The ‘Broken Society’ vs ‘Back to Basics’

July 21, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 3 Comments

I suspect I wouldn’t agree with CentreRight’s allonymous blogger Melanchthon on very much at all, but ever since ConHome gave him a platform for his unique brand of 16th century theology , he’s at least made for a consistently provocative read. Over the weekend, Melanchthon produced a right-wing critique of the Conservative Party’s ‘Broken Society’ rhetoric, arguing that the angle team Cameron has taken on social dysfunction is far too narrow and too focused on playing to the public’s perceived self-interest:

We often talk as if the problem about divorce, drunkenness, drug addiction, the incredible proportions of children from care going on to be criminals, and so on were problems because they cause harm to the rest of us. I understand the reason IDS and others frame the matter that way. They want to be seen to have escaped from moralising and to appeal to people’s self-interest because the moralising route seems to have failed.[…]

We must not think that the proper reason for addressing the needs of the Broken Society is only that, unaddressed, it might interfere, for a moment, with our decadent, empty and meaningless thrill-seeking. The wickedness of our Broken Society is only our own wickedness (yes, mine as well) drawn in vivid colours on a canvass large enough for all to see. It should not be that we address the needs of the Broken Society only because to do so suits our own selfish and nihilistic purposes. We must do so as part of trying to change ourselves. We must condemn the Broken Society because to do so is right and loving and good.

So by seeking to describe the ‘Broken Society’ only in terms of those ‘social evils’ which intrude upon the law-abiding majority, Melanchon essentially argues that Cameron has ripped the morality out of his crusade, creating a campaign which is more transactional than it is rooted in the values of religious conservatism. For him, the party isn’t calling for social change because it is moral and good; merely because it will save the state money & make us a little safer.

It’s a fascinating critique, and one which should remind those with a more liberal outloook of the subtle but important differences between this and the abortive ‘Back to Basics’ campaign that it superficially resembles. It is, in fact, a much cleverer creation, and one which has already resonated far more widely with the public than you saw in 1993.

Looking back, I think one of the problems with Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ speech was that it was too heavy on maudlin generalities to really capture the public’s imagination. The following passage, for example, is positively drenched in a sense of ennui, & nostalgia for some imagined golden age.

I think that many people, particularly those of you who are older, see things around you in the streets and on your television screens which are profoundly disturbing. We live in a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort. Old certainties crumbling. Traditional values falling away. People are bewildered. Week after week, month after month, they see a tax on the very pillars of our society – the Church, the law, even the Monarchy, as if 41 years of dedicated service was not enough. And people ask, “Where’s it going? Why has it happened?”. And above all, “How can we stop it?”.

Now compare that with these remarks David Cameron made in a speech last year:

“Whether it is knife crime or any other symptom of our broken society, we will repair the damage by treating not just the symptoms but the causes too. I want the strength of our commitment to inspire faith; faith that our present social breakdown is not inevitable; that this is not a one-way street, faith to replace the disbelief we feel as it dawns on us that we are living in a country where being stabbed is no longer the dark make-believe of crime fiction but the dreadful reality of our children’s daily lives.

“And there is a thread that links it all together. The knife crime. The worklessness. The ill health. Above all, the wasted lives: “A sixteen year-old boy stabbed in north London; a sixty year-old man sitting around in Easterhouse who’s never had a job. A twenty-eight year-old woman stabbed in south London; a forty-eight year old woman dying from heart disease in Gallowgate.

“The thread that links it all together passes, yes, through family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools but it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.

Where Major’s rhetoric was fogged-over by vague moralising about returning to the ‘neighbourliness, decency & courtesy’ of the past, Cameron is more precise, identifying the specific symptoms of the ‘Broken Society’ and arguing that only by reducing them can we have a happier, more equitable future. Significantly, all of the social evils he lists (however indirectly) either costs the state money or causes harm to law-abiding people, and he is not asking for anything more from the British people than those things most of us already do.

Just as Major & Cameron’s ideas are framed very differently, I suspect the consequences of the two speeches will also be very different. Thanks to the fuzziness with which ‘Back to Basics’ was sold, Major unwittingly committed the Conservatives to leading the country to a kind of moral reformation. Unfortunately for him, by doing so it became fair game to scrutinise the character of his cabinet, and when a number of those ministers failed to stand up to that scrutiny, it fatally undermined the project he was trying to sell.

I think Cameron is avoiding this trap because he’s already been a lot more clear about what his ‘Broken Society’ is. He’s not asking for piety or even for the vast majority of us to change our ways of living; he’s not going to chide us for discourtesy, committing infidelity or being neglectful neighbours, since his real broken society is in the actions of the teenage mother, the drug addict and the ASBO youth. To that end, some newspaper discovering that a member of his cabinet had once smoked a spliff or comitted an affair wouldn’t undermine the project, for their actions never fell under his description of the ‘Broken Society’ in the first place. Whether it was intended or not, that’s a very clever way of avoiding the ‘hypocrisy trap’.

By suggesting that the Conservatives’ rhetoric should be based on moralism rather than the public’s perceived self-interest, I think Melanchthon’s approach is much closer to the Major approach, and is therefore at risk of suffering the same fate. Whilst the partisan in me has no problem with the Tories overplaying their hand in this way, I suspect that genuine Conservatives won’t want Cameron to change his winning strategy one bit.

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3 Comments »

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  1. It’s an interesting comparison. The Major stuff was archaic in the 1990s but reading it again now, it’s got a slightly bizarre other-worldly quality which almost makes me nostalgic for the days when it might have been a serious political position.

    The Cameron stuff is Cameron at his most unashamedly Blairite. I agree that philosophical shift is clear. Not really sure where Cameron’s line might actually lead in terms of practical policies.

  2. The Cameron stuff is Cameron at his most unashamedly Blairite. I agree that philosophical shift is clear. Not really sure where Cameron’s line might actually lead in terms of practical policies.

    Beyond wasting a lot of money trying to incentivise marriage, nor do I. I notice that Chris Grayling tried to stake out a distinct position by threatening to give ‘yobs’ a ’21st century clip round the ear’ by allowing the police to steal their mobile phones. Awful, unworkable stuff. But generally speaking, I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of space for the Tories to occupy which is to the right of Labour on law & order issues.

    Cheers for the comment.

  3. […] pm Last week I looked at the Conservative crusade against the ‘broken society’, and pondered why that campaign had found resonance where John Major’s ‘back to basics’ had failed. […]


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