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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Norman Blackwell in Monday's Times

September 8, 2008

Roll back the State and mend society too

Breaking our dependency culture will reinforce the common values needed for a decent life

As the Conservatives wake up to the prospect of power after the next election, they face the daunting task of fulfilling their twin promises of smaller, less intrusive government - what they have termed the post-bureaucratic State - while encouraging the renaissance of personal responsibility and social values needed to address the “broken society”.

The two go hand in hand. A side-effect of over-government and “political correctness” is that they tend to weaken personal values. We end up doing things, sometimes reluctantly or with contempt, because the law says so, rather than because we believe it is our responsibility.

If the Conservatives succeed in rolling back the nanny state of detailed laws and regulations, the importance of social norms in helping to regulate behaviour will move back centre stage. Equally, to the extent that today's dependency culture reflects the breakdown of shared values, the “broken society” can only be addressed by encouraging individuals, families and communities to take back personal responsibilities. Aspiration and achievement are the best counter to dependency and social exclusion.

Such encouragement of shared social values should not be a licence for a paternalistic State to impose a top-down moral order - it should simply be about ensuring that the State reinforces the natural values embedded in society itself. The Conservatives' flirtation with “nudging” may sound gimmicky, but it reflects a welcome recognition that working with the grain of strong social values is the best way to build a cohesive society where individual initiative can flourish.

So how could a new Conservative government put this into practice? Here are some practical suggestions that could make a real difference.

1. Stop talking about welfare benefits as “entitlements” handed out by some remote, impersonal State and rename them “community support” - recognising that they are provided by fellow citizens to help people in difficulty, but with the obligation that those that can will do their best to get back on their own feet. No one wants a return to the time when welfare was stigmatised, but the language of entitlements has done much to undermine the obligation people should have to look after themselves and their families before turning to others to pay their bills.

2. Replace large swaths of detailed regulations - for example in health and safety - with a general obligation “not to behave irresponsibly”, while making it more difficult for individuals to sue for damages after an innocent accident. Of course we must ensure that companies do not recklessly put the public at risk through negligence, but the law has gone too far in encouraging people to expect that all risks can be removed from everyday life - and seeking to blame all and everyone when things go wrong.

3. Restore rights (and confidence) to teachers, policeman and parents to exercise discretion in breaking up fights and imposing discipline on children. The law should protect children from violence and abuse, but we should trust the vast majority of adults to understand instinctively how to act responsibly in providing children with the clear boundaries they need on acceptable behaviour.

4. Reinforce the importance of marriage and family support as the bedrock of a stable society. Transferable tax allowances for couples where one partner cares for children or elderly relatives would be a powerful signal.

5. Encourage academic achievement and excellence, and abandon the misguided nostrum that all children can emerge equal. While we lavish money and praise on elite athletes and actors, we condemn many able children to lifelong underperformance through mixed ability classes and diluted “no-one-can-fail” school standards. This is particularly unfair on those from poor families who cannot afford the escape route of private education

6. Raise the penalties and police attention given to antisocial behaviour by the disruptive minority - flytipping, public violence - relative to minor traffic offences and other small infringements by the law-abiding majority. Most people respond better when required to set their own standards. The flashing signs that warn drivers that they are speeding are a better approach than speed cameras.

7. Abandon the failed experiment of “multiculturalism” with its politically correct requirement that mainstream social values and beliefs be downplayed in case they “offend” a minority group. We should be a tolerant society, but if we do not give proper respect to traditional British customs we risk creating a rudderless country with no common values.

Following these prescriptions would be a brave departure from the views of the liberal Establishment that has dominated British politics in recent years. For most of the public, however, it would mark the return of a government prepared to embrace the sound common sense and common values that society itself has shaped over generations. Big government has failed - it's time to trust the people again.

Lord Blackwell is chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies

1 comment:

  1. That's a good list. Most of it's already in the MW manifesto but I shall appropriate the bits that aren't.