David Cameron and the British Welfare State

Britain’s Conservatives don’t want big government but a “big society.” They do want the state to help.

The Conservative Party in Britain has never been a fan of anything that reeks of socialism. But with David Cameron, it takes on something of a new attitude toward it.

In a speech delivered earlier this month, party leader Cameron admitted that social policies enacted since the Second World War have benefited lots of people: inequality has decreased while access to education and health care is now near universal.

At the same time, people seem to feel less responsible for their own lives and because of that lack of responsibility, they are less inclined to contribute to society voluntarily. “As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbors,” said Cameron.

Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society — and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

And change, of course, is not something the Conservative particularly cares for. The solution is not so simple as to diminish the role of the state, however. “Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.”

What Cameron wants is not big government but something he calls a “big society” in which everyone truly takes part. The state is still necessary to bring it about, though. “We must use the state to remake society,” he said.

In the first place, that implies a shift of power from London to local government. Cameron’s thinking is that if you grant people more responsibility, they will act more responsibly.

Compare that for a moment with what Margaret Thatcher said in 1977. “The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior,” declared the woman who would go on to lead the United Kingdom for more than a decade. “It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility and his capacity to choose.”

Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.

Cameron gives new meaning to this Thatcherist thinking by demanding that Britons be allowed to take charge of their own lives once again.

At the same time, he does set himself the task of fighting poverty and social inequality. “We need new answers now,” he said, “and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.”

Wasn’t it also Thatcher who stated that there exists no such thing as “society” you might ask? “There are individual men and women and there are families,” she said in 1897. “And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first.” But, she added, “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

That’s something that might be contested but it isn’t all too different from what Cameron is saying these days.