From the Thatcher economy to the Cameron society

Tom Griffin
23 September 2008

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Next week's Tory conference in Birmingham will no doubt have the special buzz associated with what many see as a party on the path back to power. The new e-book Is the Future Conservative? (pdf) edited by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford provides some timely insights into where the party might take the country.

Alan Finlayson's interview with Oliver Letwin, From economic revolution to social revolution, highlights an interesting difference of emphasis with the Thatcher era.

I think there is more of a tension in Conservatism than you’re accepting. On the one hand there was the dominant aim of the Conservatism of the 1980s to push back certain social institutions and change economic institutions, and promote an economic, rationalist individualism. And on the other hand there is that other part of Conservatism which is about a care for the organic whole of society. I know how they can be theoretically reconciled, but...

It’s not a question of theory. It’s fundamentally practical. A large part of the problem of being nationally close to bust in the late 1970s was that we could not support public services and transfers of income. I don’t buy the argument that the purpose of economic reform then was merely to enrich the rich. It was to create the basis for dealing with the problems we faced. What we’ve discovered since is that economics is not enough. It’s the necessary precondition that there be a vibrant market economy if you’re to provide for those least advantaged, but it’s not enough. The last ten years has proved this.

There is a sense here that one also finds on the left, that social issues rather than economic ones are the real political battleground today.

Just as in the 1980s it was urgently necessary to allow British industry to run its own affairs and for it to become more efficient, today it is urgently necessary to let people run their own lives to a much greater degree. And I don’t think we will achieve the kind of society we want unless we do this. We have to let people make more choices for themselves, and one extremely important manifestation of this is letting people gather together to make choices about their own communities. I think there is a tide of history here which is created by an open network society and fostered by the technological revolution.

One wonders whether this emphasis reflects an economic consensus that may yet be undermined by the credit crunch.

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