Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Judging more, understanding less

Yesterday, David Cameron claimed that, "We, as a society, have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, to avoid appearing judgmental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, of deferring gratification instead of instant gratification."

When I heard this, I was immediately reminded of another Tory politician who believed exactly the same. The way John Major put it was a bit more succinct, though - 'we need to understand a little less and condemn a little more.'

Cameron is saying is that what John Major, Michael Howard, Norman Tebbit, Maggie Thatcher and the rest of them got wrong was that they were too sensitive, too inclined to avoid appearing judgmental and didn't want to injure people's feelings.

Fifteen years ago, John Major summed up the Tory Party of the time - nasty, bigoted, narrow-minded and not interested in helping people sort out problems. The newspapers might report all this stuff about the 'broken society' as some new thing. But all the slick marketing in the world can't change the fact that the Tories haven't changed, nor that social policies based on being insensitive and condemning more represent an approach which has failed utterly whenever and wherever they have been tried.


At 8:59 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

I'm struggling to understand quite why some on the left have reacted to Cameron's speech as they have. In fact I can only think of one explanation which I'll come to at the end.

His position is this:

Social problems have a myriad of causes – some generalised and born of circumstances outside the individual’s control, others simple and born of personal choices. Traditionally the right gave too much weight to the latter and the left couldn’t see past the former - balance between the two is the key and he thinks we err too much against the individual causes.

Now, there are only three paths of objection to this line of thinking.

(1) Those who negate all personal choice and believe everything is contextual and about society - a broadly hard left position

(2)those who reject any context or community factors and elevate personal choice above everything - essentially hard right.

(3) Those who accept the premise but dispute his call for a shift in the balance,

I think we can dismiss both (1) & (2) as the nutty fringes so I assume you and others who've taken issue with him are in (3).

In substance though (3) is broadly the government position anyway ('tough on crime...', the respect agenda, ASBO's etc.) with a subtle change in emphasis - hence my theory for people objecting. Nobody who's broadly supported the New Labour attitude to social problems can reasonably object to what Cameron's saying here - other than on the flimsy 'but you're a Tory so I don't trust you to up the judgemental side'.

I completely understand the political impulse there but like many impulsive things it's neither logical nor fair. Trusting Blair and his myriad of tough-talking home secretaries to 'get tough on crime' but throwing your hands up in horror at a Tory espousing essentially the same position is just partisanship. It's not a mature or reasoned objection to what the man said....

At 9:26 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Cameron's argument goes further then your summary, though. He said things like "Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more."

Now from what you've said, you don't believe that reflects the current situation and New Labour's approach and nor do I.

Rather than engaging with the successes and failures of New Labour's policies, he's attacking a straw man, using the same kinds of arguments that every generation of Tory politician has.

What John Major called "understanding", Cameron calls "moral neutrality", and what Major called "condemning", Cameron calls "the responsibility agenda", but it is the same approach in substance. And it doesn't achieve success in fixing social problems.

At 9:48 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

"Bad. Good. Right. Wrong" - I can't recall or source the speech but that's an almost identical phrase to one Blair used when launching his respect agenda. He said something very similar to 'there is such a thing as bad behaviour and we shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge it'.

So no, I can't accept Cameron's offering anything substantially (that's the key word) different from Labour (which in itself is a valid criticism I suppose).

The key thing Don is nobody's actually taken issue with the substance of his speech - they've simply asserted 'you're a Tory so I think you have an agenda'.

Unless you literally believe that all fat people are simply misinformed about diet and exercise (a ludicrous position of course) then you essentially agree with Cameron's line. Opposing it for political reasons is fine but let's acknowledge that's what they are...

And I'd dispute your assertion that it can't be successful but that's a whole different argument...

At 10:14 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

It is a possible reading of Cameron's speech that he isn't in fact offering anything substantially different (though the Spectator thinks he is, so it isn't just lefties who are reacting against it for blind ideological reasons).

If you're right, then it's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Cameron's approach - "the government has failed in this vital area, so I will do much the same".

"Unless you literally believe that all fat people are simply misinformed about diet and exercise (a ludicrous position of course) then you essentially agree with Cameron's line."

But you seem to be the only person who believes that this is the real substance of his speech.

These people that supposedly believe that obesity is caused by society and individual responsibility plays no part simply don't exist, so how can their actions have contributed to the 'broken society'?

I think the substance of the speech is a mendacious spin on the motivations behind social policies, plus a mix of British conservative policies from the mid 90s (tax breaks for married couples) and American conservative policies from the mid 90s (time limits on benefits) plus this idea that rather than intervening on the scale that it does at the moment, the state should nudge people in the direction of good behaviour rather than bad.

