From Civic Conservatism to Civic Capitalism

Home Affairs IBy Tom Hunt 

The idea of Civic Conservatism was central to David Willetts when he wrote his seminal text on Modern Conservatism in 1992. He presented the argument that for a Conservative, the key aim should be to reconcile support for free markets – which deliver freedom and prosperity – with the belief in the power and inherent worth of historic communities. Willetts argued that the tensions between these two beliefs are in fact not that strong, and free markets and communities actually mutually reinforce one another.

These ideas are all the more important twenty years later. But for such an argument to withstand scrutiny, organicism needs to be at its heart.  In other words, free markets should be able to feed into, and strengthen, communities and human relationships, while historic communities should provide the bedrock of values upon which free markets operate.

The kind of organicism that David Willetts’ form of Civic Conservatism needs to operate, requires an element of symbiosis between free markets and communities. There needs to be a blood stream that enables the interchange of virtues associated with free markets and community life. At their best, free markets enable communities to thrive and move forward, while the lack of them leads to the stagnation and the ossification of community life. On the other hand, free markets without communities over time become detached from the relational underpinnings and values upon which they depend.

Unfortunately, the kind of economic system that has been in existence over the last decade has been miles away from such organicism. In fact, one could argue that the level of damage, and the degree to which capitalism decoupled from communities, makes the return to Civic Conservatism incredibly difficult. However, in many ways, the kind of Tory organicism associated with David Willetts’ Civic Conservative vision still has the potential to propel Conservatism. For this to happen, the ideas in the book need to be re-visited and made relevant to the changed context within which we live today. In other words, how can “Modern Conservatism” be applied to a post-Blair, post-crash Britain?

The dilemma that confronts those trying to promote a new form of Tory organicism was summed up brilliantly by Mary Riddell: “Blair and Browns deal under which the market was left to rip and the dividends parcelled out to the needy, led to an increase in inequality.” The last Labour government went a long way towards severing the links between free markets on the one hand, and human relationships and communities on the other. Doing so, it turned huge swathes of the country off the transformative virtues of free markets and made the kind of symbiosis that is needed to promote Civic Conservatism impossible.

The severity of the chasm that opened up under Labour between the completely free and poorly regulated financial sector on the one hand, and the rest of the economy, stifled by punitive taxes and regulations on the other, fuelled the perception amongst ordinary people that capitalism exists a million miles away from them and the relationships that they hold dear. Consequently, the premise of Willetts’ argument made in 1992, where free markets promote morality and strengthen communities, due to their relational basis, has now been made redundant. Without a sustained attempt to re-embed free markets within human relationships, British politics will be swinging between State Capitalism and Crony Capitalism.

At first glance, recent pronouncements by David Cameron and Ed Miliband, debating capitalism, sound very similar. Is there any difference between the “Responsible capitalism” that Labour has been calling for, and the “Popular capitalism” backed by the Tories?

Miliband seems to be arguing for a containment strategy with regards to capitalism. In many senses, though such a strategy appears different from the one pursued by Blair and Brown, it is profoundly similar. Under Blair and Brown free markets were seen as a necessary evil, something to be contained and milked for what they were worth because they were of no inherent value. Moreover, free markets and communities were seen as things to keep apart, not integrate. The State Capitalism now offered by Miliband to combat the deficiencies in the Blair-Brown model of free markets ripped apart from human relationships, shows a reluctant appreciation of the flaws within the Blair-Brown thinking, not a significant progression in Labour’s understanding of free-markets and what they need in order to flourish.

However, David Cameron’s support for “popular capitalism” shows that there does seem to be at least an understanding of what is required to promote a more inclusive and accessible capitalism. The question is whether Cameron is bold enough to move decisively towards the more participatory economic system required.  If Tory organicism is going to have legs in the twenty first century the “Big society” agenda needs to be married with the kind of radical economic localism that could reintegrate markets and communities.

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