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Jesse Norman and Janan Ganesh: Nothing to do with George W Bush

This is the third of a four-part serialisation of 'Compassionate Conservatism - What it is, Why we need it' - published by Policy ExchangePrevious articles in this series: Needed - a connected society and Compassionate Conservatism.

So much for the theory.  But what is “compassionate conservatism”?  Isn’t it just a tired reheat of George Bush’s earlier slogan?

No.  In a connected society, as we saw yesterday, the emphasis is on individual freedom and autonomy, on diversity and pluralism, on the institutions that link people together, and on an awareness of common culture and traditions.  This is the core vision.  It is neither paternalist nor merely economically individualist.  It does not say either "big brother is looking after you" or "you're on your own".  On the contrary, it is egalitarian, and based on mutual consideration and respect.  It derives from a tradition that has its roots in Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and its modern flourishing in Michael Oakeshott and, in his later work, Friedrich Hayek.

We can understand the Conservatives’ current emphasis on “compassionate conservatism” as seeking to express this vision within British politics.  It is quite different from the doctrine of the same name espoused by George W. Bush.  That began life in 1999 as a campaign slogan designed to emphasise to the public that Bush was a moderate Republican, while subtly flagging a sensitivity to the concerns of religious evangelicals.  After Bush’s election, it mutated into a policy of delivering federal welfare programmes through churches and other faith-based organisations.  It was abandoned when its chief sponsor within the White House, Professor John DiIulio, quit in 2001.

In fact, however, Bush’s compassionate conservatism has virtually nothing to do with the present view, for three reasons.  First, it suffered from the twin drawbacks of being neither compassionate nor conservative.  It was hardly compassionate:  indeed DiIulio fell foul of his colleagues in the White House by insisting that money be directed to black and Latino churches, thus alienating white Evangelicals.  And it was not conservative, as was shown by Bush’s very costly decision to expand Medicare to include prescription medicines, and by the extension of federal influence into local schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. 

Secondly, Bush’s compassionate conservatism was a moralising doctrine, which assumed that society’s basic moral standards were in decline and set the federal government the task of improving them.  Thirdly, as a slogan, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” lacked a deeper theoretical justification that could be used as a basis for long-term policy-making.  It quickly came to seem merely an electoral expedient, not a genuine contribution to a wider political and cultural debate.

The compassionate conservatism that we are discussing is quite different.  It is anchored in an argument from first principles about the nature of society.  It is not a moralising strand of ideas, and does not in general regard the moral character of British society as fit subject for legislation.  Indeed it explicitly repudiates such a view in its critique of “enterprise society”, something that also sets compassionate conservatism apart from many communitarian views.  It does not lack a moral sense, but it locates moral responsibility primarily at the level of the individual, not at that of the state.  And consistent with this, its idea of compassion is one of fellow-feeling, not of pity:  one of identification, concern and sympathy with others, not of condescension to them.  At root, this is the same insight as that behind the connected society.

In our first article we looked at two challenges, from the old left and the new left, to the very idea of compassionate conservatism.  Either it is a contradiction in terms, or it’s an empty slogan.  We can now see that both are wrong:  the first, because it rests on a caricature of economic liberalism that has already been rejected; the second because it underestimates the fertility of the intellectual tradition we have identified. 

It remains to be seen how this vision can be translated into concrete, workable policy.  To this we turn in our final article tomorrow.


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