The Conservative Party and Social Policy, edited by Hugh Bochel

Policy Press, 2011, vii + 326 pp, pbk, 1 847 42432 7, £23.99, hbk, 1 847 42433 4, £65

New Labour’s social policy exhibited considerable continuities with the previous Conservative administration’s policy directions, so the context within which the Conservative Party in opposition formulated policy was a rather complex one. Hugh Bochel’s introductory chapter charts the rise of Iain Duncan Smith’s and David Willetts’ ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and David Cameron’s concern to combat poverty, and he understands Cameron’s Conservatism as a variety of Thatcherism, as related to One Nation Conservatism, as exhibiting continuities with New Labour’s ‘Third Way’, and, perhaps most significantly, as pragmatic, complex, and dynamic.

Succeeding chapters tackle particular policy areas. Robert Page concludes that ‘the degree of hostility or acceptance displayed towards the welfare state at any particular point in time has tended to be linked to fine calculations as to whether it was operating in ways that bolstered or threatened deeply held Conservative beliefs, such as freedom, responsibility, inequality, voluntarism and the family’ (p.39); Nick Ellison describes the party’s ‘historical scepticism towards public spending’ (p.59); Andrew Defty charts a hardening of public attitudes towards benefits recipients; and Alan Deacon and Ruth Patrick find significant continuity between New Labour and Conservative welfare-to-work policies.

As Stephen McKay and Karen Rowlingson show in their chapter on social security benefits, this policy area also exhibits considerable continuity. They point out that ministers in the Coalition Government’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, and Steve Webb, all have relevant experience in the field, and all bring the insights of a religious faith to bear on their interest in benefits policy. We have seen changes to housing benefit which will not relieve poverty, however much one might understand the need to reduce employment disincentives; and we have seen changes to uprating policy which will erode the value of benefits: but we have also seen Iain Duncan Smith’s proposal for a Universal Credit to replace existing in work and out of work means-tested benefits in such a way as to reduce marginal deduction rates, and we have now seen Steve Webb’s proposals for a Citizen’s Pension: an initiative which came after this book was published. The relevant chapter’s verdict that ‘there appears little different in policy between New Labour and the Coalition’ (p.157) in pensions policy is no longer true; and Webb’s proposals also cast doubt on the authors’ view that there is ‘a general distrust of universalist policies’ (p.159). A particular political context at a national party conference gave rise to the impractical suggestion that households containing high earners should be deprived of their Child Benefit, and there is in fact no sign of a thought-through policy on universal benefits. The fact that a coalition government is bound to be more pragmatic than a government formed by a single party, and the fact that the Liberal Democrats are the Conservatives’ partner in government, suggests that we shall increasingly see policy evaluated in relation to whether it will solve identifiable problems rather than in relation to ideological positions: hence a Citizen’s Pension to remove disincentives to save for old age.

In two or three years’ time it will be interesting to look again at this book’s chapters on different policy areas and ask whether the trajectories suggested have proved to be the directions in which policy has gone, and in particular to see whether the pragmatic or the ideological has taken centre stage, or whether they have achieved a pragmatic balance. It will be particularly interesting to see whether the pragmatism of coalition has retained Child Benefit as a universal benefit, has seen a Citizen’s Pension enacted, and has prompted work on an unconditional benefit for working age adults.