Compassionate Conservatism and Social Justice – bedfellows or bugbears?


Talk to most Labour supporters about ‘compassionate conservatism’, and they’ll scoff at the very notion, as though the evil Tories had stolen the robe of Christ and were masquerading as an angel of light, purely for a bit of moral spin and ephemeral electoral gain. Tories don’t really care about poverty, disability, social exclusion or inequality: they’re just in it for themselves. It’s champagne and caviar day and night: the poor can eat cake – Battenberg, parkin or fondant fancies; not lemon and gianduja chocolate or coffee and walnut.

And talk to many Conservatives about ‘social justice’, and they’ll look at you blankly and think ‘Iain Duncan Smith’. He’s doing some good work to get the indolent back to work, but it’s basically a slogan to justify high levels of taxation and public spending. Social Policy has never been able to eliminate social need because there is no way to distinguish needs from wants. And that’s the true Conservative mission. Since need is largely relative in the UK, the economic argument between the parties boils down to a few percentage points of the GNP. Labour will always spend more than the Tories, and the SNP and Liberal Democrats will spend more than both combined. Poor IDS has allowed himself to get caught up in the pursuit of an absolute concept of social justice, which is neither realistic nor, in the last analysis, conservative.

And there we reach an impasse of general political apprehension. It is state welfare bureaucracy versus ‘little platoons’ and self-help. And while the parties do battle over whose philosophy is more righteous, another man is made jobless because another local company has gone to the wall and another multinational corporation has bussed in cheaper labour from Poland or Romania or somewhere else we’re not allowed to mention because it’s racist. Such details seem to escape the theoreticians in this land who hate looking at trees and leaves, preferring instead to discuss forests as an abstraction.

We hear talk of bygone Tories forging the foundations of social justice – one thinks of William Wilberforce or the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. They paved the way for Iain Duncan Smith, who himself draws attention to what John Profumo and Clement Attlee discovered at Toynbee Hall – that the people you seek to help can help themselves if given guidance and support, rather than being pushed aside so ‘the professionals’ can order and categorise and administrate and turn them into subjects of the bureaucratic welfare machine, as Gordon Brown did and Jeremy Corbyn would doubtless do again.

If you read Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty you will find that much of Iain Duncan Smith’s mission owes a philosophical debt to Hayek – that is, helping people to do for themselves what they are prevented from doing by top-down administrative solutions. The Elizabethan Poor Law (Poor Relief Act 1601), for example, was parish-based and bottom-up. The New Poor Law (Poor Law Amendment Act 1834) was top-down because it created Poor Law Unions which were so aloof and indifferent that they precipitated riots in Northern England and incited the mill-owners to anger because the law pushed people into destitution.

For many, IDS’s ‘social justice’ is a mission to nowhere: he is just as prescriptive as Gordon Brown ever was, and his prescription will have just as much success. £billions are still being spent on welfare to maintain the status quo. Compliance officers and equality monitors are still watching the Roman Catholic adoption agencies..

There are those who believe that only the state has the capacity to deliver a fair national systems of welfare. They allude to the NHS trust model, decrying the ‘postcode lottery’ that people in Gerrards Cross live longer than people in Hull. Regions are unequal in wealth and health, and so they must be equalised. And as bishops see in their dioceses and priests in their parishes, people’s prospects are randomly apportioned: they don’t get what they deserve, but what they can claim.

Compassionate conservatives and proponents of social justice aspire to the same virtuous ends, but the means have become terribly muddled. What used to be done from parish to parish is now being done nationally by the state. Welfare has moved from localism to centralism; from diversity to uniformity. Local welfare systems break down because they are local, yet the national welfare system is floundering because it is national. The more money the state spends on its people, the more power it has over them. The question then becomes one of how much we are willing to pay for our welfare; not how it is organised.

While social justice might imply a just distribution of wealth in society, it does not necessarily mean an equal distribution. Social justice requires fair treatment and equality of opportunity: it does not require perpetual redistribution toward sameness. And so IDS can both consider himself an advocate of social justice and call himself a compassionate Conservative. Social justice does not try to eradicate the deep inequalities of skill, and nor should it. Such inequalities are part of what makes the world diverse and interesting, as they encourage competition, and consequently deliver satisfaction. Life would lack so much meaning without them.

