Intellectual promiscuity is always exciting, and a political party which believes that it has all the answers has only begun to understand half the questions. This is especially true in social policy. Over the past 50 years, the UK has grown steadily richer. Yet there is a persistent and increasingly alienated underclass.
"When the tide comes in, all the boats rise," was a favourite phrase of Chris Patten's in his days as a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher. It ought to be true, but alas, it is not. Because of cultural factors which sever the underclass from the rest of society, a rising tide may merely drown them. It cannot be assumed that economic growth, of itself, will solve social problems.
David Cameron's Tories are searching for a solution and they have placed no restraints on their intellectual boldness. In search of an idea which might work, they will go anywhere. Admirable in theory: in practice, however, there ought to be limits, and one of them is Polly Toynbee. For a start, why should anyone seeking new ideas look to her
For many, many years now, as the world has changed all around her, Miss Toynbee has remained admirably impervious. In the columns of The Guardian, she is responsible for her own little Stalinist theme-park. Dear Polly cannot be accused of inconsistency. Her motto is and will be, world without end: "if it failed in the 1970s, try it again now".
She affects to concern herself with poverty. But this is a charade. In her writings, the poor receive a perfunctory bowl of thin gruel. Her emotions are reserved for her own class, the better off. Desperate to rebut the charge that she owes her own position to a privileged background, there are repeated doses of bile and spite. She cannot bear the thought that after nine years of Labour, the middle classes are still enjoying themselves. Hence her regular warnings to the present Government. Nine years of Labour, and middle-class people are still enjoying themselves.
Yet one must be fair to Miss Toynbee. Again consistent to the uttermost, she is against all forms of enjoyment, whoever is guilty. In the entire history of the Press, since the first troglodyte scratched the Neolithic News on the walls of his cave, no journalist has been so devoid of a sense of humour. In her Kingdom of Heaven, the poor might have higher incomes, but their pleasure-in-life index would be that of an 1840s workhouse.
But a Tory MP, Greg Clark, has argued that his party should pay more attention to Polly Switch-the-kettle-off and less to Winston Churchill. Churchill said that there should be safety nets for the poor, but no ceilings for the rich. Mr Clark thinks that this is insufficient.
Though not a colourful character, Mr Clark is likeable. But there is a tendency towards incurable seriousness - and that may be part of the problem. By nature diligent and bureaucratic, Mr Clark decided to spice things up a bit. He has yet to learn that it is possible to be original without talking nonsense.
Churchill: when Rab Butler was preparing his 1944 Education Act, he went to the great man asking permission to provide primary-school children with free milk. "Pour it down their throats," was Churchill's reply, as he poured Rab some more champagne. "I wish we could give them this as well." "Winston, you're far too generous with that as it is," said his wife Clemmie, fixing Rab with a baleful glare. Churchill was undeterred. Recharging his own glass, he continued: "I would like every cottage home to enjoy the advantages I've had."
Yet Greg Clark tells Tories to spurn Churchill and to prefer prim and proper priggish Polly. "Nonsense" is an understatement. That said, Churchill did not have all the answers. He assumed that his safety nets would help the poor to get their breath back, so that they could resume their march to the heights. If only it were that simple.
In contemporary Britain, the problem of poverty is exacerbated, compounded and multiplied by the collapse of the family. The poor who are brought up in families have much better prospects of receiving what all children need: order, discipline and an endless supply of hugging, cuddling love. The poor from broken homes are often condemned to broken lives.
The macro-economy has little effect on all that. The answer must lie in a new concept, social entrepreneurship. This involves finding the chinks of light in the darkness of an inner-city slum, where single mothers are disintegrating under the burdens of child rearing and the outcome is feral humans.
To his great credit, the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has become a pioneer of social entrepreneurship. So has the Prince of Wales. His Prince's Trust has enabled some of the very poorest in society to climb back on their own feet, often by starting their own businesses. Prince Charles has created a Churchillian safety net, adapted to modern circumstances.
IDS and Prince Charles are both promoting self-help for the poor. That is anathema to Polly Toynbee. She cannot contain her nostalgia for a world of redistributive taxes and state control, in which the poor were deemed incapable of taking any real decisions about their own lives, and expected to endure a lifetime as social clients and political serfs. A Tory who would take Polly Toynbee's advice on social policy is a Tory who would consult the Warsaw Pact on defence policy.
During the French Revolution, there was a particularly unpleasant set of females, who would do their knitting by the side of the guillotine, watching gleefully as the aristocrats went to their deaths. They were known as les tricoteuses. Miss Toynbee is a modern British tricoteuse, lacking only a guillotine. No sane Tory should provide her with one.Reuse content