As with David Cameron before her, Theresa May took office as Prime Minister offering a government for all, rather than for the ‘privileged few’. Hugh Bochel reflects on the fate of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ during the Coalition government, and asks if it provides any clues as to how the May government might address social policy.
Both before and following his election as leader, Cameron and his allies sought to portray the Conservative Party as different from how it had been widely perceived under his immediate predecessors. In particular, they suggested that on a variety of topics, particularly in relation to social issues, such as the NHS, inequality, social mobility and family structure, the Conservative Party would take a different approach. However, the extent of any new or different approach by the Conservatives and the Coalition government have been widely questioned.
One of the major challenges in seeking to understand ‘compassionate Conservatism’ is the range of broadly interchangeable terms that were used by leading Conservatives, their critics and commentators to describe such ideas, including ‘civic’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ Conservatism. Here the term is used for those positions that implied an approach to social issues that differed from a primarily neo-liberal approach to economic and social policy and from Thatcherism, with proponents including David Willetts, Greg Clark, Jeremy Hunt, and even Iain Duncan Smith after his ‘epiphany’ in Glasgow. Critics, however, noted that while talking about social issues and policies in a different way, Cameron and his allies continued to promote ‘traditional’ Conservative views on subjects such as crime and families, and to emphasise taking responsibility from the state and giving it to individuals, families and communities, while following the financial crisis there was a rapid shift towards massive reductions in public spending.
Compassionate Conservatism in this period has frequently been seen as an electoral tool, which, with the combination of symbols and substance associated with it, was useful in the attempt by Cameron and others to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative Party, while also helping, both in opposition and in government, with critiques of Labour’s (and indeed the Liberal Democrats) position, and highlighting differences with Labour on the role and responsibilities of state, individuals, communities and society.
Others have argued that such ideas were largely restricted to a small group within the parliamentary Party, with surveys of parliamentarians and the Party outside Parliament suggesting a general lack of enthusiasm for compassionate Conservative ideas, while an apparent hardening of public attitudes towards poor, and particularly unemployed people, may have reduced pressure in support of more compassionate policies. A further take on this is that it was different groups talking about somewhat different things, albeit in broadly similar language, so that while the compassionate Conservative ideas coming from people such as David Willetts, Iain Duncan Smith, Philip Blond and Jesse Norman, in addition to Cameron, could be seen as having similarities, they could easily be interpreted very differently.
Credit: photo from Policy Exchange, via a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence
It has also been suggested that compassionate Conservativism was effectively overwhelmed by the financial crisis, which pushed such ideas off the agenda, although the willingness of Cameron and others to demote compassionate ideas and policies in favour of neo-liberal cuts in public expenditure, especially for some of the poorest sectors of society, together with (largely unsuccessful) attempts to replace state provision with the Big Society, suggests that any ambitions for compassion were strictly limited (although it is, perhaps, worth noting the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, despite considerable opposition within the Conservative Party, and the protection of NHS spending and of pensioners – although the latter may have reflected perceptions of electoral realities as much as any commitment to a compassionate approach).
It is also worth noting that there may be particular interpretations of what being ‘compassionate’ might mean in policy terms. Duncan Smith, for example, has said that: ‘There is nothing compassionate about increasing dependency by spending more of taxpayers’ money to sustain someone in a lifetime on benefits. No, Conservative compassion is about getting someone back to work, taking the tough choices to move someone clear of the benefits system’. Others have noted that the views of many compassionate Conservatives on subjects such as ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice’ emphasised individual freedom, responsibility and success, rather than egalitarian principles, and fairness to taxpayers as much as to recipients of benefits and services.
From a rather different perspective, it might argued that such ideas did have a significant influence on the policies that the Conservative Party pursued as part of the Coalition government, but were little talked about. Possible examples to support this view might include, in addition to same sex marriage and spending on the NHS and pensioners, as noted above, the increase in the UK’s international aid to the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP, the raising of the personal allowance for income tax, and the introduction of the Pupil Premium in schools. However not all of these initiatives, or their outcomes, would necessarily be seen as fair or compassionate by many, or as being introduced due to the Conservatives. In addition, the protection of spending in some areas meant larger cuts in others, including much of local government and social care, and working-age benefits. Meanwhile the ‘work capability tests’ for Employment and Support Allowance, and in particular the handling of the work by some private contractors, was seen as harsh even by many Conservative MPs.
Given these arguments – many of which, if not all, have overlapping elements – it is perhaps most useful to see compassionate Conservatism during this period as complicated and multi-faceted, and as both a rhetorical construct intended to help the Conservatives back into government, and as a real driver for policy change (which may, to a greater or lesser extent, have been affected by the financial crisis and its aftermath). The differences in and between the individuals and groups promoting such ideas also help explain why, for many commentators, ‘compassionate’ ideas were reflected only to a very limited extent in Coalition government policies. Following from that, unless Theresa May has a very clear and coherent commitment to developing policies that reflect the rhetoric from her first few weeks in office, it may, perhaps, be expected, particularly with Brexit likely to dominate the political agenda, that the latest claims to a ‘One Nation’ approach within the Conservative Party may meet the same fate as compassionate Conservatism under the Cameron governments.
Note: this post is based on the author’s recent co-authored article in British Politics.
Hugh Bochel is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Lincoln. He has published widely on many aspects of public and social policy, including edited collections on The Conservative Party and Social Policy (Policy Press, 2011) and The Coalition Government and Social Policy (Policy Press, 2015, with Martin Powell).