Magazine article The Spectator

It Is Miliband, Not Cameron, Who's Confused

Magazine article The Spectator

It Is Miliband, Not Cameron, Who's Confused

Article excerpt

Ever since David Cameron's arrival, the Labour party has been trying to work out what to say about him. First they complained that the Conservative party had changed too much -- the so-called 'flip-flop' attack. Then they tried an attack from the Left, complaining that David Cameron had not changed at all -- 'still the same old Tories'. More recently, the Prime Minister has attacked the Conservative party from the Right, arguing that Conservatives talk tough but vote soft. And the Chancellor has given up attacking David Cameron at all; instead complaining that Cameron has no substance while in fact lifting a range of substantive ideas from him.

In what was no doubt an attempt to deal with this intellectual mess, David Miliband provided, in a recent issue of The Spectator, the first attempt at a serious critique of Cameron's Conservatism.

Miliband's argument can be summarised in four propositions: 1) Cameron has a big idea ('Social Responsibility'); 2) this big idea doesn't work; 3) the reason it doesn't work is because it doesn't define the boundaries between government and society in a way that reconciles social justice with individual liberty; and 4) Blairite New Labour is superior because it has a clear idea about the boundaries between government and society, based on the recognition that 'the extension of personal freedom depends on collective action'.

This argument is sufficiently serious, sufficiently mistaken and sufficiently confused to be worth deconstructing.

Miliband's first proposition is, of course, true. Cameron's 'social responsibility' is indeed a big idea. It is one of the biggest ideas that human beings have ever had -- a deep part of our intellectual heritage.

It is the idea that between government and the individual citizen there lies the multitude of relationships, from the family and friendship outwards, that forms the fabric of our lives. The power of these relationships and of the culture they embody vastly exceeds the power of government. A government that wishes effectively to guide a nation towards social justice and wellbeing must therefore do so in and through civil society. This means using government to help people take responsibility for themselves and for others -- the parent for the child, the doctor for the patient, the teacher for the pupil, the community for its own public spaces.

Now, any careful reader of Miliband will have noted that he does not actually dissent from any of this.

So we move to Miliband's second and third propositions -- that this big idea of social responsibility doesn't work as a guiding principle for government, and that the reason it doesn't work is that it doesn't define the boundaries between government and society in a way that reconciles social justice with individual liberty.

In one respect, Miliband is right here, too.

A government founded on the idea of social responsibility will not come up with a flip definition of the boundary between the state and civil society. The boundary is subject to a never-ending negotiation, a continuous search for the right balance of liberty and community, freedom and security, equality and prosperity, against a continuously changing background. Each decision about where to set the balance is one that has to be made in the light of events and circumstances.

There are, however, two clear attitudes that one can bring to these decisions. The attitude of the Brownites is 'if it moves, regulate it'. The Cameron big idea of social responsibility means starting, on the contrary, with the less arrogant attitude that politicians may cause a chain of unintended consequences if they try to direct too much. …

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