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Seizing the Moral High Ground for Reform The Legacy of Jerry Falwell

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After Blair: Conservatives Mumble About Welfare State Reform

by Christopher Chantrill
May 13, 2007 at 2:30 pm


ON THE DAY after British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his retirement they took down the “new” in “New Labour.”

The British Labour Party removed the logo “New Labour, New Britain” from its web site and substituted just plain “Labour.”

So the Third Way era is over. It was, after all, nothing more than a makeover to restyle the progressive parties of Britain and the US and make them electorally viable. It didn’t change the nature of the parties. Even Clinton and Blair, with all their talent, failed to talk the progressives out of their progressive faith. The Democrats have gone back to tax increases and more spending, and the Labour Party doesn’t think it needs to be “new” any more.

The promise of Third Way politics to conservatives was that maybe the left would work with us in reforming the welfare state. Now we know that they won’t.

Reform of the welfare state in Britain, if any, will have to come from the Conservative Party, and under the leadership of David Cameron it is tiptoeing towards a genuine reform agenda. Oliver Letwin, in charge of the policy review process, recently described, with a mouth full of policy-wonk marbles, the political vision of the party as “framework-based” rather than the Labour Party’s “provision-based” approach.

Cameron Conservatism is... an attempt to shift the theory of the State from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm.

The Labour Party under Gordon Brown is stuck in a postMarxist provision-based paradigm with “the central State not only as the funder but also as the proper provider of public services.” But the Conservative Party believes that it is the role of government to get beyond providing

to establish a framework of support and incentive that enables and induces individuals and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities.

Perhaps Letwin was being deliberately unquotable, and obeying the first law of radical reform: Don’t frighten the horses in the street. For it is not just Britain’s schools and National Health Service that need reform.

Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs just released a harrowing review of Britain’s welfare system authored by Patricia Morgan: The War Between the State and the Family: How Government Divides and Impoverishes. Morgan describes a system that seems to be designed to induce individuals precisely to ignore their “wider social responsibilities.” In Britain the welfare system wantonly subsidizes single-parenthood (“lone parents” in Britspeak) and cruelly discriminates against low-income married couples, completely negating the old idea that support of the non-working poor should not make the working poor seem like suckers.

But think tanks like the progressive Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) are not concerned about the working poor. IPPR worries more about “anachronistic demands for greater support for traditional families rather than lone parents.” For the IPPR, writes Morgan,

the only [welfare] choice deemed worthy of support is one where women work full time with their children in day care, since this helps to move us towards the goal of gender parity in pay and position.

That is rather problematic when “study after study shows that only a small proportion of women want continual full-time work while they are rearing children.” It is doubly so when the numbers show that: “Lone-parent families depend upon benefits and tax credits for an average of 66 percent of their income.”

Conservatives should never forget. Most women are not raging about gender parity. They are worrying about their children.

In Britain as in the United States the welfare system is a vortex at the center of two swirling social-cultural forces. First of all there is the left-wing tradition of analyzing everything in terms of power, in which depending on family members for assistance is always degrading, supplying “unpaid domestic work or childcare” in return for economic support from a breadwinner. Then there is the autonomy movement that celebrates a life “based only upon free personal choice; unregulated, unsupported and unconstrained by any external standards, laws, demands, conventions, rules, and institutional frameworks.” Both movements agree that the individual must be freed from family dependency to achieve true liberation.

It is understandable that Oliver Letwin would paddle very carefully into this maelstrom. The essence of the conservative vision both in Britain and in the United States is to revive Burke’s “little platoons,” Neuhaus’s “mediating structures,” and now Letwin’s “frameworks.” These social structures enable men and women to build social capital by meshing them in a web of collaboration and reciprocation. In that web the progressive program of equality and autonomy gets decisively marginalized.

It will be interesting to see how our Conservative cousins in Britain translate their “framework-based” paradigm from policy-speak to an open appeal for the votes of British voters.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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