As with David Cameron before her, Theresa May took office as Prime Minister offering a government for all, rather than for the ‘privileged few’. Hugh Bochel reflects on the fate of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ during the Coalition government, and asks if it provides any clues as to how the May government might address social policy.
Both before and following his election as leader, Cameron and his allies sought to portray the Conservative Party as different from how it had been widely perceived under his immediate predecessors. In particular, they suggested that on a variety of topics, particularly in relation to social issues, such as the NHS, inequality, social mobility and family structure, the Conservative Party would take a different approach. However, the extent of any new or different approach by the Conservatives and the Coalition government have been widely questioned.
One of the major challenges in seeking to understand ‘compassionate Conservatism’ is the range of broadly interchangeable terms that were used by leading Conservatives, their critics and commentators to describe such ideas, including ‘civic’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ Conservatism. Here the term is used for those positions that implied an approach to social issues that differed from a primarily neo-liberal approach to economic and social policy and from Thatcherism, with proponents including David Willetts, Greg Clark, Jeremy Hunt, and even Iain Duncan Smith after his ‘epiphany’ in Glasgow. Critics, however, noted that while talking about social issues and policies in a different way, Cameron and his allies continued to promote ‘traditional’ Conservative views on subjects such as crime and families, and to emphasise taking responsibility from the state and giving it to individuals, families and communities, while following the financial crisis there was a rapid shift towards massive reductions in public spending.
Compassionate Conservatism in this period has frequently been seen as an electoral tool, which, with the combination of symbols and substance associated with it, was useful in the attempt by Cameron and others to ‘detoxify’ the Conservative Party, while also helping, both in opposition and in government, with critiques of Labour’s (and indeed the Liberal Democrats) position, and highlighting differences with Labour on the role and responsibilities of state, individuals, communities and society.