Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron's Battleground against Brown: Civil Society versus the State

Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron's Battleground against Brown: Civil Society versus the State

Article excerpt

One of the most successful smear campaigns in the modern era concerns Margaret Thatcher. It was alleged that she stood for a narrow, selfish individualism without reference to wider duties and responsibilities. This claim was based in part on a single remark made by the then prime minister to the magazine Woman's Own in 1987: 'There is no such thing as Society.' Her words were ripped out of context and then distorted. Read in their full form, it was clear that Mrs Thatcher was making a profoundly moral point, fully coherent with both the Christian tradition in which she had been reared and the most generous ideals of the Conservative party which she represented.

She was saying that our most pressing problems can never be solved by an abstraction such as the state. On the contrary, we are all moral and responsible individuals. Put in concrete terms: if our neighbour is in distress, we go and help personally rather than just wait for social services to arrive.

In short, Mrs Thatcher's comment contained a profound insight into the nature of the human condition. We are not instruments of other people's will or creatures of bureaucratic convenience. We should never simply blame others, and must always take a personal and burning accountability for the world we live in.

Yet the smear against Mrs Thatcher stuck.

This was partly because there was some truth in the caricature. When she came to power in 1979, the British economy and society was so weighed down with state and trade union power that we were close to collapse. In these desperate circumstances Margaret Thatcher and her Tory party were too prone to try to redress the balance by emphasising the legitimacy of individual aspiration at the expense of wider public duties. For example, no real conservative could ever regard the frenzied materialism of City traders in the 1980s and 1990s with anything but disgust and dismay.

This meant -- as David Cameron properly acknowledged in his important speech to the Demos think-tank on Monday -- that Tony Blair had an important message in 1997. Blair came to power as the spokesman for a more capacious vision of public life.

His early speeches paid tribute to civil society in a way Mrs Thatcher's too often failed to do. In his first days in office, New Labour even put some aspects of this vision into effect through Scottish devolution and Bank of England independence. The great sadness, not just for Tony Blair but for Britain, is that the Prime Minister swiftly betrayed his rhetoric. For the first eight years -- to the despair of sympathisers like Professor David Marquand, Open Democracy's Anthony Barnett and MPs like Frank Field -- Tony Blair's guiding methodology has been a form of democratic centralism.

New Labour waged war on civil society on behalf of the state. It attacked the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the professions and universities while unleashing a vendetta against the BBC and the press. Tony Blair weakened local government, politicised the Civil Service and assaulted British institutions. New Labour treated anyone who was not at the heart of its political project with bitterness and distrust.

This yearning for hegemony and intolerance of dissent manifested itself in the micromanagement of schools and hospitals.

The Downing Street advisers David Miliband and John Birt were the architects of an insane system of targets and five-year plans (full of Stalinist resonance and perhaps not distasteful to the numerous ex-communists who have populated government since 1997) designed to bring about 'reform'. …

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