Unveiling his party’s 2010 general election manifesto, David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative Party last week put forward his idea of the ‘big society’. What Cameron branded as the modern Conservative approach deliberately distances itself from the Thatcherite mantra of individualism and emphasises the capacity of local communities to be empowered to manage key services such as schools, hospitals and police forces with only minimal state interference. The manifesto defines the ‘big society’ as ‘a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control’. At the same time the state is supposed not to retreat into a completely passive role but instead acts as a catalyst for the encouragement of individual responsibility for communal affairs. Cameron’s Conservatives want to achieve this by providing state support for voluntary groups and charities. The idea is that this would enable the latter to take over an increasing number of services that are currently run by the state.
This supposedly new ideology borrows heavily from the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ that was promoted by George W. Bush in the United States during his narrowly successful presidential campaign in 2000. During the campaign Bush tried to appeal to the widespread resentment amongst the American public against federal government bureaucracy in Washington. He portrayed himself as an advocate of self-governance and a defender of individual freedom against government interference. Similar to the current political agenda of Cameron’s Conservatives, Bush connected this with a promise to cut taxes and to reduce what he branded as government waste and bureaucracy. The role of the state was supposed to be reduced to the role of an activator of individual responsibility to enable people to help themselves and to end what was supposed to be dependence on the state. An essential part of this ideology is that essential public services like healthcare and education are best placed in the hands of private and voluntary organisations.
Centre-right parties across Europe have started to adopt this approach and are trying to sell it as something distinctively different from the laisser-faire individualism of the 1980s. From Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nicholas Sarkozy in France to Angela Merkel and her new unashamedly neoliberal foreign minister Westerwelle, centre-right governments are adopting an agenda which is deeply sceptical of an active role for the state in contemporary society. Rather than to call for radical reform of state structures they are now arguing for a new individualism which essentially results in the transfer of responsibility from the state to the individual. Some in the UK have called this the ‘DIY revolution’ (The Guardian, 15 April).
This new brand of centre-right policies poses a fundamental challenge to progressives. Since the late 1990s many centre-left governments have followed the middle-of-the-road policy of the ‘Third Way’. It maintained high levels of public spending and active state involvement in the economy and society but at the same time displayed an underlying scepticism of the efficiency of the public sector. The result was the adoption of new public management strategies in the public sector, with steadily increasing levels of means-testing, performance monitoring and a focus on target-driven results. This has helped centre-right parties in gaining electoral support for a new individualistic agenda, which is fundamentally orientated towards returning to the Thatcherite mantra of ‘rolling back the state’.
It also explains why voters across Europe are rejecting the call for greater state-driven regulation in the wake of the global economic crisis and are instead increasingly turning towards centre-right parties who promise to combine individual freedom with social inclusion by promoting greater self-responsibility. Progressives should respond to this challenge by re-emphasising the role of the state as the safeguard against irresponsible and profit-orientated market forces (like in the case of the financial industries). The progressive cause should also highlight that the state creates social cohesion on the basis of fair rules for the economic and social interaction of its citizens and support for the weaker sections of society. This demands that public services are well-funded, orientated towards the individual, flexible rather than monolithic, bureaucratic and target-driven. An electorally attractive progressive agenda for the 21st century has to rebuild trust in the state as the sum of all parts of a society and to expose the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ for what it really is: the abandonment of the principle of solidarity and the retreat into the private sphere. The ‘Big Society’ will inevitably lead to greater individualism and to the withdrawal of state support in crucial areas such as education and training, law and order and healthcare.