British Conservatives’ Radical Anti-Povery Program

UK Tory leader David Cameron recently made a speech that American readers might find curious coming from a “conservative.”

Conservative leader David Cameron has promised to get tough on the causes of poverty, as he set out his plans to end what he dubbed a “moral disgrace”. While Labour had relied on the “clunking mechanisms of the state”, a Tory government would also target unemployment, education and family breakdown, he said. And he called for a massive boost in the involvement of the social and charity sectors in battling to raise standards of living for the worst off.

Mr Cameron spoke out in a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the Scarman Report – which identified poverty as a principal cause of the Brixton riots. “I believe that poverty is an economic waste and a moral disgrace,” he said. Poverty should not be measured in absolute terms, but relative: “the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted,” he said. “So I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.”

There was a “crucial difference” between his party’s approach and that of Labour, he said. “Tackling poverty involves much more than the redistribution of money through the tax and benefits system. We have to think about the causes of poverty,” he added. “We have to disaggregate the problem – to look at the various types of poverty that exist, and the factors that contribute to them. Because for most people, material poverty is a consequence of other factors: family breakdown; drug and alcohol addiction; unemployment; poor education. “Entrenched poverty often reflects the absence of the supporting structures and constructive relationships which help you stand on your own feet and which are the foundation of aspiration, ambition and hope. This is what government should be focusing on. Instead, Labour rely too heavily on redistributing money, and on the large, clunking mechanisms of the state.”

Cernig notes that this speech ties in well with a discussion we recently had in OTB’s comments section:

Sure smells like positive freedom to me – something which has always been anathema to the American political Right, who view freedom only in it’s negative definition. Certainly, it is far more centrist than any American conservative leader could get away with.

So…have the UK’s Tories lapsed into socialism or are the U.S.’ conservatives just leaning too far right and finding themselves way behind on the compassion curve?

In answer to Cernig’s question: Yes, I think the UK Conservatives, and those in Europe generally, are far to the left of the American variety. Indeed, they’re arguably to the left of the American Democratic party. Socialism was born in Europe and has always been more appealing there for a variety of reasons, including a more pronounced formal class structure, the absence of a frontier mentality, and a more homogeneous population.

The American political culture has always lionized the “rugged individual.” In the very earliest days of the Virginia colony, John Smith proclaimed, “Those who will not work, will not eat.” That mentality stuck with us until the New Deal, when the Great Depression spread the misery so wide that utter self-reliance seemed cruel. Even after that, though, there has been a stigma associated with “welfare” programs, partly owing to the fact that “those people” (blacks, Hispanics, illegal aliens, white trash, etc.) were disproportionately on the receiving end.

Still, Cameron and I agree on much of this. There’s little doubt that there are underlying causes to poverty beyond simply the choice not to work hard. Cameron identifies the obvious ones. Then again, I can’t imagine Tony Blair would disagree with any of this, either, aside from the charge that Labour is ignoring “root causes”.

My concern, however, is that saying poverty is a “disgrace” and that these causes must be “tackled” and “focus[ed] on” is empty talk. Coming from someone who seeks to wield the power of the state, though, they strike me as potentially quite scary, indeed, because it is difficult to envision a way in which government might alleviate relative poverty that would not be harmful to individual freedom and destructive to the engine of our economy.

Perhaps because it is so easy to say, it is often said that it is disgraceful that there are poor people in such a wealthy society as ours. The problem with this notion, however, is that it ignores the very reasons that the society is so wealthy to begin with. Chief among these are freedom, opportunity, and incentive.

To be sure, “family breakdown; drug and alcohol addiction; unemployment” and “poor education” make it extremely difficult for some to compete. Had I a magic wand, I would waive it and alleviate these conditions (except perhaps unemployment, which is necessary at the margins to enable the creative destruction that makes our economy so robust). Lacking such a device, however, it is not clear to me that government can effect a cure for these things that not worse than the disease.

Family breakdown is obviously devastating. Should government strip people’s right to divorce? Make it more difficult to marry to begin with? Force unmarried poor women to have abortions? What, exactly?

Drug and alcohol addiction certainly makes gainful employment challenging, Ulysses Grant and Christopher Hitchens notwithstanding. Most countries have made the use of addictive drugs without a medical prescription illegal. We have also tried the prohibition of alcohol. We have health education programs starting in grammar school. Yet, the problem remains. How, exactly, would government go about curing it?

We’ve been in the business of public education nearly two hundred years now. We have tried varied approaches, scientific and otherwise, to improve it. Unfortunately, we are trying to achieve mutually exclusive goals. Education can be either universal or it can be rigorous; it can not simultaneously be both. We have opted for the former, on the grounds that every child deserves the opportunity for education. In recent years, we have extended this principle even to the mentally retarded and mentally unstable. The natural consequence, however, is dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.

Aside from the issue of solvency, I wonder how far Cameron would have us go in ending relative poverty. There are some things of which most of us are deprived that Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates “take for granted.” This has never struck me as problematic. How much inequality are the British Conservatives willing to permit?

