Former Prime Minister Tony Blair once infamously summed up his government’s priorities in three simple words – “education, education, education.” If you were to sum up the current Conservative government’s priorities in a similar phrase, it would probably be “cuts, cuts, cuts.”
The Tories recently attempted to reduce the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and after their climbdown on this, there are now many unspecified cuts supposed to come to fill the £4 billion black hole in the budget, so as to cut the deficit. However, these cuts are coming at a cost, both literal and metaphorical, as these reductions have led to the idea that the Tories are no longer following their principle of “compassionate conservatism.”
Compassionate Conservatism is the idea that conservative techniques can be used to improve the general welfare of society. This ranges from reducing benefit payments to make people find work, to placing a tax on sugary drinks to reduce our sugar consumption (thereby making sure we don’t go to the NHS seeking treatment for diabetes).
Inherently, “compassionate conservatism” is an oxymoron. Modern conservatism involves privatisation, government cuts, contracting-out and a general reduction in the size of the state, as more power goes to the market. All this looks more like exploitation than compassionate conservatism.
Compassionate conservatism was supposed to be instilled in David Cameron’s big idea for his government in 2010, which was the “Big Society.” This initiative was the policy of empowering communities and encouraging volunteering. Compassion was highlighted in a speech Cameron delivered on the Big Society in 2011, in which he said “we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society,” which suggested the return of moralistic politics, similar to the kind of Conservative politics practised by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The launch of Free Schools (with their emphasis on private sector involvement and parents taking more control over their childrens’ education by setting up their own schools) was also linked to the “Big Society” initiative - as it was giving responsibility for education back to the people. On the other hand, there were suggestions at the time that it was designed to cover up the coming budget cuts which were going to come inevitably in the near future. It also helped the government to reduce spending, as some people would be working for free, saving the need to splurge more public funds on civil servants.
But today, in 2016, Cameron has ruthlessly undermined his principle of compassionate conservatism and the “Big Society” through his attempt to reduce PIP payments. The reduction of PIP is catastrophic to the themes of Big Society and Compassionate Conservatism.
PIP cuts caused the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, until recently the Work and Pensions Secretary. IDS claimed the cuts to the disability allowance (PIP) were a “compromise too far” in his resignation letter, and that the government should have been cutting money from pensions instead of hitting young working families and the disabled. To target these groups is morally indefensible, as it is leaving the most unfortunate in more difficult circumstances as the cost of living increases.
Furthermore, it is creating a generational battle between the baby boomers (now pensioners) and the young. At the moment, the Conservatives win many of their votes from the old, but not the young (which is probably the reason for this cut politically). However, cutting benefits to the poor and disabled is not morally defensible, regardless of the political or economic calculations involved.
All this is damaging the image of the “Big Society.” It rubbishes Cameron’s view that his government is a “One Nation” Disraelian government. It is much closer to the central tenets of modern conservatism – increasing the power of big business and contracting-out public services to the private sector. After his attempt to reduce PIP payments, Cameron cannot call his majority Tory government a Compassionate Conservative government any longer. For it is most certainly not caring, loving or any other synonym of “compassionate.”