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Christian Guy: Saving lives will also save money. That's why compassionate conservatism has much to offer

Guy christianChristian Guy is Managing Director for the Centre for Social Justice.  Follow Christian on Twitter.

“I don’t do social justice”, he growled, before storming off muttering more discontent. Another delegate uttered exactly the same sentence minutes later.  “People are poor because they choose to be poor” said someone else.  And so it continued.  My first day at the 2007 Conservative party conference, working for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), didn’t start well.

Since then I have encountered the Conservative Party's strange unease about social justice.  Many reject it, some dabble in it and a few live by it.  But nobody seems to mention it.

This silent surrender means social justice tends to be an uncontested concept for the Left.  Often wary, many Conservatives consider it a cloak for mass wealth redistribution, uncontrolled public spending or intrusive statism.  Others, like Friedrich Hayek, famously dismissed social justice as ‘meaningless’ and ‘impossible’.  

How absurd.  Some of the country’s finest reformers, from William Wilberforce to the Earl of Shaftesbury (and as Paul Goodman noted earlier this month, lesser-known figures like Henry Willink) demonstrated a distinguished Conservative tradition for radical social transformation and concern for the vulnerable. Add to that the outstanding service of numerous party members in their local communities – helping the disadvantaged and supporting those less fortunate – and a mysterious Jekyll and Hyde identity crisis takes shape.

This pushmi-pullyu Conservatism is damaging for people, democracy and the party’s electoral health.  It regularly crowns Labour as the nation's political conscience, and along with other issues, it goes some way to undermining unity, purpose and credibility.  Earlier this year a YouGov poll found that 71 per cent of people see the Conservatives as a divided party. Further polling has found that six in 10 voters see Conservatives as ‘a party of the rich, not ordinary people’.    

Those on the Right should also need no reminding that last November, in the United States, Mitt Romney was trounced by Barack Obama by an 81 to 18 per cent margin on the question of which candidate ‘cares about people like me’. Empathy – the compassion creed for modern British politics – matters.

But beyond opinion polls or well-trodden philosophical debates, nothing more than a quick glance across the country should forge a strong commitment to compassionate conservatism from party members who place a high value on duty, national interest and stable economics.  Any One Nation Conservative should be heartbroken by what the CSJ uncovers on a regular basis.

A section of the British population has broken away from the mainstream with devastating consequences. In parts of the UK, life expectancy is as low as 54-years-old, lagging behind Rwanda and Haiti.  Half of all children born today will experience family breakdown – breakdown which wreaks poverty and havoc in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The number of children taken into state care hit a record high last year and the equivalent of 56,000 school pupils in England and Wales play truant every day.  One in five UK households is workless and the number of households where nobody has ever worked doubled under the previous Government.

Some 1.5 million children have a drug or alcohol addicted parent – though many don’t feature in the child poverty statistics because their household income might be a few extra pounds above the so-called ‘poverty-line’.

Legal and illegal lenders charge eye-watering interest as the poor clamour for credit, and 60 per cent of our £40,000-a-year prisoners are re-convicted within two years of release – half of them have a reading age of 11.  

Voters acknowledge what many politicians and our liberal elite will not: parts of British society are badly broken. In 2012 a YouGov poll for the CSJ found that 55 per cent of people – the equivalent of almost 35 million citizens – say at least one of their local communities is plagued by broken families, crime and poor schools.

Thanks to Ed Miliband’s audacious One Nation move, Benjamin Disraeli has come to write political slogans once again.  But beyond the modern day platitudes we should recognise that Disraeli actually wrote about two nations.  The poor and the rest. And today in Britain, if you summon the courage to look close enough, his diagnosis remains shamefully relevant.

Countless Conservatives have told me that these are peripheral problems – a mission for another day – issues to deal with when the economic mess has been cleared up. These objections miss the point entirely.

Social breakdown is a noose around the neck of the British economy. It costs well in excess of £100 billion a year. The collapse of stable family life accounts for as much as £40 billion on its own and crime – fuelled by so much of this dysfunction – more still.

And beyond the hard numbers, in the chaos of this other world, a section of the British workforce has become woefully uncompetitive – a key reason why welfare dependency and immigration soared during a period of job creation and record economic growth under Labour.  The daily pattern of life in too many of these no-go neighbourhoods undermines economic recovery.

So Conservatives would be wrong to define a compassionate creed as a charitable extra, or a worthy but non-essential cause.  A watertight charitable case can be made, and should be enough frankly, but this is about investment too.  Saving lives will also save money.

This is why compassionate conservatism has much to offer to those left behind.  Its commitment to a strong, empathetic and efficient state overrides the hands-off approach to social problems many small-state Conservatives adopt. It is defined by a belief that when the social market fails there is moral cause to step in.  Crucially, as well as a willingness to intervene, there is a firm belief in civil society and the brilliance of the social sector.  Recognition that charities, faith groups and social enterprises are pillars on which to build a second chance society and tackle the root causes of deprivation that hold Britain back.

It rejects default statist solutions at the same time as embracing the ability of Government to make a positive difference in people’s lives.  And it confronts the disastrous idea that a Government's compassion can be measured by the size of its welfare cheque.  That narrow belief has limited too many lives.  Instead, the starting point should be policy that gives people the power to participate, take personal responsibility and control, build stable families and meet their aspirations for economic independence.

Compassion need not threaten other important priorities. Nor, obviously, does it win elections on its own. But a long time ago politicians on the Left recognised that the spirit of the British people is for the underdog.  As a 2005 CSJ pamphlet argued, that means government which is 'good for me, good for my neighbour'.

As I have spent time in the UK’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods one thing has become clear.  As long as the perception persists in those areas that Conservatives are heartless bookkeepers – or as one mother once told me “wealthy people who don’t care about families like mine” – they will falter.  It’s Labour, they say, that cares about me.

No one political party has all the answers, but the Conservative Party has a decision to make. Beyond this Government, perhaps beyond David Cameron, will radical reformers remain rare on the green benches or will a new generation rise-up to pursue a new, permanent philosophy?

If it’s the latter, our country stands a better chance of being remade once more.  Our inner-cities and the families living there could be transformed.  Conservatives could play their rightful part in building a nation where nobody is written off, discarded or left behind. And in the process I wouldn't mind betting that those Conservative parliamentary candidates sent to fight their ‘unwinnable’ inner-city seats, might just find they are not so unwinnable after all.


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