Magazine article The Spectator

'Social Responsibility' Is a Bad Name for a Good Idea: Cameron Is Truly on to Something

Magazine article The Spectator

'Social Responsibility' Is a Bad Name for a Good Idea: Cameron Is Truly on to Something

Article excerpt

How much does a hamburger really cost? Within this question, as one of David Cameron's senior advisers explained to me, lies the Conservatives' new driving philosophy. A Big Mac costs £1.99. But if children guzzle too many they become obese and inflict a burden on the National Health Service.

The taxpayer funds this treatment -- so the burger costs more than the child's family originally pays. Might a responsible Tory government ensure the child pays what the burger truly costs?

In an underground auditorium on the Strand on Monday, Mr Cameron convened a one-day conference to discuss such issues.

Speakers were lined up and copies of a book of his speeches were piled up outside.

The purpose of the gathering was to promote and discuss what he declared is 'the big idea for the Conservative party in this decade and succeeding decades'. He calls that idea, as he did at last year's Tory conference, 'social responsibility'. It will, the Tory leader says, involve a 'revolution' in personal, parental and corporate behaviour. And however ridiculous it may sound, it is here to stay.

For some time now, Mr Cameron has been trying to articulate the ideological thread which he says runs through his speeches. It is a personal and political faith in the power of non-state actors: the voluntary group which tackles deprivation, the company which decides to go carbonneutral. Such protagonists on the social stage, he believes, help Britain in a way which yet more government legislation cannot. So, as Prime Minister, his core activity would lie not in lawmaking but the empowerment and encouragement of such groups and individuals.

Nothing annoys him more than the suggestion that all this defies conservative principles. 'Social responsibility' is the rather awkward name which he has given to what Hayek called 'spontaneous order' and Burke called 'little platoons' of civil society. Mr Cameron's agenda for governing Britain involves nurturing and liberating them. The promotion of responsible companies and self-organising voluntary groups of people is Mr Cameron's grand projet.

It is an idea whose genesis lies in his friendship with Steve Hilton, now his chief lieutenant at Conservative headquarters.

Before Mr Cameron had become an MP, Mr Hilton was successfully selling the idea of social responsibility to companies that wished to improve their image. He formed a consultancy called Good Business and published a book of the same name in 2002. To anyone who has followed the Cameron project, the examples it deploys are strikingly familiar.

It tells of a hated oil company which needs to persuade customers it has ditched its nasty old ways. So it changes its logo, develops a pro-environment agenda and embraces social responsibility. First, people snigger. Then they accept it has changed.

When asked about the striking parallels between Good Business and Mr Cameron's speeches, Mr Hilton says it is no accident.

His book, he says, was inspired by their conversations over 15 years of friendship.

But while 'social responsibility' is accepted in the jargon-infested world of company boardrooms, it is a trickier sell in politics.

'Empowering people' may be clearer -- but Mr Cameron is adamant that he will not change the phrase. It may seem nebulous now, and a hopeless campaign slogan, but he will keep on using it until -- he hopes -- it takes root in political discourse. …

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