Bruce Anderson: I have never known the Tories to be so committed to the poor

Thatcher's range of human sympathy was confined to the striving middle class

In 1883, Andrew Mearns, a clergyman, published a book called The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. It caught the mood of the time. Fashionable London was worried. Some of the better-off had moral concerns. Others were afraid that outcast London would murder them in their beds. There was widespread agreement that something must be done, and a lot was. Despite recurrent bouts of anxiety, the late-Victorian era was essentially optimistic. Most people thought that England had come a long way since David Copperfield's desperate journey across Kent, and that social problems were soluble. After more than a century, and after countless billions have been spent on social programmes, there has been a change. We are much less optimistic.

On Wednesday, David Cameron paid a visit to today's outcast London, finishing up in a community centre near Waterloo. It was only one stop on the Tube from Westminster. Yet it might as well have been on another planet. Although the point has been made before, it can never be sufficiently stressed. No city has more cultural resources than London. Despite its recent problems, the City of London is one of the greatest wealth-creating machines in history. But there is a terrible gap. Even if society as a whole may not be broken, many of the ladders which ought to connect London's poor with the world of education and work have been shattered.

That is what Mr Cameron had come to see and ponder. Cynicism always sounds smarter than credulousness. But there are times when the road to wisdom lies through credulity. This is one such moment. David Cameron does not bang on about the Big Society because he is trying to reposition his party and appeal to idealistic voters. He does so because he believes in it. He also knows that it will be difficult. You cannot eradicate deep-rooted social problems with a cascade of bills and billions from Westminster. Localism is crucial, hence the stress on community organisers and neighbourhood action groups. People who have given up need to be encouraged to reconnect themselves to hope. Ultimately, no one else can do it for them.

There are very few new ideas and this is not one of them. Mr Cameron's approach is essentially Victorian. Partly as a result of the outcast London debate, a sizeable number of missions were established in the East End. These were popular with public-school men who had just come down from university and who wanted to do some good in their spare time. Clement Attlee was one of them. Again, it was the points of light approach rather than the Whitehall-centralised one.

Mr Cameron was brought up to be socially concerned. His mother was a magistrate; one sister became a doctor. Without ever preening themselves, they and their friends are the sort of active citizens whom Douglas Hurd used to praise. When David Cameron worked in the Home Office, these instincts were reinforced by intellectual enquiry. It is impossible to examine the causes of crime without considering social breakdown. Then Iain Duncan Smith took a hand.

As a result of their party's recent travails, the Tories have an asset which they have never enjoyed before: two former leaders who are barely even middle-aged. It is no disrespect to William Hague to say that Mr Duncan Smith may prove to be the most influential ex-leader of all time. It must have been a blow, losing the leadership without even fighting an election. No one could have blamed him if he had foresworn politics and gone off to the City. He did indeed set off for a city, but his destination was not Eastcheap, EC3. It was Easterhouse in Glasgow. This was an admirable, heart-warming response.

IDS immersed himself in the social problems of the inner cities. He also stole a Labour catchphrase. Traditional Tories have always been suspicious of the term "social justice". It would seem to imply that social outcomes could be determined in the political equivalent of a courtroom. So when IDS called his new think-tank the Centre for Social Justice, old-fashioned Tories did not know whether to be amused at the clothes-stealing or alarmed at the implications. But there was no need for alarm. There is an argument that the poor deserve a much greater degree of social justice, in that large sums of money are already spent on them, often to little effect. A child condemned to a bog-standard comprehensive is a victim of social injustice. A single mother – or an elderly pensioner – constantly menaced by young criminals is a victim of injustice. Even members of the criminal underclass are suffering from social injustice. Why were they allowed to deteriorate until they are fit for nothing except punishment? So when a Tory insists on social justice, he is not succumbing to socialism. He is indicting socialism. Most of the victimised poor have lived under socialistic regimes for decades, and much good it has done them.

Naturally, Lefties will disagree. They know whom to blame, and their faces are usually distorted with rage as they spit out her name: Thatcher. Was it not she who abolished manufacturing and wrecked communities? No, it was not. The truth is more complicated. Even before she arrived in office, the forces of social disintegration were converging on Britain. The divorce rate and the illegitimacy rate were both increasing. The influence of the Churches was in sharp decline; the impact of cretinising consumerist television was steadily growing. Globalisation was on the march, removing any hope that British firms could make profits out of metal-bashing – on the days when the shop-stewards allowed any work to be done.

It is true that Mrs Thatcher had no insight into the mentality of those who might succumb to hopelessness and welfare dependency. Her range of human sympathy was narrow: largely confined to the striving middle classes whom she regarded as the bedrock of society. Her Victorian text would have been Samuel Smiles's Self Help. But even if she had combined Shakespeare's insight, Dickens's sentimentality and John Paul II's compassion, it is not clear what could have been done. It may be that social decay had to reach our current crisis levels before the overwhelming need for a counter-attack became apparent.

Need is not the same as strategy. There is a comparison with the Middle East peace process, where everyone knows what ought to be done and no one can work out how to do it. In the case of the underclass, there would be many fewer problems in implementing a solution, if only we could find one. But there could never be a simple Underclass Amelioration Bill which would suddenly transform the picture. Tory social justice policy will be a sustained, prolonged effort to reinforce the points of light. "Lighten Our Darkness" could be the motto, but there is no easy access to the light switches. Fortunately, Mr Duncan Smith has no illusions. He knows that he is volunteering for a long slog.

If David Cameron becomes Prime Minister, IDS will probably be tasked with the hard graft. There is no certainty of success, which leads to another comparison. In 1979, Britain was threatened by economic breakdown. Most of the supposedly cleverest politicians and economists had no idea what to do. Keynesian measures had been tried and had failed. There was no Plan B. Margaret Thatcher disagreed, and partly because many of her political opponents were so demoralised, she had the chance to implement it. In 2010, the Left has demonstrably failed on social policy. Iain Duncan Smith is at least prepared to give it a go. That is one good reason for voting Tory.

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