In writing for the Sunday Times, Andrew Sullivan recently reminded us of the limitations of Government in shaping society and culture. “How do you fix a broken society” … Conservative Party leader David Cameron asked a short time ago.
The continued decline of the traditional family, the rise in anti-social behaviour, the emergence of a settled underclass, the growth of social and economic inequality: worrying about these is, or should be, a Tory concern. From Edmund Burke in the 18th century onwards, conservatives have argued that culture is the central political fact, that the small ways in which humans understand, help and relate to one another - far too complex for a government to adequately manage or control - are what make a country successful, stable and democratic. The British way of life is seen as being as crucial to British success as any economic or government program. The paradox is that conservatives realise that for these very reasons, a government's ability to change the social culture is extremely limited. The forces that shape culture and give it direction are almost always too diffuse and complex to be tackled directly. And if government plays its hand too heavily, it can make matters worse.However if the balance can be found and Government policy is designed subtly, with the purpose of effecting change of a conservative order, the long term benefits are worthwhile.
Here he is - Cameron - in classic Tory mode: "Changing our culture is not easy or quick. You cannot pull a lever. You cannot do it top-down. But you can give a lead. You can give a nudge. You can make a difference if you are clear where you stand." Here he is adding some pragmatic ideas to help: "Saying to parents: your responsibility and your commitment matter, so we will give a tax break for marriage and end the couple penalty. Saying to head teachers: you are responsible and if you want enforceable home-school contracts and the freedom to exclude, you can have it and we will judge you on your results. Saying to police officers: you are responsible and the targets and bureaucracy are going, but you must account to an elected individual who will want answers if you fail. Saying to business: if you take responsibility, you can help change the culture and we will help you with deregulation and tax cuts. >> morePerhaps the goal of Australian Liberals should be to create policy that, God forbid, smacks of a little social engineering, if only to spoil some of the undesirable elements of progressiveness within our culture and and society. Perhaps too, conservatism is not merely about small government, tax cuts, de-regulation and the like but vis-à-vis acknowledging that divorce, pre-marital sex and single parenthood is part of today’s order; an order crying out for government intervention of the ‘subtle’ kind. For bona fide conservatives, this could mean two things, a departure from some established notions and letting go of the ‘guardrails’ of the professional think tank class.
Over to you …