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 carbon-neutral. 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. He wants it to be recognised not only as the defining Conservative ideology, but as a whole means to sell Conservatism successfully — the quest for which has eluded his predecessors.
When the Conservatives talk about rolling back the state, Labour have a powerful response: what will happen to those who will not be cared for by the state? Would they be left to perish by an uncaring Conservative government? So Mr Cameron intends to spell out how communities and voluntary organisations will move in as the state moves out. This is what he means by ‘rolling forward society’. But herein lies his main problem: society is not his to roll out.
‘David will come up to you, excited about what some volunteer group is doing in Birmingham, and say, “This is what we need across Britain,’’’ says one shadow minister. ‘But we have to tell him: this is not scalable. The state cannot multiply this by a hundred. It works because it’s voluntary.’ The entire point of spontaneous order is that it cannot be centrally planned. ‘Rather than thinking, in every instance, what can the state do about this or that issue, we’ll be thinking, what can society do?’ says Mr Cameron. But how does he know that society will respond?
Another problem lies in the centralising instincts which have not yet been weeded out of his decentralising plan. Take, for example, Mr Cameron’s belief that English should be taught in schools using a system called synthetic phonics. Is dictating such methods to schools not inconsistent with the promise to let teachers do their job? ‘Yes, it’s a contradiction,’ says one of his policy architects. ‘But we put it on display in the conference deliberately. We are looking for the answer.’
This brings us back to the hamburger. Should there be a framework whereby companies pay a greater price for the part they play in generating social ills — a kind of junk-food equivalent of the carbon emission trading scheme? It makes for a holistic view of politics. But as one panellist at the conference pointed out, companies pay tax precisely so that directors can focus on running the company — and leave government to worry about the social consequences. The junk-food tax was an idea which seemed to perish on the spot.
As someone who views the Cameron project with alternating enthusiasm and dismay, I left the conference feeling encouraged. Mr Cameron was there almost all day, and listened as the wackier ideas were gently rubbished, the stronger ideas praised and the weaknesses of his own proposals exposed. Better that this is done at the early stage. And the confidence to hold such a debate at all is a lux-ury not afforded to Labour. The governing party will learn its new agenda only when Gordon Brown decides to publish his ten-year plan.
At his monthly press conference on Tuesday, Tony Blair could not resist the chance to disparage Mr Cameron’s efforts. ‘I have not noticed any great critique coming that worries me,’ he said. He should look harder. The better ideas of his Labour ministers — downgrading local education authorities, and making police and local authorities more accountable — are being quietly incorporated into Conservative policies. A devastating critique of the Labour government is indeed being built. It’s just hiding in that Tory agenda with the silly name.