If we are simply talking about ensuring that the least among us have access to adequate nutrition, shelter, and clothing, then the discussion of “relative” poverty is silly. This is “absolute” poverty. Would Cameron include a decent car? Color television? Broadband Internet? NFL Sunday Ticket? A good bottle of pinot noir a couple days a week and a bar stocked with Lagavulin and Gordon’s? Where exactly do we draw the line? And how would the government go about enforcing this without “rely[ing’ too heavily on redistributing money, and on the large, clunking mechanisms of the state”?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Old joke from the 1960’s review Beyond the Fringe (explaining America’s political parties to Brits):

    “There’s the Republican Party which is roughly the equivalent of our Conservative Party and the Democratic Party which is roughly the equivalent of our Conservative Party.”

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    America’s current system of public education has had one purpose since its inception in the late 19th century: acculturation. Disconnecting the kids from the culture of their parents (in the late 19th century those were immigrants, mostly Eastern (Jewish) and Southern (Catholic) European. It’s been remarkably successful.

    Its secondary purpose, turning the kids into Americans, has been somewhat less successful.

    Our experiment in universal education is only about 50 years old. For half that it’s changed from being a respectable profession for middle class and upper middle class women to being a path to the middle class for minorities. Whether that is compatible with its presumed objectives is a good question.

  3. floyd says:

    “there is nothing you can do for a dollar, that government can’t do half as well for a thousand.” This statement is both generous and optimistic!!

  4. Cernig says:

    Thanks for a well-thought out response, James. It generated a another post of mine on the nature of compassionate conservatism and the role a notion of positive freedom can play in that.

    Regards, Cernig

  5. floyd says:

    cernig; please explain this “positive freedom” should it read socialism? or guaranteed minimum income, as i suspect? or is it something totally different?

  6. Cernig says:

    Hi Floyd,

    Here’s an old post of mine on the subject but Brit poli-scientist Julian Baggini puts it thusly:

    [Negative freedom] means a lack of coercion or intrusion from government in the lives of citizens. At the national level, it means a lack of intervention from outsiders in the life of the country. In both cases, the key idea is that the individual and the nation are both entities which alone have the absolute right to determine their own destinies for themselves.

    …Negative freedom is vitally important. But the left has always recognised another from of liberty: positive freedom. This is the practical ability to actually make choices and live your life in the way you want. The problem is that negative freedom alone doesn’t guarantee this. If you have no opportunities in life, the fact that the government isn’t interfering with your business is small consolation…Freedom only becomes real if people are empowered to make choices for themselves, and they may need the help of others to do so.

    Cameron’s speech is in a strong British conservative tradition that includes Adam Smith (who believed aiding the poorest of society was one of the necessary functions of government), Benjamin Disraeli and the younger Winston Churchill which predates both Marx and Thatcherite/American Republican economics and acknowledges that “positive freedom” has an important role in ethical governing. I also suspect, very strongly, that those who founded and shaped America would have agreed with Smith, Disraeli et al – since all the records show they were heavily influenced by the seminal Scottish Enlightenment thinkers who always had a place for positive freedom in their work.

    Regards, Cernig

  7. Cernig says:


    I suppose the key concept is – how do you pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have no boots?

    You write:

    Had I a magic wand, I would waive it and alleviate these conditions (except perhaps unemployment, which is necessary at the margins to enable the creative destruction that makes our economy so robust). Lacking such a device, however, it is not clear to me that government can effect a cure for these things that not worse than the disease.

    Proponents of negative freedom alone leave the attempt to find such a cure right there. They fail to even try. Those who accept both positive and negative freedom counter with something akin to: “Well, just because it is “government” doesn’t mean I should leave my ethics and/or religious convictions at the door. I must at least strive to have my government live up to my personal standards. I must at least try to find a balancing point between positive and negative freedom.”

    Democratic socialists in the UK generally agree – and the Blair/Brown economic model explicitly says – that the balance in the UK had tipped too far towards government intervention in all things. That economic model propelled Labor to three electoral victories and, indeed, all of Blair’s perceived failures have been when he decided to err on the side of too much governmental control of individuals (surveillance, the Iraq war itself, ID cards etc).

    It isn’t an easy balancing point for any government to find, but my religious beliefs tell me it would be morally negligent and intellectually lazy not to at least try solely on the basis that it would be hard work.

    Regards, C

  8. JohnG says:

    The reason why American conservatives reject positive freedom is that the only ways brought up to bring about this positive freedom involve taking away the negative freedoms of others. Also, conceptually it’s easier to accept that people are born with inherent rights that do not depend on others. It’s not the same thing to accept that people are born with inherent rights that force others to do something on their behalf.

    Also, any time someone says “at least we try” or words to that effect, it usually means a really bad idea is coming. “At least we try” signifies that the speaker is doing something to make themselves feel better rather than actually fixing a problem. It’s not enough to assume that doing something will improve the situation; so many disasters of socialism have gone through because people assumed that doing something was better than doing nothing, only to find out that doing something was actually making things worse.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Cernig: “I must at least strive to have my government live up to my personal standards.”

    Not at all. I do what I do out of personal choice. Government achieves what it achieves through coercion. Therefore, I wish for government to have a very limited role.

  10. Woodstock says:

    Poverty has a lot more to do with education than anything else in my opinion (at least absolute poverty). Improving education has a lagged effect, but it is essential to any poverty program. There was just a great article in the Sunday Times about what’s wrong with public education and how to improve the “achievement gap” between races and classes in the U.S. Experimental charter schools are leading the way.

    I summarized some of the key points on my blog if you are too lazy to read 9 pages on the NYT site.

  11. floyd says:

    poverty has a lot more to do with the lack of commitment and vision than anything else.the lack of education is a symptom, not a cause.