Social Responsibility and Popular Capitalism: A worthy hope undermined by an empty ideological underpinning:
In a documentary on BBC Radio 4 on the ideology of Conservatism late in 2009, before the 2010 UK General Election, and at a time when a Conservative majority seemed inevitable the Journalist Peter Oborne described David Cameron as a ‘Classic Conservative’ in the line of Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli. He juxtaposed Cameron’s conservatism with the radical 19th Century free market liberalism imitated by Thatcher and predicted that in time, Cameron would “betray his party, in the National Interest.” At the core of Oborne’s documentary was the idea that an ideological conservatism influenced by Edmund Burke extends like a spine through the history of the Conservative Party and that while it is, at times, subsumed within more radical strands of Conservative Party ideology, in the end, the ideological core of the party remains unchanged.
Oborne’s thesis is, on one level, un-arguable. Running through British society remains an unchanged and unchanging, decent, instinctive conservatism. It is more common in some parts of the country than others and it is often misrepresented by more campaigning fellow travellers as ‘The Silent Majority.’ In reality, catch-all descriptions such as these require a broad bottomed demographic which the ideological conservative spine does not possess. When people talk of the silent majority, the moral majority, or “The Squeezed Middle”in reality, they refer to the Middle Class white majority whose aspirations, ideology and instincts are dictated to by contemporary and selfish considerations as much as by a universal conservative belief in the system.
Traditionally, it has been Conservatives who have understood this Middle Class instinct and who have been better able to adapt their policies to appeal to the Middle Classes. Disraeli got tot the core of this when he stated that “The Conservative Party is nothing if not a Nationalist Party.” In other words, while progressives see ideology as underpinning their transaction with the people, conservatives do not necessarily do so unless it suits their own ideological agenda. The key thing is the exercise of power in the national interest. Then you can look to impose your ideological underpinnings.
Certainly, Oborne is correct to sence that, within Britain, there remains a section of the population who stand for traditional Episcopalian models of decency, respect for community, authority and law and who form what most foreigners might feel comes close the idea of English fair play. Similarly, Conservatives may well be politically astute to emphasise ideas of conservative fair play and decency, for these ideas have most appeal during times of uncertainty, decline and lack of self-confidence, when British people instinctively look to older ideas and certainties.
However, because Britain’s real silent Majority is not a moral majority, but a class majority, its concerns are fundamentally emotional and the appeal to this emotionally fickle demographic is predicated upon its ability to inspire confidence in its capacity to enhance their economic prospects. The appeal of Thatcher, was not her traditional Conservatism. Indeed in the early days, traditional Heartland Conservatives were profoundly weary of a pushy woman. The real appeal of Thatcherism came later, with a self-confident and often immoral assertion of Britain’s place in the world. The Middle Class came to love her, not because she stood for moral behaviour (although she did) or because she espoused respect for authority (although she did), but because she stood emphatically for Britain’s place in the world and because she stood for freeing the individual to behave in their own self-interest in a simple, unintellectual way.
In contrast, Cameron and the 21st Century Conservative Party have not reaped the dividend they traditionally reap from a financial crisis during a Labour administration. The Conservative Party are likely to win an outright majority at the next election and may yet win the hearts of the British people but have yet to do so. In spite of them facing a largely discredited opposition who appear to be lead by a man who is both implicated in the financial crisis of 2007 and lacking the charisma or freedom of movement to direct his party holistically away from the toxicity of the Blair, Brown legacy, Cameron has found that the voters of Britain have still failed to love the Conservative Party. Indeed, my sense is that while the traditional Conservative supporting aspirant Middle Class are willing to vote for any party who can provide them with traditional certainties and opportunities, none of the political parties possesses the capacity to reverse the decline in Britain, or to instigate the measures this would require or to address the realities of Britain’s geopolitical locality.
It is against this context that David Cameron sought, two days ago, to restate the claim for Moral Capitalism.
“I believe that open markets and free enterprise are the best imaginable force for improving human wealth and happiness. They are the engine of progress, generating the enterprise and innovation that lifts people out of poverty and gives people opportunity.”
Cameron went on, “I would go further: where they work properly, open markets and free enterprise can actually promote morality. Why? Because they create a direct link between contribution and reward, between effort and outcome. The fundamental basis of the market is the idea of something for something – an idea we need to encourage, not condemn. So we should use this crisis of capitalism to improve markets, not undermine them.”
Cameron added that Britons should learn to celebrate entrepreneurs who invent and create wealth for the Nation as a whole. Which is all well and good. It could have been spoken by Tony Blair, or Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg or most mainstream British Politicians during the last 20 years.
The papers appear to have concentrated on the ideological battle ground between Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, over the morality of governance. Yet to me the interesting thing about this speech is that Cameron felt it needed making, at all. Short term political advantage over an equally discredited and distrusted Labour Party is one thing but this was an ideological speech setting out an ideological stand point and crucially, it did so in the middle of an electoral cycle.
