Alex Massie

The Tocquevillian Tories, Part 2

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Three excellent, interesting responses to the Tory manifesto from Iain Martin, Danny Finkelstein and John Rentoul. I recommend them all. And by way of folllowing yesterday's post...

It's not a libertarian manifesto by any means and it's not, contra Rentoul, laissez-faire either but it's certainly more appealing than anything produced by Labour and more relevant than the Liberals' offering. But it is, as Martin says, a considerable gamble even if, in the end, it is built on the recognisably Tory planks of Family, Community, Country...

The Cameron idea of the state is not, despite what some folk seem to think, for a small state. After five years of Cameron central government will still, I suspect, be spending 40% of GDP. Nor will this be a quiet government; on the contrary it will shout quite loudly and nag quite often. This will often be annoying.

But it does offer a vision for a more limited government that recognises that, where there is the will there can be a way for a more dispersed, diverse provision of public services and resources.

The Tories are taking the view that, despite these weary, pessimistic times, there remain great dollops of untapped social capital to be exploited. It's easy to carp that this might be fine for Notting Hill or Wiltshire but what about Nottingham or Walsall? But, actually, I suspect that opening up public services to other providers could have a greater impact in poorer communities. That's the theory anyway.

There is an over-riding principle: that people have the capacity for self-improvement and should be trusted with greater responsibilities but beyond that principle there's a very Tory lack of dogma about how this might be done. What works matters more than whether it passes any ideological litmus test. (This offers a definite contrast with the statist status quo and one should remember how the Tories have mined the likes of Saul Alinsky for useful nuggets.)

This in turn offers something that is really rather daring: the tacit admission that some things may not work and that not every new entrant to the market will thrive and that this must in turn inspire fresh approaches, experimentation and improvisation. If current provision is Public Services 1.0 it's unwise to expect that 1.1 or even Version 2.0 will fix all known issues. Indeed, improvement will bring fresh bugs with it. We know that this is how things work in the "real" world; we're just reluctant to accept this when it comes to services paid for by taxpayers.

But the alternative is not "leaving no-one behind" - the alternative is pretending that no-one is left behind. Among the advantages, conceptually at least (and I concede that for all the policy promises this manifesto is at heart a concept document) of decentralisation is both a nimbler bureaucracy and, importantly, a more honest one that can start over and think again when necessary.

That honesty extends to ending the pretence that the centralised state can effectively, or efficiently, control delivery. It can set a framework of expectation and provide means by which achievements can be measured but micro-management it not its forte.

That doesn't mean you're abandoned or that the Tories burn the safety net. If no-one comes forward to set up new schools there will in fact still be schools. The Tories are not actually proposing to leave England's children uneducated. But it does mean that the state should not necessarily be thought of as the first choice provider. Rather, it will be the guarantor and lender of last resort. A safety net, after all, should be just a safety net. An insurance, not a way of life.

It's not a perfect document by any means (not least on civil liberties) and there are plenty of inconsistencies and internal contradictions in it but it is a start and a bold one at that. Yes, there's the influence of Burke and of Toqueville and of Sunstein and Thaler but I also suspect that the Tories have been reading Elinor Ostrom too and that last year's Nobel laureate - and public choice theory more generally - has had some bearing on their thinking.

Granted, the fiscal problems the country faces are severe and one could argue that all this merry theorising is all very well and good but not hugely relevant in the Era of No Money. And doubtless there's something too that but it's also true that, as they say, one ought not to waste a crisis and, thus, if not now then when? You have to start somewhere and sometime; it might as well be here and now.

I don't know if the voters are ready for this sort of caper just as one suspects the public doesn't really want to hear any hard (and easily-demagogued) truths about the public finances. Will the Tories have the courage of their convictions anyway? And how deeply shared are those convictions? Who knows, but it would be interesting to find out...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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