Jesse Norman offers utopian conservatism, but the big society is the left’s for the taking

by Anthony Painter

Two golfers shuffle up to the first tee. The first pulls out a shiny new, technologically engineered driver and pings a 250 yard shot straight down the centre of the fairway. He strokes his designer cap and steps back so that the second can settle into her stance. She lifts her single club- a six iron- and swings at the ball, just clipping it as she loses her balance in the effort of it all. The ball bounces a few yards forward, coming to an embarrassing stop 65 yards and 45 degrees off to the right. She daren’t take another shot such is her shame.

How can these golfers compete?

A fabian – as Jesse Norman caricatures the entire left in his new handbook for Cameronism, Big Society – would reach for the handicap system right away. The caricature is fair neither to fabianism or the left but let’s run with it.

They could play together for a while but really it wouldn’t be a competition. The first player surges ahead, wins, the scores would be narrowed at the end and both players would be left angry, frustrated, or both.

If I’ve understood Jesse Norman’s argument right, I suspect we’d have a similar analysis of a better way to proceed than that. As it happens, despite her humiliation the second golfer showed some instinctive talent for the pastime. She takes some lessons, practices intensely for a few years, and when the two players end up on the same tee once again they have a good, competitive game. They even get on rather well. We forget the result. In philosophical terms, this is the capabilities approach associated with Amartya Sen in contrast to outcomes-oriented philosophy of John Rawls.

But our lady golfer has to work long hours at minimum wage, she has a family to feed, and a husband who is not sympathetic to her taking up a pastime. She lacks time, resource, support, and consequently esteem. The rematch never happens. Quite simply, she doesn’t have the power to nurture her talents so that she can at least compete and gain some form of parity of esteem.

It is on the question of whether the second match happens or not that Norman and I diverge. I suspect it probably wouldn’t. Norman is more optimistic that it would. It’s important to understand why we would disagree.

Building on the conservative philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, Norman describes three types of society.

The first is “civil society” where equal citizens associate freely under the rule of law – they have much in common but no common cause.

Then there is “enterprise society” whose members do have a common cause. Norman has a problem with this. He launches the Hayekian attack – inevitably such a society ends up with Hitler or Stalin as there’s no limit to infringement of individual freedom.

Then there is the “connected society” which is Norman’s own construction. This is the big society of individuals with an affinity for one another cooperating, empathising, and institution building. What you realise very quickly is just how utopian this new conservatism is.

There is barely a section where a new thinker or two is introduced into the discussion in the Big Society. Strangely, Thomas More doesn’t feature. Norman buys into a “civil society” with a “connected society” layered on top. But what does that do for our talented but undeveloped golfer? She might be lucky and someone may devote the time and attention to improving her game but, more likely, she’ll be another lost talent.

Norman’s analysis becomes downright cheeky in parts. Examples of civil society? Magna Carta, legal due process and voting rules. You can almost hear the pomp of Edward Elgar rising from the page. And enterprise society? The Downing Street delivery unit, five year plans, public service targets, and, bizarrely, the national bid to host the Olympic games in London. Oh, really? Not the NHS, common education, state pensions, a national road and rail network, or nationally endowed science and technology then?

Surely, if we are to be trusted as individuals then we can be trusted with collective enterprise without calling on a Hitler or a Stalin? And yet, he hints not. So it’s utopian conservatism for us.

These are philosophical disagreements. This book is exhilarating in parts. There is a learnedness and flair to Norman’s writing and argument. His demolition of the neo-utilitarian “happiness” theory is cheese-wire sharp (though not sure quite how that fits in with David Cameron’s “happiness” prospectus.)

It’s the most articulate and accessible argument in favour of Sen I’ve encountered (though Norman should note that Sen considers himself to be a social democrat.) To see behavioural economics applied to pulling apart the tax credits system is brilliant intellectual originality whatever the merit of the argument.

Early on, he sets the challenge of convincing us that “big society” thinking is real. He succeeds, which is an achievement in itself. However, in revealing the intellectual core of the idea he also reveals its shortcomings.

