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.