Analysis

David Cameron and the British Welfare State

British Conservatives don’t want big government, but a big society.

Britain’s Conservative Party in Britain has never been a fan of socialism. But with David Cameron, they have taken on something of a new attitude to it.

In a speech earlier this month, Cameron admitted that social policies enacted since the Second World War have benefited many people. Inequality has gone down. Access to education and health care is close to universal.

At the same time, people feel less responsible for their own lives — and the lives of others. They have become less inclined to contribute to society.

“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,” according to 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.

Revival

The solution is not simply to shrink the state:

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 takes part.

The state is still needed to bring it about, though:

We must use the state to remake society.

Shift power

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

Compare that 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. 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 philosophy by demanding that Britons be allowed to take charge of their own lives again.

Duty

At the same time, he does see a role for government in fighting poverty and social inequality.

We need new answers now, and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.

Wasn’t it also Thatcher who said there no such thing as “society”? “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 also said, “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

That’s not so different from what Cameron is saying.

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