And then there is the tyranny of meritocracy, for why should those who ‘deserve’ most get most when their deserving is largely determined by inherited genetic IQ, the good fortune of parental income and the national lottery of living near a good school? There must be social justice in some sense in a democracy, or those who are down-trodden will reject the system or despise its maintenance.

The problem is that whole books and treatises have been written about social justice without ever offering a definition of it. It is allowed to float in the air as if everyone will recognise an instance of it when it appears. This vagueness seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is: ‘We need a law against that.’ In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.

The assertion is that “society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely”. This is virtuous because it is “the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge”. It is reasonable and necessary for the construction of the just social order.

Yet there is a philosophical tension. Conservatives also talk of ‘natural justice’ – that is those rights which emanate from natural obligations, or ‘just dealing’, between people. These can be independently understood, and the consequent human actions individually owned. But social justice implies that all wealth (and even all advantage) belongs to society, which somehow has to ensure a ‘just’ distribution.

Conservatives do not believe that one man’s intelligence or one woman’s beauty (and the gender of both of these nouns is interchangeable) is a cause of injustice: it is simply the way things naturally are, and is therefore a naturally just state of affairs. Is it not therefore consistently Conservative to insist that neither is it unjust that one person is born richer than another, or that one group of people holds one proportion of the national wealth, while another group holds a different proportion? The only injustice would be if these states of affairs were brought about through injustice, which conviction lies at the core of compassionate conservatism, which is itself tautologous, for conservatism is intrinsically compassionate: one cannot conserve if one does not care.

For advocates of social justice, it is ultimately unjust to distribute wealth unequally among people who are all equal in their right to claim a portion of it. This must apply to income, homes, utilities, and jobs – the ‘social’ absolutes. The problem for Conservative thinkers is that this perpetually succours the poor and casts down the rich. It is the statist, high-tax, corporatist, continental model of social justice, entrenched in the ‘Christian right’ traditions all over Europe, yet antithetical to the Anglo-Saxon model which is built upon a different understanding of the responsibilities of the individual and the power of the state.

The adoption of the ethic of ‘social justice’ in the Conservative Party moved it towards a continental concept of conservatism. The problem, as has been long observed, is that it does not work. Social justice cannot eradicate those deep random and genetic inequalities of skill, industry, beauty and talent which may naturally cause some to rise and others to fall. There is lottery and luck; godsend and misfortune. No matter how many policy documents politicians write, how many laws a government passes, or how many billions of pounds a treasury spends, those inequalities persist because they are, ultimately, completely natural.

  • Anton

    I can’t discuss something I can’t define, namely “social justice”, but I can grasp the issue of whether the State should direct taxpayer money to the jobless. In a post-agrarian society there is not automatic work for everyone, and the choice is between not helping unemployed people who have no money to buy even food, risking their starvation if there is inadequate charity, and paying people to do nothing, thereby disincentivising work.

    I believe that God’s wisdom as written in the Law of Moses is adequate to the situation – even though ancient Israel was agrarian. The tithe was mandatory, and some of it was to be used for the relief of the poor, but no direction was given on how it was to be doled out. That means it was at the discretion of local community leaders. I propose the same system today: an element of tax to go towards poor relief, to be handed out by local community leaders who have personal knowledge of the applicants, and can therefore distinguish want from need, the indolent from genuine jobseekers.

    It needs to be acknowledged that, in a fallen world, no system is perfect. God only gave the Law because of sin and the Fall. But his ways are going to be the best in such a world. Certainly I do not wish to see people starve in my country, nor wish to subsidise sloth via a system that hands out money according to a mathematical formula taking no account of the morality of applicants. It is a disgrace that some Anglican bishops have spoken against the notion of distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving poor. They forget that taxes fall heaviest on the working poor. They speak frankly enough, so let me do the same: they are unfit for their positions and they should resign.