It's quite thin stuff, but all put together it does have the potential to make things quite a lot more difficult for quite a lot of people who are already marginalised and excluded.

At 10:59 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

"It's quite thin stuff, but all put together it does have the potential to make things quite a lot more difficult for quite a lot of people"

Like almost all government policy it has that potential as well as the one to actually help a lot of people - your politics will determine which outcome you think most likely.

I just happen to agree that he's right to question the motivation behind some social policies and raise the question that they might be doing more harm than good. My younger sister is a primary school teacher and has a class of 7 years olds - she and her colleagues have been told they can't 'imply lack of exercise might lead to weight gain' because it 'risks stigmatising some children'. Instead they can only use 'role play and ilustrative scenarios to make the point'.

That's not a daily mail scare story but LEA guidance I've seen with my own two eyes. I can't believe you'd lend your weight to that sort of nonsense and in short it's more of that which Cameron is hoping to arrest.

At 11:18 pm , Anonymous tim f said...

But in that example you'd need more centralisation to stop LEA's from issuing that kind of guidance. They are, after all, issuing guidance which is contrary to government policy (which aims to discourage child obesity by encouraging exercise).

I'd be surprised if more centralisation is what either Cameron or yourself want.

At 11:23 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

No - the LEA guidance is a direct result of central government initiatives concerned with 'managing obesity' but not 'stigmatising children'.

Leave it to individual schools & teachers to advance common sense and the problem goes away (and you save a few bob!)

At 10:02 am , Anonymous tim f said...

But surely you'd admit that both the objectives of managing obesity and not stigmatising children are good ones? It's just this particular LEA seems to have got the balance wrong.

If you leave it entirely down to individual schools and teachers then some will do it very well but it would be a miracle if all did. Surely we want some kind of standardisation in how obesity is addressed?

At 11:17 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

Not really Tim no - that's Cameron's entire point. Directing public money at trying to massage the feelings of children who happen to eat too much is an appalling thing for any government to be doing.

Children need basic nutritional information and teachers need licence to impart it along with guidance on exercise. It's simply nothing to do with central government how they go about that and attempts to somehow control that exercise are a perfect example of the sort of thing Cameron was ridiculing.

At 12:09 pm , Blogger Tom said...

"Directing public money at trying to massage the feelings of children who happen to eat too much is an appalling thing for any government to be doing."

What about directing public money at trying to encourage healthier eating among children who happen to eat to much and can be reasonably expected to place, on average, more demand on the public purse through their greater healthcare needs?

At 2:25 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

Precisley Tom - that's my point. Direct money at providing children with nutritional information - NOT at making sure teachers provide it in a particular way in order to 'avoid stigmatising' them!

Cameron's entire point was that much of this social spending is valid but let's not layer it with yet more money aimed at protecting peoples feelings or pretending that some of the problems aren't just the falut of those individuals.

At 3:10 pm , Blogger Tom said...

"Direct money at providing children with nutritional information"

Who should do this, then? Central government?

At 3:17 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...


The distinction is by all means spend money giving the information but don't spend yet more getting precious and absurd about how you impart that information.

At 3:32 pm , Blogger Tom said...

Everyone would agree with you that it's bad to get "precious and absurd" about how you impart the information - because everyone agrees that preciousness and absurdity are bad, even if people disagree about what constitutes preciousness and absurdity. Obviously. So should government produce any kind of guidance about how best to encourage healthy eating? Or is that in itself "precious and absurd"?

According to your earlier posts, government isn't producing such guidance - or if it is, LEAs are ignoring it and producing their own.

At 4:22 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

You're getting confused Tom.

Central government AND Local Education Authorities are both involved in producing nutritional information (good thing) AND ridiculous guides on what can and can't be said when imparting that information. The reasons are those Cameron highlighted - state fear about offending anyone or using judgemental language.

My point is that whether it's central government or local government the state shouldn't be so precious about the guidance it offers. That would ultimately better serve the people they advise and the treasury coffers.

Quite why you think getting a forensic understanding of exactly where this guidance originated is relevant is beyond me (and for the record it's a Labour council)

At 9:25 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You keep banging on about being fat being thin being four eyes being black it does in the end affect kids, lets get back to schooling kids in maths English and other education, stop banging on about what kids look like, Brown has been on a diet for a year now after he hit sixteen stone. Prescott hit eighteen stone Ed Balls got nothing to crow about he's been on a diet for two years.

lets get back to school teaching kids about education.

At 9:35 am , Anonymous a.h. said...

Matthew Parris seems to think Cameron has let the cat out of the bag too:

At 9:38 am , Anonymous z.h. said...