The massive flaw within the big society is the absence of a theory of change. Norman’s political economy is painfully thin. We are seduced with a diversionary discussion of a co-operative future. But his economic philosophy is essentially free market with a bit of psychology and social theory bolted on. There is no discussion of access to capital and knowledge; how to spread ownership and power within the market-place; the development of infrastructure; and the imbalances of demand and production that skew the modern economy. You see, to address these fundamental issues would require an acknowledgement that we need some common purposes.

What all this indicates is that, unless she’s very lucky, our second golfer will have little chance of competing with her wealth and privilege-endowed competitors. The big society will make a number of fascinating and often valuable changes. Ultimately though, it won’t make real and lasting change until its proponents accept that there must be something of the enterprising society alongside it.

My recommendation would be for people on the left to read this powerful and eloquent book. Enjoy it, absorb it, but recognise the weaknesses in the argument.

It does quite a bit of the intellectual heavy lifting that the left needs. It is a thoroughly decent set of ideas, though with obvious flaws. What is more, it is the left’s for the taking. And if it does then at least we can enjoy a decent and competitive game of golf.

Anthony Painter’s Twitter feed is @anthonypainter.

Big Society by Jesse Norman is available now.

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2 Responses to “Jesse Norman offers utopian conservatism, but the big society is the left’s for the taking”

  1. Joe Caluori says:

    I think that if a metaphor needs to be extended that far, then it’s probably easier to talk about particular social and economic problems rather than golf!

  2. Jackson says:

    It ought, I suppose, be acknowledged that your review is rather generous and well mannered… perhaps some of my thoughts fail to properly reciprocate that but anyway, here goes.

    “a bit of psychology and social theory bolted on”
    I think primarily he was trying to invigorate, as I see it, a faith in what might be called, in modern terms, the emergent phenomenon of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Adam Smith’s! That is, not the crude, dubious, Spenserian or Galtonian interpretations.

    For a sobering analysis of the ‘Fabian’ threat, as I understand it, I recommend the online essay – The Rage Of Virginia Woolf by Theodore Dalrymple. With her Bloomsbury, Three Guineas, ‘enterprise’ vision; I think the biggest concern of our lady golfer is how she and all other golfers (ahem, Tiger), indeed all society, conduct themselves sexually.

    To Quote Dalrymple:
    “The epidemic of childhood obesity is a precise illustration of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion as they are (or have been in the past) prepared to place a limit on their own appetites.”

    I’d add teen pregnancies, STD’s and the tendency of not a few mothers, as I understand it, to encourage their children to refer to them by their first names (as buddies) rather than Mum. Perhaps they don’t like to be constantly reminded of the fact that they’ve subscribed to a Bloomsbury anti-philosophy.

    Dalrymple again:

    “The West case revealed how easily, in the anonymity of the modern urban environment, and in the midst of crowds, people may disappear; and how such disappearances are made all the easier by a collective refusal—in the name of individual liberty—of parents to take responsibility for their children, of neighbors to notice what is happening around them, of anyone to brave the mockery of libertines in the defense of some standard of decency. And the various public agencies—the police, the schools, the social services, the hospitals—proved no substitute for the personal concern that families were once supposed to have provided, but that, in a permissive climate in which tolerance all too often shades into indifference, many provide no longer. The failure of these agencies was not accidental, but inherent in their nature as bureaucracies: the state is not, and never will be, a substitute for an old-fashioned Mum and Dad. “

    Appeals to the problems of access to capital and knowledge based on the (un)economy (google Debtris) so beloved of the ‘Fabians’ is dangerously delusional.

    Yes, I recommend people familiarise themselves with the arguments of Ha-Joon Chang, John Rawls and the RSA talks, such as Empathic Civilization, Changing Education Paradigms and Drive etc, ultimately our common cause, our collective eudaimonia, will be best served by a culture of self respect, more so than of self esteem… we ought resist the temptation to be too prescriptive, explicit, about what that common cause is.

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