In other words, David Cameron was making a case that went wider than its immediate party political context. This was a speech looking to set out and define the arguments which would internally inform Conservative politics and the Conservative Manifesto for the next decade.
In seeking to reconnect the free market and the entrepreneurial instinct with a distinctly moral imperative and wider National Interest, Cameron was setting out an ideological case which both recalls and subverts Thatcherism in aspiring to its intent and simultaneously denying its consequence.
Like Thatcher, his case is essentially that Britain can learn to celebrate the individual’s instinct to invent and create while drawing upon the natural reserve and decency of the British way of life to regulate the individualism. Unfortunately, this speech is light on what aspect of this decency and instinctive morality will regulate the Champaign Capitalism of unearned CIty Bonus Culture.
This is classic conservatism in seeking to recall a part mythical idea of the nation which was somehow able to self regulate the avarice and greed of the individual through the inherently British instincts of fairness and decency, modesty, unflashiness and respect for authority. Unfortunately, in as much as this Britain ever actually existed, its existence was predicated upon several institutions absent from modern Britain.
For one thing, Britain was until recently, a deeply Christian country in which the vast majority of people attended church. It was also until recently, rigidly class based with next to no social mobility or prospect thereof, breeding a deeply deferential society in which a squire could take a certain comfort from the solidity of his position and the essential role he had within his society. In turn this bread a certain comfort and self-confidence that he would always occupy this position and that his position was the result of an inherent suitability to it. The same could be said of the aristocrat or the labourer. But, neither class hierarchy nor Christian morality hold any substantial regulatory power in Britain any more and this is crucial in understanding the prospects for Cameron’s vision.
The middle class today enjoy none of the certainties that once governed the life of the squire. Whereas the squire of 1862 lived in a rapidly urbanising society, he remained largely untouched by it, living in the same village as his ancestors, and drinking in the same pub as both the farm labourers and local land owner. By contrast our urban and suburban existence consists of a highly ghettoized society of districts populated by similar classes creating a fear of those lower in class and resentment of those in one higher. In turn, our society of winners and losers and social mobility encourages people to both fear for their position and aspire to one better. Capitalism relies on this process and as long as society grows, and can maintain rising living and educative standards, it works well. The problem lies when society contracts. In rigidly hierarchical societies, contraction is less obvious because people are essentially protected within their social position. Japan’s lost decades did not impact society as it might have in the west because of its inherent discipline. Britain’s abandonment of rigid hierarchy during the 20th Century, leaves her vulnerable because individuals are neither safe nor certain in relation to one another in times of economic contraction, a loss of self-confidence which is only exacerbated by loss of sovereignty to Europe and relative decline in relation to the economies of Asia.
Our secular society is a long way from moral in the Christian sense. People retain a basic sense of morality for the most part. To an extent this is a dim recollection of Christian teaching handed down from three generations ago and in part this is the result of an existing stable system of state institutions such as the rule of law and involvement of the established Church in all state occasions from Christmas to the royal wedding.
But just as liberty must be fought for continually, so must morality. Simply assuming that people are self-regulated by moral decency is both naive and historically illiterate. The YUPPY culture of the late 1980’s was a long way from the Thatcherite idea of moral individuals saving and trading in communities under a national umbrella. The Banking Crisis, was similarly a betrayal of the idea that soft touch regulation was self policing. Whether you blame Government or the bankers, the one thing you will be guaranteed to blame is a lack of moral regulation.
Cameron is therefore unable reasonably to turn his undoubtedly deeply held moral conservatism into a political reality because neither of the historic regulators of human behaviour hold any active sway over modern British society. This leaves Cameron with just 4 deeply flawed arbiters of human capitalistic behaviour. Either, he trusts people, against historic precedent, to act unselfishly in the interests of the nation, rather than for themselves, relies on State regulation, either in the form of the EU or Britain’s own State infrastructure, or he seeks to engage people in a traditional form of moral regulation such as religion. The fourth option, is equally unthinkable. Cameron could seek to outline radical and long-term restructuring of the British economy away from financial services and towards manufacturing . This would provide Britain with a different, less flashy or dynamic economic model than it currently has, but would allow Britain to play to her historic strengths as a manufacturing power while providing Britain with a stable slow burning economy based upon growing balance of payments and export lead growth. Yet the cost of this transition to the economy is prohibitive, damaging to Britain’s short-term economic prospects and ultimately unappealing to a politician operating in a 5 year economic cycle. Moreover, it would require
Oborne was correct in hypothesizing that the ghost of Edmund Burke (Picture above) hangs over the modern Conservative party led by David Cameron. But the Britain of Burke is a very long way from Cameron’s Britain; morally as well as economically. More importantly, in a society in which individualism and belief in the individuals right to pursue his or her own self-interest is increasingly universal, the mere fact that Cameron requires to make this speech at all points at a deepening disconnect between the traditional Conservatism of the Prime Minister and the increasingly libertarian ‘me first’ rights based capitalism of modern Britain.