UK paperback

Built to last

A Conservative revolution

A nation is like a house. It needs a sturdy roof to keep the rain off, maybe some decking in the garden, and a set of impregnable locks on the front door. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, understands this. That is why his new “mini-manifesto” [pdf] is called “Built to last”. In an earlier, draft version of the document (still available here [pdf]), a logo capped the phrase with a roof, so:


Notice how the roof is not too pointy. It’s a friendly, reassuring roof. In concert with the slogan, reminiscent as it is of a no-nonsense Ronseal advert, the image is one of dependability. Indeed, it is probably meant to remind voters of many happy weekend hours spent in home-improvement megastores. Let’s go to Built to Last! Alternatively, it may even gesture towards the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which famously has lasted quite a long time.

I rue the passing of this evocative graphic in the final version of the document, which is in serious Tory blue and contains no visual frippery. And it uses the phrase “built to last” only once, in the leader’s foreword: “Our aims and values are built to last” – which is resoundingly vague, if not actually self-defeating. If you say your “aims” will last indefinitely, might you not be confessing that you will never actually achieve them? At any rate, the image of the country as a well-secured house subliminally persists: in the promises, for instance, to erect “proper border controls” (where, the false implication runs, none currently exist), or to defend our laws from pesky European interference by binning the Human Rights Act . . .

At the end of the draft document, Cameron originally signed a personal statement, entitled “Moving forward together”, which distinguished it effectively from the less inspirational slogans of other parties, such as “Moving backwards in a disconnected rabble”. In it, he said that the manifesto conveyed “the essence of modern, compassionate Conservatism”. It is possible that, six years after George W Bush claimed on the hustings that he was a compassionate conservative, some people have become wary of this slogan. But saying you feel compassionate is surely at least as noble as performing compassionate acts. Inspirational protestations of compassion, indeed, may even redeem policies that appear to a sceptic to be working in the opposite direction.

For example, I argued earlier this year in the New Statesman that the Conservatives’ current exploitation of the phrase “social justice” is an unspeak massage for their intention to offload some of government’s responsibility – responsibility, say, to the poor. I wrote:

The phrase “social justice” arose alongside “the welfare state”, implying that the well-being of all was the responsibility of all: a responsibility discharged through the operations of government. Yet what it describes for the new Tories is almost the opposite: an intention to farm off some of the duty of ensuring welfare to other, voluntary organisations. Under the friendly-sounding cloak of “social”, it expresses a wish to save money by abrogating governments’ duty towards the unfortunate. (Iain Duncan Smith revealed the rationale when he boasted on the Today programme a few weeks ago that he had identified “four paths to poverty”. Is no one born into poverty? Is poverty merely the result of foolishly choosing the wrong “path”? If so, perhaps the government is not obliged to correct the problem.) So “social justice”, originally conceived as a means of widening the scope of the state’s debt to its citizens, becomes recast as a means of limiting it. Used in this way, it encodes a general view that the government is separate from society: that the government should never be thought of, even idealistically, as the expression and executor of society’s wishes.

Social justice is not that boring, impersonal thing called merely “justice”: it’s cuddlier. It’s an improved, better-targeted kind of justice, but not one as heedless and foul-tasting as “instant justice”: it’s social, and social is, we all happily agree, a good thing, just as to be “anti-social” is a sin vigorously and righteously punished by the Labour government. And yet what the Conservatives mean in particular by “social justice”, as is clear in both versions of their mini-manifesto, is passing on to the voluntary sector more of society’s duties towards the worst-off. Looking after the “least advantaged”, says the final document, is not the duty of the state alone but is a “shared responsibility” with the “voluntary sector”. It is, if you will, a return to Victorian values, as once promised by John Major. Voluntary workers – those people who, weirdly, work for nothing – share responsibility with the government, to whom everyone pays taxes. Of course, those taxes are promised to come down under a Conservative government, so something has to give.

Perhaps for this reason, the party faithful did not like the draft’s dangerous evocation of “compassion”, and so all reference to compassion has been ruthlessly erased from the final document. In its place, we have an exciting new idea: that of a “responsibility revolution”:

To meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, and to satisfy people’s aspirations today, this country needs a responsibility revolution.
A revolution in personal responsibility – giving every individual the skills, the resources and the confidence to take control of their life.
A revolution in professional responsibility – giving all those who work in our public services the freedom to fulfil their vocation.
A revolution in civic responsibility – giving our neighbourhoods and communities the power to shape their destinies, fight crime and improve the quality of life.
A revolution in corporate responsibility – giving business the encouragement and the incentive to help enhance our environment and improve well-being.
That is the mission of the modern Conservative Party: a responsibility revolution to create an opportunity society – a society in which everybody is a somebody, a doer and not a done-for.

You have to admire the final play on two senses of “done-for”, equating a recipient of help with someone who is doomed. The alliterative oxymoron “responsibility revolution”, meanwhile, dilutes the violent notion of “revolution” so far that it means nothing more than “reform”: a change that, simply by virtue of being a change, must be a good thing. One detail of how the “revolution in corporate responsibility”, in particular, will work is rather eye-catching. In the section on the environment, we find out that it means:

Encouraging greater corporate responsibility by offering a lighter regulatory regime to companies who make a commitment to responsible business practice.

Mmmkay. So if companies “make a commitment to responsible business practice”, we will lighten their burden of regulation. I hesitate to interpret this as saying: “If they promise to be responsible, we will promise not to enforce that responsibility.” That would be one “revolution” for which the owners of the means of production must devoutly hope. It surely cannot mean that. Still, given the manifesto’s barely coded promises to shrink the state’s role as overseer of justice of all kinds, might not a better title be “Dismantled to last”?

  1. 1  sw  August 19, 2006, 2:13 pm 

    Compassionate Conservatives should probably re-read their copies of C.S. Lewis’s prim and picky The Problem of Pain: on his way towards explaining the necessary cruelty of love and original sin, he is forced to dismiss the notion of human kindness (which does, one have to admit, temper the notion that we are all completely fallen and vile and in need of external salvation), and he does so by noting that we can feel kind, even if we’re not actually being kind. It’s a bullshit argument, because you can think you’re being good, without being good, or think you’re being well wicked, without being well wicked. I think, though, “compassionate conservativism”, has in reserve the stolid, matronly refrain, “Sometimes it’s kind to be cruel [to those less fortunate than you]”.

    The moral model we should be after, however, is the dialectic moral characterised by Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Crockett is a man immersed in the moral ambiguity of social responsibility and anti-social behaviours; he needs the kind moral solidity (with its tang of self-deprecating humour) of Tubbs. They are never paralysed on account of their own moral problems (Crockett’s confusion, Tubbs’s rigidity) because they are in constant flux between their two positions, a vibrant dynamism that propels them as surely and as speedily as a Mustang, a light aircraft and the fastest fucking boats between Miami and Havana.

  2. 2  SP  August 23, 2006, 7:09 pm 

    Tubbs dispenses instant justice, while Crockett offers sexual healing. Mann clearly implies that these two provisions are the twin pillars on which any decent society rests.

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