29 May 2015

The hole in Cameron’s One Nation Conservatism


There were a good number of measures in this week’s Queen’s Speech which honoured David Cameron’s commitment to build “One Nation Conservatism”. The emphasis on education – with the promised investment in apprenticeships and the commitment to replace failing headteachers in “coasting” schools – was particularly welcome. The Bill to reduce the tax paid by those earning only the minimum wage may also further incentivise the huge growth in private sector employment that we saw in the last parliament.

The Government’s one nation credentials may not look so impressive next month, however, if low income working households see dramatic reductions in their benefits – at the same time as George Osborne uses his seventh Budget to increase the benefits of better off pensioners. As a bipartisan US symposium on poverty-reduction attended by Barack Obama recently underlined: the growth in middle class entitlements is the number one reason why the state is simultaneously too big and failing in its fundamental tasks (like basic poverty relief, investment in infrastructure and maintaining the armed forces).

There is another reason why government is too big and that is because society is too small. Society is still strong for most people at the top of society but it remains weak for many at the bottom – especially in regard to that most essential of all social institutions: the family. If the family isn’t educating children properly; if it isn’t caring for older members; if older members aren’t helping with childcare; if it doesn’t have the resources to help other members afford a home; if it has no spare time to attend neighbourhood watch meetings – the growth of the state is inevitable.

It is not just state welfare that has grown as the family has declined. Within advanced western economies we’ve also seen an increase in what we might call the four ugly sisters of social decay:

  • the entrenchment of much extreme poverty with some individuals and communities cut off from the rest of society and the economy;
  • some stalling of social mobility – in both directions with the poor not getting richer and the privileged being bailed out when things go wrong for them;
  • a growth in inequality – at least in terms of assets and wealth and perhaps income, too;
  • an increasing sense that the next generation won’t be much better off than the last.

It would be premature to say that we have reached a eureka moment on the importance of the family but I’ve been struck by the shared conclusions of three top-selling books that have been published in recent weeks: David Brooks’ “Road to Character”, Robert D Putnam’s “Our Kids” and, on this side of the Atlantic, Steve Hilton’s “More Human”.  Each of the books has come to similar conclusions about the importance of the non-economic foundations of healthy economies. Strikingly, Hilton’s focus on the family doesn’t come in a chapter headlined as such but in his seventh chapter, on “inequality”. “Too many losers [in the economic race],” he writes, “fall short not for lack of effort or intellect but because their starting point is so far back that they were never really even competing.” He paints a picture of relationally-poorer children who are denied a whole range of non-material basics including bedtime reading, constant encouragement, extracurricular activities, travel, conversation and advice. “We now know,” Hilton concludes, “that the quality and style of parenting received by a child is a better predictor of success than anything else – including the economic circumstances of the family.”

The contribution of Putnam, coming from the left of politics, is particularly important. His conclusions are remarkably similar to those of Hilton and he uses the word “ignorance” to describe the social positioning of kids who lack the meaningful relationships enjoyed by better-off children.

One nation that does understand the importance of the family is – surprise, surprise – China. Given the implications of its ageing population and declining labour force, that is prudent. The Confucian principle of filial piety – 孝 or xiào – is even enshrined into the nation’s constitution. Children who neglect their parents face up to five years in prison. Chinese politicians make a great show of embodying the principle. Baozhen Luo noted how Xi Jinping, China’s president, visited his mother on his first official trip. If the country’s most powerful and busiest person can find time to respect his parents so, goes the message, every Chinese citizen can – and should.

Britain and America are not China and I wouldn’t recommend that David Cameron’s next Queen’s Speech proposes that we start filling the nation’s already overcrowded prisons with neglectful sons and daughters. But the next Queen’s Speech should address the great weakness of this last one (and of those in the last parliament) – the lack of interest in the family as the launchpad for nearly all social and economic progress. But how should the family be rebuilt? I would emphasise housebuilding (families can’t thrive in cramped, insecure, expensive accommodation) and better targeting of the married couples allowance but here are three ideas from the authors I’ve already highlighted:

  • Steve Hilton proposes that parenting classes (run by voluntary organisations but potentially funded by the state) become the norm, arguing that “there’s not one family, not one parent, who wouldn’t benefit from parenting education.” “We need,” he writes, “to make parenting education aspirational. Instead of being seen as something that’s done to you by the government because you’re a bad parent, it needs to be something everyone chooses to do, because it’s part of being a good parent.”
  • David Brooks wants a massive reorientation of the state from fighting pensioner poverty (where the job is nearly done) to early intervention in the first few years of a child’s life. This was a big theme of Iain Duncan Smith before he became Work and Pensions Secretary five years ago and he partnered with Labour MP Graham Allen to promote it. With the exception of the promising Troubled Families Initiative the government has, so far, invested only very small exploratory funds in early intervention programmes. That needs to change.
  • Robert Putnam’s recommendations tend to be more socialistic but I’m attracted to his idea of extended school hours and more investment in mentoring programmes. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds need more positive role models in their lives and need to be stretched more. It will be interesting to see if Democratic politicians in the US are influenced by his book or retreat to the default moral relativism that they won’t worry about the consequences of the collapse of the working class family for fear of being morally judgmental.

To get on in life every person needs a good education and a good job. David Cameron has a good record at increasing the number of Britons who have access to both. But what about the third leg of the anti-poverty trifecta – a good family? He can’t use the anti-family Liberal Democrats as an excuse anymore. My fear is that the Chancellor is the problem – he never liked the marriage tax allowance and regards any pro-family measures as social engineering. But every taxpayer should disagree for the reasons Steve Hilton sets out in his book: “when the costs and benefits affect everyone we can’t just privatise this issue. It’s a matter of social responsibility, not just personal choice.” Some estimate that the economic costs of family breakdown run into tens of billions of pounds. The social costs are even higher.

In the last parliament – with the enactment of gay marriage – David Cameron modernised family policy. In this parliament he needs to move from making marriage policy inclusive to making it meaningful.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right.