Cameron’s conservative ideal of striving is holding back the big society

DAVID Cameron’s conference speech this week was supposed to be a defence of conservative values. But by defining the Tories as “the party of the want to be better-off,” he revealed the limit of his ambitions.

Striving is all very well. A nation caught on the treadmill of striving might well be the beau ideal for tax-gathering politicians, eager to keep their chief source of income running strong, tantalised by a vision of happiness forever kept just out of reach by nice adjustments of marginal rates. But there is a higher and indeed more conservative ideal that Cameron rejects: security of property.

If Cameron really wants all the other things he talked about in his speech: a Big Society in which there is more charitable voluntarism, an enterprising society full of risk-taking entrepreneurs, he should consider standing his view of the world on its head. Because what we really need for all of this is a large, open, prosperous and stable middle class. It’s important that our middle class should be open to those who seek to join its ranks – something that has been made much harder in the last few decades by the destruction of grammar schools, a policy Cameron has no intention of reversing – but it is just as important that it should be easy for the middle class to keep the capital it accumulates.

To visit the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, which displays English middle class living rooms from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, is to see not just evolving tastes but also shrinking horizons: merchants’ houses staffed with servants give way to family apartments where cooking and cleaning is something you do yourself. It’s a change you can see more recently too: in the last fifty years, we have gone from a world where it was common for one salary to be enough to support a middle class household to a world where dual income couples can struggle to stay afloat.

It’s not, of course, that either servants or stay-at-home mothers are a recipe for economic advancement. It is that when these things have become a rare privilege rather than staple middle class options, it is a clear sign that the economic surplus of the middling sort has been raided. Yet it is precisely that surplus that allows the middle class, at the heart of any democratic and commercial society, to offer its time to charity, to risk new business ventures, to educate itself at leisure, to produce and demand the products that make a flourishing culture.

There are many reasons for these economic changes. But with interest rates low, inflation still high and inheritance tax a barrier to wealth passing down the generations, no one can have any illusion that Cameron’s sort of conservatism cares very much about reversing them. To a red Tory perhaps “work isn’t slavery,” as he also said in his speech, but those who believe in property know that demanding hard work without letting people keep what they earn isn’t right at all.

First published: City A.M., 12/10/12

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