After some really interesting comments, I said that I would try to elaborate on the suggestions of a new politics based on three principles which have not tended to be seen as compatible:
“Opposition to extreme, unmerited and destructive levels of inequality: ‘fairness does matter’
Scepticism about the central state as a direct agent of social change and a preference for models which are driven bottom up by citizen initiative and community action; ‘a big society not a big state’
Recognition of the importance to human functioning both of values such as respect, virtue, thrift, moderation and of the norms and institutions which embody these values: ‘enlightened social conservatism’.”
It’s late on Friday evening and I have a rucksack of weekend work, so just some initial thoughts about what might be involved in making these principles more substantive.
In relation to the social justice principle an adherent of this new politics would need to be committed to reducing overall inequality (as defined by an agreed metric) and increasing relative social mobility (people going down as well as people going up). They would also recognise that certain phenomena in society are hard or impossible to square with a fair society and would explore ways of stopping or mitigating them. These might include excessive inherited wealth, extreme ratios between top earners and low earners in organisations, and private education or socially segregated state education.
In relation to scepticism towards the central state adherents would be committed to concrete changes such as an upper limit on central state expenditure as a proportion of GDP as well as devolving power and some tax raising to more local levels. They would also challenge some of the ideas and assumptions that lie behind centralisation such as ‘the post code lottery’ or that regulation is always, or even often, an effective way of reducing risk. Adherents of this politics would also be active in, and informed about, the best ways for people to meet their own and each others’ social needs through voluntary or entrepreneurial effort.
There are lots of issues to raise about these ideas, but ‘enlightened social conservativism’ is even trickier. The starting point might be a willingness to define what it is to be a good citizen with a particular emphasis on the responsibilities involved (an important RSA theme). New social conservatives might also be willing to ask difficult questions about the relationship between human contentment, efficacy and social functioning, on the one hand, and certain modern trends such as large scale immigration and social segregation, marital breakdown and the crassness of modern mass culture.
Even jotting down these points makes me realise how much opposition such a platform would generate. Perhaps I have managed to design a political programme that non one (including myself) could sign up to! And I haven’t even got into whether the different principles are at all compatible.
Anyway, I am too tired (and it's too late) to go back and tone it all down. So I’ll see what you all make of it.