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Cheryl Gillan: From Labour's selfish society to Conservative social responsibility

Private squalor, public affluence

"Very many thanks for inviting me to speak here today. The Centre for Policy Studies is one of the most important institutions of British politics. You led the fight for economic reform in our country, freeing labour and capital to generate wealth and higher living standards for all. This is, therefore, a good place for me to make the point I want to make today - that we need social reform as well.

"I've been an MP for fifteen years. The other day I went shopping in a town which I remember visiting shortly before I was elected to Parliament in 1992. Going back this time, it struck me that two things were different about it. One was the prosperity. It used to be a rather nondescript sort of place, but now there are boutiques and coffee shops and famous high street names. I even saw a couple of stretch limos. The place is smart and rich.

"But the other thing was this. The streets were richer - but they also seemed rougher. It used to have an air of friendliness, where people smiled at each other in the street. Not any more. It seemed to me that there was an ugliness in the atmosphere that I just don't remember from fifteen years ago. There were more groups of young men hanging around - and they weren't just bored, they were loud and menacing. And some of the groups of girls weren't much better.

"These young people were well dressed. But they weren't well mannered. And I think that reflects life in many of our towns and cities over the last decade or so. Increasing prosperity, and declining civility. More gentrification - and less gentleness.

"Today I want to make some observations and pose some straightforward questions about what has happened to our country during the 15 years I have been an MP. What is this new culture we are living in? How did it come about? And what if anything can we do about it?

"We have had fifteen years of steady economic growth. This is a remarkable achievement. But we have also had fifteen years of steady social breakdown. I believe that these things are connected. It's not that economic growth leads to social breakdown - far from it. It's that unless there is more to the life of a society than money, then breakdown will follow.

"Our GDP is growing. We have cheaper holidays, to increasingly exotic locations. Cheaper clothes. Cheaper televisions and kitchens and cars. But at the same time, depression and mental illness are increasingly common. Drug abuse and alcoholism are rife in so many communities - including well-off ones. These trends cannot be ignored.

"There is a phenomenon that the psychologist Oliver James has called Affluenza - consumerism at the expense of emotional fulfilment. We see it in the cult of the credit card - as a country we spend more than we earn, and owe far more than we save. We see it in the idolisation of bling, the excessive displays of wealth. We see it in the gambling - which the Government is actually promoting in local communities as a tool of regeneration and job creation.

"Most of all, we see it in conspicuous consumption. In this context I want to say a word about one industry in particular which is central to the way our economy works - advertising. I know that advertising is an important assistant to consumer choice - it is a way for people to understand the range on offer in the marketplace. Nevertheless, much of what we see on television and on billboards represents what I think can be a dangerous influence.

"Advertising concerns the inner being - it works on the deepest desires and aspirations of the individual. And the danger is that it can present material wants as emotional needs. It commodifies the spiritual life - telling you that this or that product will make you beautiful or joyful or content. It is, in a sense, magic - a sort of alchemy, claiming to turn our humdrum lives into something glittering and golden.

"And it's this magic - this false magic - which has increasingly become, for want of a better analogy, our national religion. And I am particularly concerned about the influence of this religion on children. Every mother knows about pester power - the ability of children to whine their way to this or that branded and mass-produced item. I worry that we are making children consumers before they are adults, with the adult's capacity to distinguish the necessary from the meretricious. We are teaching our children that instant gratification comes from consumption.

"Television programming also seems dedicated to the idea that there is a miracle just around the corner, waiting to sweep you up. This explains why so many people want it easy. To win the lottery. To get into the Big Brother House. To be a footballer's WAG. To get on The X Factor. In short, to get instant access to the material comfort and social status that really only comes through hard work.

"The story of rags to riches - without hard work - is as old as literature. But it was traditionally just that, literature, belonging in the fiction section. Today the media contributes to the myth that the miracle happens in real life - and I believe that this contributed to the disillusionment that accompanies social breakdown.

"When we talk about social breakdown we usually mean people at the bottom of the income scale. But society can also, as it were, "break up" - when people at the top voluntarily disengage from the life of the community.

"British business now takes CSR - corporate social responsibility - very seriously. I want social responsibility to be just as firmly associated with businesspeople: the high-net-worth individuals who have so much of a contribution to make. We need to encourage more philanthropy, building on the great examples that we already have in this country and around the world.

"I read last week that over half of all the City workers paid large bonuses are using them to buy property abroad. I imagine a good proportion of the rest goes into offshore deposit accounts. Now, I don't object to large bonuses. I don't object to holiday homes and I certainly don't object to saving. I am entirely in favour of aspiration and there is nothing dirty about the ambition to make money. It is a natural and noble thing to want to better yourself, and to provide for your family. But I also think that with wealth, goes a social responsibility to use it in ways which benefit others - and in particular, the local and national community which helps sustain your good fortune.

"In many instance this already happens, of course. Many of the new generation of millionaires, in particular, are enormously generous. But I want to see a stronger culture of philanthropy as our wealth increases. Not because we can somehow eradicate poverty by voluntary redistribution. In my view it's not just the money itself that matters. It's the principle that matters. When the affluent recognise we're all in this together, that has a positive social impact. Break-up at the top is reduced - and so is breakdown at the bottom.