    How to minimise problems in such a system? Give the power to assist to a broadly based committee of locals, and allow an appeals system with a quick procedure. Further suggestions welcome.

    • David

      Very well put.
      We need to eliminate both subsidising sloth and involuntary poverty. How to do that is always difficult.
      As an Anglican I agree with your bold and true statement that those Bishops you refer to are unfit for their positions. They allow their politics to lead their faith, that’s the situation.

    • Sir Walter Tyrell

      Unemployment can arise for many reasons and the distribution of unemployment is based on many factors, including personal ability and willingness to travel under the specific prevailing circumstances. There is usually no fine line between the indolent and genuine job-seekers, as the most industrious will not sacrifice everything (home, health and friendships) for only a few days’ low-paid work and even the laziest can be persuaded to work if there is no alternative.
      Full employment is almost impossible in advanced industrial societies because there is almost invariably a gap between rapidly changing demands and long-acquired skills, meaning that it is more efficient to over-employ the people with the skills of the moment than to retrain everybody with all the possible skills needed. Moreover, many of those who have the skills of the moment will seek to put up demarcation barriers, create monopolies and find other ways to hog all the work, if it is in their interest.
      However, there is everything to be said for systems which try to encourage flexibility from employers, job-seekers and existing employees. There is far less to be said for forcing people into job-creation schemes which end up using resources which could have been better used elsewhere.

      • chiefofsinners

        and the Nobel prize for economics goes to…

    • chiefofsinners

      What do you make of God’s provision for the Year of Jubilee? Every 50th year all debts to be cancelled and all property to redistributed evenly. Say it quietly but it all sounds a bit… socialist or at least heavily interventionist.
      Of course they never actually had a year of jubilee, human nature being what it is. But the exile in Babylon lasted for exactly the number of years they had missed, so God ensured that the land had its rest even if the people didn’t.

      • Anton

        It’s one way of having a bankruptcy law, and needs to be taken together with the requirement that if you couldn’t pay your debts then your creditor could insist that you be sold in his favour as a slave until the next debt cancellation. (There was also a 7-year cycle.)

  • IanCad

    Well; you certainly didn’t write this just between morning prayers and the first cup of coffee.

    Equality – the beast that denies the purpose of our Creator. Sounds so reasonable, and, to the unthinking mind – incontrovertibly just. From each according to his needs—–.

    Fairness – that which governments should strive for.

    “–for conservatism is intrinsically compassionate: one cannot conserve if one does not care.”
    So very well said.

  • Johnny Rottenborough

    One state of affairs ‘brought about through injustice’ is the restriction of the best schooling to those children enjoying ‘the good fortune of parental income and the national lottery of living near a good school’. The Conservatives could eradicate the injustice, if they desired, by reestablishing grammar schools, thus enabling even the very poorest to ‘help themselves’. That they refuse to do so is proof enough that the ‘Tories don’t really care’.

    • David

      They care about gaining power mainly, I am afraid. Grammar Schools were indeed a ladder upwards delivering justice to the able children of the aspirant working class. Their neglect proves your point.

      • Jack failed his 11+ as did most of his friends. Fortunately, as he was a Catholic, he attended a most excellent small Secondary School. His mates went to the local Comprehensive School. Eventually, as his confidence grew and he matured, and under the dedicated guidance of quality talented teachers, Jack’s academic talents surfaced. He gained entry to University and then to a secure and well paid career. His pals, many of whom are brighter than Jack, did not do so well in life and he met a good few of them when he started out as Probation Officer in his home town.

        • David

          Thank you for that account Jack. I am glad that all worked out well for you. Credit goes to your Catholic Schools as well as yourself, for persistence.

          I think that the interface between the many very good Grammars, and the perhaps, not all good Secondary Schools needed improving. The system may have been too binary, pass/fail, in its approach. But to scrap something that was basically good, rather than build upon it, very much offends my “conserve, improve, encourage and spread” ideas of conservatism. It smacked of vindictive class war, not a well thought through reform.

