign, but, for all that, there have been some conceptual and rhetorical innovations, and even phrases that appear to be the freshly minted coinage of spin doctors and campaign managers turn out to be made of older metal than we might have expected.
THE BIG SOCIETY
David Cameron's big idea of the campaign is the "big society". This was launched with some fanfare at the end of March at an event in London, and made it into the Conservative manifesto. Three weeks later, it was being buried by Cameron's colleagues, one of whom said, "We need to turn Oliver Letwin's Hegelian dialectic into voter-friendly stuff." (Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department, has a PhD in philosophy.)
That shadow minister meant to dismiss the idea, but in doing so he revealed a finer appreciation of the philosophical antecedents of the "big society" than he might have wanted to admit to. For what Hegel called, in his Philosophy of Right, "civil society"--the stage "which intervenes between the family and the state" -looks very much like the network of voluntary organisations to which the Tories propose to "redistribute power" as they seek to weaken the power of Labour's big state.
There's no reference to Hegel in the Tory manifesto, but there is an allusion to one of the founding fathers of conservative thought, Edmund Burke. The "institutional building blocks of the Big Society", the document reads, "[are] the 'little platoons' of civil society".
"Little platoons" is a phrase that occurs in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the classic expression of conservative scepticism about large-scale attempts to transform society in the image of abstract ideals. The Tories today use it to refer to the local associations that would go to form a "broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation".
The problem is that, for Burke, little platoons weren't groups that you volunteer to join; they were the "social subdivisions" into which you are born--the kind of traditionalism you would have thought Cameron's rebranded "progressive" Conservatives would want to avoid.
The Conservatives have promised to create an army of "community organisers", an idea with a somewhat less predictable ancestry: it derives from Saul Alinsky, denounced by the ultraconservative commentator Melanie Phillips as an "extreme" leftist. Alinsky was a formative influence on Barack Obama.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are as enthusiastic as the Conservatives about "communities". In a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society on 26 April, entitled Why the Right Is Wrong, Gordon Brown wrote that "liberty entails ... engagement in the community, not shutting oneself off in a totally private sphere", a formulation whose debt to the Edwardian "New Liberalism" of L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson Nick Clegg would have recognised.
The communitarian inflection to much of Labour's rhetoric is a reminder, too, of the influence that the German-American social theorist Amitai Etzioni briefly enjoyed in the mid-1990s over Tony Blair.
Etzioni's influence is also evident in the new version of Clause Four of Labour's constitution that Tony Blair imposed on the party in 1995, asserting that "the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". Echoes of Etzioni's idea mat "for the ship of state to progress everyone must pull the oars" can be detected in the emphasis that all three party leaders place on "fairness".
Clegg has described fairness as an "essential British value", while Cameron has frequently appealed to notions of "fair play" when invoking ordinary voters who "abide by the rules" and "do the right thing". …