"If we believe that the poorest people in society should not be excluded from the life of society, then same goes for the richest people. The behaviour of a multimillionaire has an impact on more than just himself and his immediate circle. People who get to the top, who are in positions of leadership, have to lead by example.

"When we talk about affluenza and the cult of consumerism, we usually mean the private sector - the sphere of individual and commercial activity. But I think there is a public sector dimension too.

"We often make the mistake of thinking that social problems can be solved with money. Hence the constant clamour for more 'investment' in public services. And often that clamour is right - some service somewhere is always under-funded. But the assumption that all services, everywhere, always need more money is just a different manifestation of the materialism which is damaging our society.

"Both consumerism in the high street, and the cry for 'investment' in public services, imagine that wealth - wealth creation and wealth distribution, making money and spending money - is all that matters. And I believe that in the case of the public sector, the sense of irresponsibility can be even greater, because the money really does come as if by magic - like manna from heaven, poured out at the whim of the Treasury.

"Just as in the commercial economy, a focus on money to the exclusion of all else is ultimately self-defeating.

"Tony Blair and Gordon Brown imply that no criticism of their record is valid because under Labour there has been "record investment". This is a deception.

"For example, they like to boast about all the new school buildings they've put up since 1997. And they certainly look great from the outside. But inside those schools you have children who are literally unteachable. Too many young people are leaving education without the basic skills to have a fulfilling future.

"There's been a welcome increase in social housing. But inside those new flats, families are falling apart. Health spending has doubled under Labour - but people's actual experience of the NHS is getting worse.

"Fifty years ago JK Galbraith talked about "private affluence and public squalor". I think our problem today is the opposite. We see more public affluence than ever before. The streets and shops are smarter than ever. The public services are funded to higher levels than ever. But in private - among families and communities - there is greater 'squalor' than there used to be. The market and the state are booming - but society itself is running into trouble.

"So that is the situation we're in. How do we explain it?

10 years of Labour - a selfish society?

"There are two familiar explanations - but they are both rather old, now. Some people blame the 1960s - the permissive society, which undermined families and communities and taught people that freedom meant having as much fun as possible, and to hell with the consequences. Others blame the 1980s - the loadsamoney society, the inequality, the culture of greed and materialism and selfishness.

"But these historical explanations are not enough. Our problem is now. We Conservatives cannot go on blaming the 1960s for problems of family breakdown - today's young adults are the grandchildren of the 1960s generation, and I don't think "blaming the grandparents" is the answer.

"And Labour cannot go on blaming the 1980s. If the general election is held next year, there will be people voting who weren't even born in the 1980s. Kids doing their GCSEs this year have done every single exam of their life under a Labour government.

"And anyway, blaming the 1980s for social breakdown is always code for blaming Margaret Thatcher. And I want to lay a myth here. Greed, materialism, conspicuous consumption - all this is the direct opposite of what Mrs Thatcher stood for. One of the great things about her was her emphasis on family and community and what are called the "vigorous virtues" of responsibility and thrift and decency. She understood that economic freedom needs to be underpinned by a strong society, by mutual understandings and obligations.

"She stood for an enterprise culture combined with social responsibility.

"That was also the principle that John Major believed in. Modesty, austerity, social responsibility came naturally to him. And it should be remembered that the National Lottery which he launched was not about making millionaires, but about doing good for society.

"For me, the Conservatives were never the party of greed and selfishness. But Labour - whose origins, ironically, included a strong element of nonconformist religion, who were anti-alcohol, anti-gambling, and certainly anti-conspicuous consumption - are now taking that mantle.

"We already know that Alan B'stard, Rik Mayall's horrible Tory MP of the 1980s, has been reborn as a New Labour MP today. To me, the same thing has happened to Harry Enfield's character Loadsamoney. In fact it's got worse. With Blair and Brown, the man should be called Bucketloadsamoney.

"I'm not just talking about the obvious, such as Tony Blair's freebie holidays or Mrs Blair's supermarket grab - but the aura around 10 years of Labour leadership. After all, now Gordon Brown is coming. We are now being told he is different. And he is trying to distance himself from the perceived excesses of the Blair era. But Mr Brown is part of the whole equation. He has run economic and social policy in Britain for ten years. If he opposed the culture of conspicuous consumption then he, more than anyone, was in a position to address it.

"Instead, he has presided over a period of economic growth that rests on two factors: excessive consumerism in the High Street, and relentless spending on an unreformed public sector. And both of these factors have been sustained by high levels of unfunded borrowing.

"Peter Mandelson's remark, "we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they pay their taxes", reflects this twin belief: private greed and public spending. They reflect a materialism and hollowness at the heart of government which has spread into our society.

"For 20 years the Henley Centre has been asking people the question, "do you think the quality of life in Britain is bet improved by a) looking after the community's interest, or b) looking after ourselves? From 1994-2000 the overwhelming majority chose a, the community option. For the last five years, the gap has been closing, and this year, the majority, 53 per cent, preferred to look after themselves.