          My opinions are based on personal experience. I passed the 11 plus, being both a studious and outdoors child, to attend a fairly middling to indifferent quality Grammar School in industrial South Wales. It was not posh. Two years later, the Labour Local Authority, with inadequate thought and resources, forced together my Grammar with a mile and a half distant former Secondary School. It was badly rushed. Teachers literally had to drive or cycle between the two sites between periods. Things were not good. That was obvious even to me, a 13 year old. Money for books, especially for the “O Level” and Sixth Form “A” years soon ran out. Being me, I became even more determined to reach the English University of my choice. Moreover, my parents, being modestly prosperous, bought me the books I needed, but some kids did without, in certain subjects. I began to dislike Socialism strongly, and I still do !
          So we have two experiences, different lives – different experiences !
          The way it was done by Labour has left a legacy of bitterness and frustration in the nation, even now, I believe.

        • IanCad

          I did better than you Jack.
          Got a “B.” The interview {failed) was the most enlightening fifteen minutes of my life.

    • Anton

      The main argument against grammar schools was the fact that a crucial exam at age 11 determined whether children went to a school that educated them to the full or gave them a less full education. Can the excellence of grammar schools be recreated without that feature?

      • Phil R

        Look no further than Germany for an education system that works

        grammar schools technical schools etc

        sounds familiar?

        Except it is very different to what we used to have

      • Johnny Rottenborough

        @ Anton—In the days of the eleven plus, the best state education was awarded on merit, regardless of family circumstances. Today, it is awarded on family circumstances, regardless of merit. If we accept that where there are winners there will also be losers—to quote a higher authority, ‘inequalities persist because they are completely natural’—then it’s a question of which system most benefits the whole country. To my mind, it was the system that found our best brains and gave them the most rigorous education. As important as the economic benefit to the country was social mobility, indispensable for a country which aspired to ‘one nation’.

        To answer your question, children who are not academically gifted should still receive the best education we can give them, tailored to their abilities.

        • Anton

          Sure, I agree that that’s the government’s job. My concern is with late developers or those who did not do themselves justice in the 11+. I am totally against unstreamed classrooms. But is it necessary to stream at school level as well as at classroom level?

          • IanCad

            Also hugely difficult for July babies.

      • There had to be that feature though Anton.. It was an examination of what the child had learned and the level of ability up to age 11- whether academic or practical. Some people are just not cut out for academia. Sending those with a practical ability to do theories is a waste as it fails to develop their skills.

        • Anton

          I don’t disagree; I just want to tease out why a little more. Why not schools for all abilities but with classes for differing abilities?

          • Phil R

            I agree that the determining factor is the quality of the school not the type.

            Also exam results are only one factor

    • chiefofsinners

      Schooling would still be unjust because:
      – the wealthiest parents would still buy private education
      – up to the age of 11 the current situation would still pertain. By 11 the benefits of a good primary education will put middle class kids well ahead of poorer ones, so they will do better on the 11+.
      – post 11, grammar schools in the wealthiest areas would still prosper most, attracting the best teachers.
      And let’s not forget that private schooling saves the exchequer an estimated £12 billion a year. If all the children in public schools had to be educated at the taxpayer’s expense there would be much less money to spend on educating the poor.
      Nor let us forget that children only spend 20% of their waking hours in school.

  • David

    This is an exceptionally well expressed set of very useful ideas that reflect deep truths, so thank you for it.
    True conservatives work with the grain of reality, our human nature, fallen and inadequate as we all are. It recognises that we are not, by nature, possessing of equal talents. Yet still it searches for a social justice, whilst recognising it is ultimately indefinable and unattainable.
    Socialists and other seekers of utopia, refuse to engage with reality; they attempt in vain, to create a different world more to their liking. They use models or theories, disconnected from the real world, to guide them. So they stumble, as none of us can escape from our own fallen, inadequate nature. Sadly a trail of waste and pain is sometimes left to mark the passage of their futile efforts.
    The conservative, being connected to reality, wants to achieve results. The utopian seeker is more concerned with the theory and the effort, results being an secondary consideration.

  • David

    I want social justice. I know people who don’t work who have nicer homes than those that do, that is injustice.

