“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” (Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking-Glass’)
And so to David Cameron’s new year’s message to the masses, delivered on 27 December:
whether you’re Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you’re motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It’s how to achieve these aims that we disagree about
‘Progressive’ is one of those words that has been almost drained of meaning by the political classes. It has connotations of egalitarianism and liberalism, and has been far more associated with the left and centre than with the right, but in the absence of anyone willing to stand up explicitly for ‘regressivism’, it’s hard to say much definite about it.
I want to focus on Cameron’s use of ‘fair’ – an even more widely claimed, more fundamental and vaguer term. Yes, we all want Britain to be fairer. But do we all agree on what counts as fair? Of course we don’t. This smothering of all ideological difference by a single syllable reminds me of Wittgenstein’s “cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar”.
Is it fairer for the benefits system to recognise the hardship faced by single parents or to encourage two parents to stay together? What is the fairest point in the trade-off between police powers and civil liberties? When reducing the deficit, are tax rises fairer or less fair than spending cuts? Which taxes are fair and which unfair? Which public spending? What is the fairest level – national government, local councils, community groups, individuals – for any given political choice to be made? Which economic inequalities are unfair and when does action to reduce these become unfair?
The mere concept of ‘fairness’ will not answer any of these questions or a thousand others, and nor are they factual questions to which competent administrators could provide definitive answers. These questions are the stuff of politics, and Cameron is trying to wish it all away.
An opposition leader who was confident of winning for positive reasons, rather than because the government seems knackered and useless, would be making a very different case.
(Anne Perkins deplores Cameron’s attempt to foster a “myth of consensus”, and Paul Cotterill scents unease in Cameron’s plea that the election not be “some exercise in fake dividing lines”.)
I think that the biggest change in the Tory party over the last four years has been not in the image it presents to the public but in the image it holds of itself. I’m happy to credit Cameron and some around him (certainly not all) with sincerely caring about poverty more than their predecessors did – they think of themselves, if you like, as being more progressive. But the change in their plans for government have been far smaller. To adapt John Prescott’s maxim, the Tories have traditional policies for modern reasons.
I doubt this will end well, for them or for us.
Sunder Katwala has a good blog post up about this. He quotes Richard Reeves and Philip Collins:
"At present, he is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap and trotting gamely towards it"
And so Cameron's advocacy of "conservative means to progressive ends" risks turning into "Thatcherite arguments while hoping for the opposite results".
God only knows that Labour’s performance has been poorer than most of its 1997 supporters had hoped, but I’m sure the new Tory blend of fierce anti-statism and compassionate good intentions would be worse overall. They may relish some flavour of ‘fairness’ and they may truly feel themselves ‘progressive’, but I’m afraid their policies will be all too passive in the face of the market’s natural drive towards inequality.