"Gordon Brown has contributed to this culture too, by his materialist attitude to the public services, which says that money is all that matters.

"Also, he has failed to stand up to big business. Now I am proud to call myself a Thatcherite - I think entrepreneurs represent the best of Britain. But that doesn't mean we should listen uncritically to anything and everything business says. Business respects a hard bargain. Mr Brown, however, has been so desperate to prove his belief in free markets that he seems to accept anything a businessman says to him. Poorly-worked-out PFI deals. A litany of disasters with Government IT contracts. The new gambling laws - even the 24 hour drinking laws. They are all signs of a Chancellor who has been rolled over by big business - and the result has been a sense that success in our country means getting away with it.

"I speculate too that he has also failed to engage with this debate. He has not sought to influence the culture of the country he wants to lead. Although he is trying now to create clear red water between himself and the government he has been at the centre of for 10 years.

"So where are we going?

Conservative social responsibility

"I have outlined the problem: a selfishness that permeates our society. I have outlined the contribution made by Labour's materialist philosophy. So what can we do about it?

"What are Conservatives thinking, and how are we approaching our policy-making process?

"We think the wrong answer would be trying to tell people what to do, nannying and regulating. But I believe that David Cameron is helping to find the right answer. It is social responsibility - the big idea at the heart of modern Conservatism, which we explored in a fascinating conference yesterday.

"The idea behind social responsibility is that the state alone is not able to sort out all of society's problems - only society can do that. And by 'society' I mean each one of us. Social responsibility can be led by politicians, but it can only be delivered by people themselves. That's why I am so encouraged by initiatives like We Are What We Do, organised by David Robinson of Community Links. David has published a book called Change the World for a Fiver, containing 50 suggestions for how to live lives that are more responsible - and more fulfilling.

"At our conference yesterday David quoted Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador: "aspire not to have more, but to be more." And I think that is part of our philosophy of social responsibility.

"This is part of an embryonic trend in our country, and we need to build on it. For example, I particularly like the phenomenon known as Guerrilla Gardening - informal bands of residents who furtively, under cover of darkness, go out and improve areas of public space neglected by the council. But there's also a huge resurgence of more traditional social action - from supplementary schools helping the children of immigrants, to charities helping the elderly and unemployed.

"I believe that politicians need to be part of this trend. I am not going to instruct people how to spend their money or their time. But I do believe that politicians can help to change the culture - indirectly, by putting in place the right frameworks and incentives.

"David Cameron is fond of quoting Edmund Burke's warning to politicians. We "ought to know", Burke said, "what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these, politicians may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law."

"There is a further Burke quote which applies to this philosophy. People are qualified for freedom, he said, "in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites." It is only when people take greater responsibility themselves that the state can relinquish power, and we can roll it back.

"But relinquishing power does not mean relinquishing any role whatsoever. I would, for example, like to explore the role of local government in helping people form schemes for mutual co-operation, using currencies other than money. I am grateful to my friend Dr Joe Lambert, who introduced me to the Seniors' Social Cooperatives which is operating in parts of Germany. Retired people earn credits by volunteering in the community - credits which they can then spend to receive free services themselves. It's a mutual arrangement - a market - which works without money. I believe this is an idea worth exploring in Britain.

"But chiefly I want to explore how we engage more people in their local communities. I believe that government can help stimulate a greater culture of volunteering, especially in the fight against poverty.

"As the interim report from Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group demonstrated last month, one of the trickiest challenges for us is to find ways of increasing state funding of charities and other independent organisations, without at the same time increasing the power of the state and diminishing the independence of the organisations we are funding. A possible way of doing this is to ensure that some of the money the state spends on the voluntary sector is allocated by citizens themselves, rather than by government officials with all sorts of strings attached.

"Therefore, on behalf of David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet, I am today submitting a policy proposal to Iain Duncan Smith and the Social Justice Policy Group. We would like Iain and his colleagues to investigate the idea of Volunteering Vouchers - taxpayers money which you can "earn" for the charity of your choice by volunteering for it. This would not represent an increase in spending, but a reallocation of existing funding. Rather than the state controlling this money, we believe that individuals and communities could be in charge of it.

Conclusion

"There's a song in the charts at the moment by the singer Just Jack. It's called Starz in their Eyes - and it's a savage attack on the cult of celebrity, and the cynicism of a media which makes money out of the gullible dreams of the young.

"I believe that this song is part of a new culture in our country. People are beginning to see through the hollowness of our selfish society. They want more than the glitter and the false magic of the adman. And they want more than the greed and materialism which has developed under Labour.

"As politicians we need to capture this new mood. Our role is to provide the framework for society and communities to flourish. We need to practice the politics of inclusion rather than allowing the culture of selfishness and greed to prosper. More than ever under David Cameron, this imperative is forming part of mainstream conservative thinking.

"An intrinsic part of Conservatism has always been a sense of duty and service and social responsibility. Now we are translating those principles into a modern prospectus to encourage a society and a country we are all happy to live in and contribute to."

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