At 10:22 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

a.h. - you might want to re-read Matthew's column.

His entire premises is that Cameron is right but politically it's not a sensible thing for a Tory to say. Don's contention is that he's wrong.

At 7:21 am , Anonymous a.h. said...


Yes, but both Don and Matthew Parris are saying that Cameron's speech put on display the age old Tory attitudes towards the 'undeserving'.

At 7:28 am , Blogger Cassilis said...


But Don disputes the validity of those attitudes - Paris affirms them.

At 1:23 am , Anonymous Ben said...

This is one of the basic problems with Toryism. Its supporters. People like cassilis talking "common sense" as they see it make it quite impossible to give the party any intellectual credence at all. Mind you, Labour has its own problem with oddballs too, to be fair.

I actually quite like Major's quote. There is a time and a place for "understanding a little less and condemning a little more". But it does rather depend on what and how. All Cameron seems to have done here is to string some words together that appeal to Daily Mail readers who live in Tunbridge Wells. One wonders where cassilis lives and what his choice of reading material is. It's quite amusing to watch the buttons being pressed.

At 3:44 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

Interesting contribution Ben but - speculation about my reading habits or where I live aside (West coast of Scotland) - you haven't actually added anything to the discussion or offered and substantive criticism of Cameron's speech.

"There is a time and a place for "understanding a little less and condemning a little more". But it does rather depend on what and how."

That's exactly Cameron's point so, as per my first response to Don I can only surmise that your rejection of his speech is because he's a Tory - not because you have any coherent criticism of what's actually been said. Your 'Daily Mail' comment kind of confirms this.

"It's quite amusing to watch the buttons being pressed."

Again I quite agree. As I've remarked elsewere the left's reaction to Cameron's speech has been a rather confused and indignant howl - no national commentator or Labour politician has been able to land a single blow on the content or take any substantive issue with what he said but since he's a Tory there's a knee-jerk opposition. Amusing indeed...

At 8:36 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Cassilis - fair play for rapid rebuttal, responding at quarter to four in the morning is good stuff. Will add a link to your blog later.

All the wider discussion of Cameron's speech that I've seen seems to assume that he was signalling that under a Tory government there will be a significant shift in policy (that's true both of people who believe in the 'undeserving poor' like Matthew Parris and some who don't). Lefties are engaging with this argument politically by framing this as 'toff tells people that it's their own fault if they are fat'. It's not a detailed line-by-line engagement, but political debate never is - c.f. 'hug a hoodie'.

One analogy I thought of - it could have been argued that the Tory posters at the last election about how it isn't racist to talk about immigration were just statements of the obvious, but everyone knew that they meant something a bit stronger than that. I think it is widely assumed that Cameron's speech is a bit of a 'dog whistle'.

And then there is this slightly separate debate, where you think Cameron said something entirely different, signalling a more modest shift in emphasis. This involves keeping the general approach of New Labour but getting rid of some of the more silly and misguided attempts at micro-management.

There is a pretty big weakness in this for the Tories, that Cameron says that this is one of the biggest problems facing Britain, and that his radical approach is to, um, tinker round the edges with a bit of applied behavioural economics.

At 2:34 pm , Blogger Cassilis said...

Thanks Don - I wouldn't dream of going into bat for Howard's appalling campaign in '05 (and yes, I know Cameron's part in it). I voted Labour then....

As to whether Cameron's speech was a 'dog whistle' - the real question is a whistle to whom? If it's people who are a little less ready to look for secondary causes and prepared, where appropriate, to recognise individual contributions I'm not sure I'm particularly uncomfortable with that. I doubt the electorate are particularly concerned either.

As you suggest I think Cameron was essentially looking to redress the balance - perfectly happy to keep and extend much social spending but stripping back some of the silly and misguided ideas like the one I mentioned.

Your observation about the tension between that and his solution is spot on - see my post today for my initial thoughts on nudge...!

At 11:14 am , Anonymous stephen said...

As you suggest I think Cameron was essentially looking to redress the balance - perfectly happy to keep and extend much social spending but stripping back some of the silly and misguided ideas like the one I mentioned

I don't know. maybe he is, maybe he isn't. I do know that many attacks on fatties seague effortlessly into an attack on the universal provision of the NHS. 'Why should fatties get treatment on the NHS when it's self inflicted' - a desire to create a division between the deserving and undeserving sick. As an erstwhile Labour voter, who now countenances voting Tory to get rid of this authoritarian government, that subtext of Cameron's comments is quite important to me and would certainly stop me voting Tory if I thought that it was a surreptitous attack on the NHS.


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