Leading article: An attractive destination, but an unclear journey

David Cameron's plans for the state raise some difficult questions

Wednesday 11 November 2009 01:00

David Cameron certainly paints an attractive picture of his revolution. In a speech yesterday he described what he wants his "big society" to look like. A host of public services will be in the hands of innovative charities, social entrepreneurs and grassroots organisations. These will be franchised and funded by the state, but not run by it. Such a shift would result in the inefficiencies of the sclerotic public sector melting away. And deprivation levels would fall as the poor would be increasingly liberated by this new framework of support to fulfil their economic potential.

It is an ambitious vision – and certainly not unwelcome for that. There can be little doubt that the top-down delivery of public services and aspects of the existing welfare system have resulted in a good deal of waste in recent years. They have also had considerably less impact in tackling entrenched poverty in parts of Britain than many hoped for.

Fresh thinking is to be encouraged. And it is also welcome that Mr Cameron, in the distinguished tradition of One Nation Conservatism, has made easing the plight of the very poorest a clear objective for his party.

But though he describes the destination well, Mr Cameron is less convincing when it comes to setting out the journey. The Conservative leader is right to point out that the voluntary sector is often more efficient and innovative than state-run agencies. He might well be right too when he claims that there is a great deal of potential in the voluntary sector waiting to be tapped by a "galvanising, catalysing, prompting and encouraging" state. But it remains the case that if charities and social entrepreneurs are to take over existing government functions, they will require generous public funding.

It is hard to see such a revolution in the provision of public services taking place in the context of the severe budget cuts that the Conservatives have, of late, pressed for. Indeed, savage fiscal retrenchment could conceivably doom Mr Cameron's project. If a future Conservative administration tries to achieve this revolution on the cheap it is likely to collapse, leaving the whole idea discredited.

There is also a tension over means and ends. Mr Cameron is undoubtedly right to argue that the best way to alleviate poverty in the long term is through better education and skills. And his commitment to shake up the state school sector, to this end, is welcome. Yet he cannot escape the reality that poverty is a technical measure of relative income inequality.

Inequality was stable in the 1970s and then began to rise considerably in the 1980s under the Thatcher government. New Labour managed to keep a lid on it through a system of tax credits (fiscal transfers, through the tax system, from the rich to the poor). Yet Mr Cameron is largely hostile to tax credits, pointing out the disincentives and distortions they create. They do indeed have undesirable social side effects. But Mr Cameron will find that dismantling the tax credits system will make it extremely difficult for him to prevent inequality from rising. If the Conservative leader is serious about reducing poverty it makes little sense for him to decommission his most potent weapon.

Mr Cameron's One Nation Conservatism is one of his strengths. And he certainly presents a compelling vision of a more enabling society. But the roadmap to the kind of country that Mr Cameron wants is still incomplete.

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