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The same applies to another American experience that Cameron's Conservatives seem destined to recapitulate: George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism". Launched in the late 1990s, compassionate conservatism was not only a startling bid by Republicans to woo Christian and ethnic voters away from the Democrats, but had a good deal of success in mobilising voluntary groups, charities and churches to tackle welfare dependency, crime and urban decay. Inspired by the ideas of Marvin Olasky, Bush set up the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. However, like Cameron, President Bush and his administration believed that, in tackling poverty and urban blight, "is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support — public and private — we are asking [local community-serving groups, both religious and secular] to make bricks without straw." These words, in a campaign speech in 1999, showed that Bush had underestimated the distorting impact on the local level of central control and federal funding. Once Congress and its lobbies got their hands on them, these initiatives rapidly spiralled out of control. Olasky, the man who had persuaded Bush while he was still Governor of Texas that private Christian initiatives could deal with issues such as drugs and alcohol more effectively than state or federal programmes, threw caution to the winds. "Let's throw away the budget cutters," he declared in the 2000 election. The new president did exactly that, with the result that federal spending rose faster under the Bush administration than at any time since the 1970s. "Big-government conservatism" replaced "compassionate conservatism" as the catchphrase of the later Bush years. President Bush himself got no credit, either from liberals or conservatives, for increasing federal spending by one-third in real terms. He was blamed for the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans, for example, even though the city and state authorities were much more at fault than he was. Even so, the Bush administration showered the Gulf of Mexico region with up to $100,000 per displaced person.

The lesson of all this is clear. Cameron promises that the new role for the state is "galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal". He has put no price-tag on all this frenetic activity, but if past experience tells us anything, it is that such activism is very expensive. Archon Fung , the Harvard political scientist whose name Cameron likes to drop, warns that his "accountable autonomy" model, however effective, "won't necessarily shrink government". If Bush and Obama are anything to go by, this could be an understatement. Hyperactive government is almost bound to morph into big government. Cameron shows little awareness of this danger.

Moreover, once the state pumps large sums of public money into the voluntary sector, the latter tends to switch its attention away from serving the poor and vulnerable and towards the bureaucrats who have taken over. Many of the best known charities in Britain now receive half or more of their funds from the government. For example, Oxfam, Shelter, Save the Children and the British Red Cross are all between 30 and 70 per cent publicly funded, while Barnardo's, Turning Point and Action for Children (formerly NCH) get more than 70 per cent of their income from the state. These charities have become part of the public sector. In a brief passage in his Big Society speech, Cameron does show some awareness of this danger, when he talks about the need to "break the culture of charities and social bodies being dependent on the state for hand-outs". But what is his solution? "We need to look at how government can use loans alongside grants to make them more sustainable and effective." This will not do. A charity that is borrowing large sums from the government is hardly less dependent than one that is directly state-funded. And he evidently envisages that charities will usually be in receipt of both grants and loans. This is a far cry from Burke's little platoons. Two years ago, Nick Seddon's Civitas pamphlet Who Cares? pointed out how another Tory initiative, the National Lottery, had not liberated the voluntary sector, but nationalised it. Cameron needs to think much more seriously about the fact that there is no simple way to multiply the success of local initiatives on a national scale: they work precisely because they are uniquely adapted to their circumstances.

None of this is to deny the sincerity of Cameron's commitment to helping the poor, the vulnerable and all those who are held back by big government. He deserves great credit for having encouraged Iain Duncan Smith to develop a truly impressive set of policies to tackle the "broken society". His own dedication is not in doubt, if only because he has personal experience of one major area of social policy: the disabled. Those who have followed the tragic story of the Camerons' son Ivan, who suffered from cerebral palsy, will know how deeply his life and death have affected his parents. The Conservative leader was brave to talk about his son on a BBC documentary made by Rosa Monckton last month, and all who watched him will have been impressed by his determination to help others in a similar plight. He acknowledged that their wealth had helped his family to get through the experience of caring for a severely disabled child, but added that money was useless in relieving the trauma of loss. The Big Society speech could only have been given by a man with a genuine, indeed passionate concern for those less fortunate than himself. 

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March 29th, 2010
2:03 PM
The article refers to Cameron having to make his mind up over the "radical egalitarians" who have succeeded in closing down the Catholic adoption agencies. He does not. He has already made his mind up. While Blair was dithering over whether to allow Catholic Adoption agencies an exemption, Cameron announced he would be voting against any exemptins as the principle of gays being allowed to adopt was right and no-one should be exempt.

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