    • Anton

      Would that be Dukes, Earls etc or did you have others in mind?

      • David

        Mainly pro single parents

  • Sir Walter Tyrell

    Marketing: When we push people in the river and sell them lifebelts.

    • chiefofsinners

      The Gospel: free lifebelts for all

    • Socialism:
      Everybody’s in the river together and nobody is left to make lifebelts.

      • chiefofsinners

        Conservatism: swimming lessons

        • … with swimming aids if it’s “One Nation Conservatism”.

        • Only for those who can afford them!

      • chiefofsinners

        Corbynomics: a run on the banks

        • Very good …. You are a man of wit, Sir.

  • Phil R

    Injustice is the exploitation or taking of those things that God has given others to enjoy.

    It is not about equality as God has not given an equal measure to each individual.

    It is not about rights based purely on personal preference.

    • Injustice is broader. The goods of the earth are there for all of humanity and simply because God has given some more than others does not mean there is no responsibility on their part for others. No man should go hungry, or die, or be homeless because he has no access to work, housing and health care.

      • Phil R

        “No man should go hungry, or die, or be homeless because he has no access to work, housing and health care.”

        You are joking right?

        Social Justice is access to those 3.


      • Inspector General

        Oh Lord! You really can’t forget you were once a Communist Party member, can you?

        • With respect, Inspector, you can be a tad dense at times.
          Communism is a political ideology offering a materialist ‘explanation’ for inequality and injustice (the two are not the same) and a utopian strategy for eradicating with it. The Christian path of compassion and solidarity with other men, because we are all God’s children, and solutions based on subsidiarity, are somewhat different.

  • Inspector General

    No one. Nobody at all, should be on long term benefits without attending a tribunal at least once a year to see how they are getting on. More regular in some cases. Not to castigate them necessarily, but to give them practical help and advice to get them off benefits. Even to allocate them a job, there and then. Had this approach been in place 40 years ago, one is in no doubt that ‘appearing in front of the panel’ would have discouraged the army of career benefit drawers out there today.

    If IDS could arrange that still, he would go down in history as a great social reformer.

    Once we remind people they need to maintain themselves by working if they have no other income, then we can send the EU people home. Our lazy feckless indolents can have their jobs. And to help them see the light, pay benefits to the worst of the hangers on in the form of food vouchers, rent vouchers, etc. If they want to the have the pound sterling in their pockets, then they know what they must do.

    Now THAT is the kind of Conservative compassion that wins election after election….

    • Inspector, broaden your perspective away from benefits. Think Northern Ireland in the 1960’s. Was there “social justice” for Roman Catholics who were deliberately deprived of jobs, descent housing and the vote because of orchestrated Protestant discrimination? What should a government do is such a situation?

      • Inspector General

        What the hell are you on about…

        • Social Justice, old chap. Were the Catholic Irish in the North idiots for falling in the’ river’ or did we all collectively have a duty to address the injustice facing them?

          • Inspector General

            Ah, one now understands the problem, Jack. You are hopeless at analogy….

          • Hmmm … no answer then.

          • Inspector General

            No question, dear chap…

      • avi barzel

        You do what your, the Inspector’s and my parents did; if the environment is hopeless, you get yourself and your family to a more favourable place. In most cases, the inherent problems with the government, economy and culture are insurmountable and no amount of wishing for fuzzy “social justice” will help you.

  • carl jacobs

    Justice: When we go upstream and help people keep from falling into the river in the first place

    That’s not actually justice. That is prevention. The deliberate conflation indicates there are some assumptions in this analogy that require unpacking. How do we get from prevention to justice?

    Let’s begin with the river. It’s an alien and dangerous environment for people. The analogy states that people are at risk of drowning. Typically people who find themselves at risk of drowning in a river have done something stupid or careless. That removes the analogy from the realm of justice. So we must ask of the analogy “Why are these people in the river such that keeping them out of the river is a justice imperative?”. It would seem that there is an assumption that these people are in the river due to someone else’s indifference or carelessness or neglect.

