Thursday, June 12, 2008

‘Dear big business, please stop trying to make so much profit and be nicer, or else I’ll be forced to ask you again’

I pretty much agree with David Cameron about this:

For many parents, today's world can seem incredibly hostile. There are times when each shopping trip, advert break, magazine, film, TV programme or music video seems to conspire against you. If it's not enticing your children with the latest toy, it's introducing youngsters to sex, violence and adult emotional dilemmas at an incredibly early age.
So we - government, parents and society - have got to stand together and demand that all our businesses accept the influence they have over children and behave accordingly. I believe social pressure, not regulation, is the best way to do this.

All apart from the last sentence, a non sequitur that leaps from simple observation and common concern to ideological insistence. That lacuna dooms the whole enterprise. He goes on:

So yes, I will keep criticising irresponsible marketing for instance that gauntlet you have to run at the checkout with endless pushing of chocolate and sweets so parents cannot help but be pestered by their children when they're queuing. And I will speak out against any other commercial pressures that make life difficult for parents.

Cameron is sometimes said to be a 1980s free-market fundamentalist in sheep’s clothing. He isn’t: he truly believes, I’m sure, that there should be more restraints on the activities of business. But his deep-seated dislike of the state means that he wants this restraint to be voluntary: moral rather than legal. I really can’t see that working, though.

I suppose you could make an analogy with the public pressure on multinationals to observe better labour standards in developing countries than they strictly need to. Maybe. But that’s a case of giving these companies another relatively cheap way to sell themselves to their Western customers (‘look – we’re ethical! And if you wear our clothes, people will know you are too!’). It’s also had limited success.

But for the things Cameron’s talking about, I think there’s even less scope for voluntary, reputation-based change. The reason is that what he wants restrained is not the way products are produced but they way they’re sold; breaking the nexus between company and consumer in this way will mean fewer sales and nothing else – what business will go for that?

Cultural change would definitely be good to have here; I think children are too commercialised. But it’s not enough, and I doubt Government can drive it by exhortation, and without restricting what business and particularly the media can do, it just won’t happen.

[A while ago, Cassilis criticised those who claim that the changes under Cameron have been purely superficial. He’s right, and I keep meaning to respond (this isn’t a response, just an aside). I think the Tories have changed more than just their PR, but – if this makes much sense – the change is more in terms of how the party thinks of itself than it is an upheaval in policies. Yes, they talk more compassionately than ten or even five years ago, but I think they also feel, in themselves, more compassionate about social issues (or at least some of them do). This has led to policy change in some cases – although these are often at least as much a matter of expediently accepting the Labour agenda, as with the minimum wage and NHS spending – but the bigger effect is that often-familiar right-wing policies now get justified in different ways. Thus biasing the tax and benefit system towards marriage is a way to help families out of poverty, not a way to stop irresponsible single mothers sponging off the state. Or, in this case, a refusal to regulate business isn’t about slashing red tape but part of a desire to encourage “responsibility” by focusing on persuasion and cultural change. Just a thought.]


Liam Murray said...

Thanks Tom. Would be genuinely interested in your more detailed thoughts but by way of an 'aside to your aside'...

The thing about conservatism is that it's never (not in its 400 year history) been an ideology or an unbending set of principles - it's basically always been about 'what works' even if they've often got that wrong. Excuse the length of extract here but this is from the Policy Exchange document 'Compassionate Conservatism' from a couple of years back, often cited as the 'bible' of what Cameron's trying to do:

"Conservatives do no less
thinking than liberals or socialists.The difference is that they have never settled on a conclusion. Conservatism is in effect a cluster of ideas competing
with each other for market share, of which a prominent one is
paternalism. It may be periodically out-competed by its libertarian rival,
but it never goes out of business. Libertarianism enjoys peak periods, but
never a monopoly. Even Mrs Thatcher among Conservative politicians was sufficiently mindful of paternalist imperatives to make no serious attempt to cut back public spending on health or education. Which of the two traditions holds sway in any given situation depends on nothing more high-minded than the circumstances that obtain at the time. Context is crucial. The practical conditions of the here and now
guide conservatives as surely as pre-written doctrines guide socialists and utilitarian liberals. A political conservative must determine the requirements
of a particular situation, and reflect on which of his or her principles are to be deployed and how. This may require a shift from one principle to another over time, or the simultaneous application of different principles to different situations. Such shifts may be disdained as hypocrisy, and of course sometimes they may actually be hypocritical. But politics is not logic. Absolute consistency in the application of abstract principle to practical politics is rarely possible and never wise. The British electorate, with its preference for common sense over grand theory, usually rewards this insight at elections, even as it abuses it between them.
What ultimately distinguishes conservatism from its rival creeds, therefore, is not so much the views it holds, though some of these are unique to conservatism, as the way it holds them. Socialism and liberalism are, at root, theories and ideologies: fundamental interpretations of the nature of history and of “the good”, from which policy programmes are supposedly inferred. Conservatism is no such thing. It is instinctive, not theoretical; a disposition, not a doctrine; realistic and sceptical, not grandiose or utopian; accepting of the imperfectability of man, not restless to overcome
it; and anxious to improve the lot of the many not by referring to some plan, but by working with the grain of what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity”. It is precisely its reluctance to accord sacred status to any abstract idea that allows conservatism to incorporate so many of them. It is precisely its refusal to regard change as a good in itself that
makes it uniquely qualified to manage change most prudently."

I've always been resolutely centrist and voted Labour at the last three elections but this document more than any other made me pay attention to Cameron. Whether he gets my vote will depend on how the policies flesh out but that extract sums up how I think people should approach politics and, curiously enough, how I think Blair did.

Not sure this qualifies as an aside anymore.... sorry.

Tom Freeman said...

Was that the Jesse Norman thing? I think I skimmed a summary at the time...

I'm not going to get into any depth here - I've been meaning to write a couple of inevitably long posts about changing ideologies/outlooks within and across the main parties since about last autumn when Michael Gove made a speech touching on that, and at some point I will make the time!

There are certainly definitional issues here, among other things. A lot of the Thatcherite approach would not have been recognised by 1950s Macmillanites as 'conservatism'. The way this extract uses the words, there are far fewer liberals and socialists in the Lib Dems and Labour respectively, and far more conservatives, than one might expect...

Liam Murray said...

Agree completely - that's why I never get the hold Thatcher has on the Tories, she seemed to make them forget that they've always been a broad, ever-changing church.

The fact that Labour has had such difficulties since Blair moved on tells me they never really embraced his approach - the more doctrinaire and ideological Labour party is breathing again and that's why they're struggling.

It's a cliche to call Cameron heir to Blair and now he's gone the pitch will be different but it's incredibly accurate I think - Labour never really bought the Blairite experiment, not at its roots, but if Cameron can assemble a genuinely Blairite front bench (i.e. people like Gove) and keep his restless (and too often reactionary) roots in tow then he'll win power and probably deserve to.

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What are you arguing about? What business? I can hardly make ends meet in this economy so business is definitely not my cup of tea. Advise something more realistic.

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Very interesting thoughts indeed. But I don't understand why it is so difficult to make your business profitable without all that drama that you describe here. Are you a drama king?

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