    Rivers also are by nature constrained. We know where they are and it is fairly easy for people to protect themselves from its dangers. They simply have to move away from the water. If people willfully place themselves in danger, we have again removed justice from the analogy. So it seems the analogy assumes that people are passive actors in relation to the river. They can’t move away, and they can’t avoid falling in. They are helpless victims subjected to the water by impersonal forces, or perhaps they are sacrificed for the self-interest of another. This is how justice is introduced. The presence of a man in the water is attributed to the fault of another. Someone else must be to blame.

    So who is the responsible agent trapping people by the river through design or neglect? The analogy doesn’t say. What does the river represent? The analogy doesn’t say. The reader is free to supply his own definitions. He is focused on the need produced by the prospect of imminent death. And he is subtly guided to the conclusion that it is someone else’s fault. Impersonal deadly force plus neglect/selfishness equals a demand for justice. Remember. It’s easy to protect people from the river. If someone wanted to do so, it could be easily done. Therefore someone must be preventing it.

    You can learn a lot about social justice by studying its analogies. Passive victims. Helpless victims. Malignant actors preventing easy solutions. Fortunately we have activists to save the day.

    • “Typically people who find themselves at risk of drowning in a river have done something stupid or careless.”

      That’s quite an assertion, Carl.

      • Inspector General

        It’s true…plenty of drownings around here. Idiot children a lot of the time. What do you want us to do, put chains round them to stop them swimming…

      • carl jacobs

        What do you think is false about it, Jack?

        • Jack didn’t say it was false, just a big assumption. A working man on the breadline with a wife and young children discovers he has cancer and has no means to fund medical treatment or provide for his family. Was he stupid, careless or just unfortunate?

    • Phil R

      In my experience the poor are rarely poor entirely because of their own actions

      Someone else is often to blame Carl.

      We don’t see it because we don’t want to look too deeply.

      That is the essence of injustice

      That is why we are told to be neighbours.

      BTW the Bible tells us it how it is. That is the world is an unjust place.

  • Inspector General

    One wishes to make a point. Grammar schools, of which this man was fortunate to attend, gave you an upwardly mobile route out from the working class and all the misery being in there entailed . The Inspector is extremely bitter they are now few and far between. As for some of the working class, they can kiss the Inspector’s arse as the parody to the ‘Red Flag’ goes. Ghastly people who argue in the street, trade drugs, drink to stupidity levels and then vomit in people’s gardens, before going home and giving their wife a black eye, or worse…

    • You are not a good advert for Grammar Schools, Inspector.

    • sarky

      Sounds like plenty of middle class aswell. Bad behaviour isn’t limited by class.

  • chiefofsinners

    Here is a trustworthy saying:

    “if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.”

    “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
    – 1 Timothy 5v 4&8

    Social justice begins at home.

  • Social justice is left wing
    gobbledygook! It’s a made up expression that exists only in the
    minds of the left wing ‘progressives’ to further their cause of
    communal living by bringing everyone down to the lowest common
    denominator whilst they themselves enjoy the champagne lifestyle
    afforded them by the taxpayer.

    And on the other side social justice
    doesn’t exist. Where is the social justice in David Camerons’s ‘Help
    to Buy’ scheme for example? The only people who have benefited are
    the Co. executives!

    “Barratt Profits surge thanks to housing shortage and Help To Buy Scheme.

    UK’s largest house-builder to make more than £560m as a result of government policy for first time buyers and rising house prices”

    From 7:10

    • IanCad

      The Help To Buy Scheme is insanity. Someday, sooner or later, home prices must reflect reality.

      • Anton

        They reflect the reality of low interest rates. When these rise – and they are set in the bond markets, not by Janet Yellen or Mark Carney – then prices will fall.

  • Mike Stallard

    Jesus, as I understand His mission, was not interested in politics that much.
    The Good Samaritan helped the person next to him. We are not told what party he supported.
    And, in a very nasty political situation – Roman authority, Jewish corruption in the Temple, terrorism everywhere – Jesus seems to have paid very little attention to reforming the government. And in no way did he preach that the other side had to be treated like the enemy.