Ed Miliband spoke at the weekend to the Progress conference. It hardly won critical acclaim: a New Statesman blog called it the ‘worst speech he has ever delivered’ and John Rentoul wasn’t impressed by its ‘cliché-wridden verbiage.’
The speech did have one little idea worth a second look, though – the ‘British promise’.
This clumsy phrase is based on ‘the expectation that next generation will do better than the last, whatever their birth or background.’ Miliband observed that this
“is about what happens between generations. That the easy path is to take short-term decisions…. And if we really do care about the next generation, we will have to show it in the decisions we take.”
To fans of conservative thought, this may feel a little familiar.
Last year David Willet’s book The Pinch won attention for its argument that the baby boomers have ‘taken their children’s future’ and the idea they are ‘spending the kids’ inheritance.’
Or, here’s George Osborne speaking in 2008:
“The current generation should not make the next generation pay for its mistakes. There should be fairness between the generations, not just within them. We care for our elders, our children will care for us, and so it goes on from generation to generation.”
Sound a tad similar? Well, here’s Margaret Thatcher on the election trail:
“That’s the way society is improved, by millions of people resolving that they’ll give their children a better life than they’ve had themselves. And there’s just no substitute for this elemental human instinct.”
And moving from 1979 to 1790, here’s Edmund Burke, reflecting on the revolution in France, arguing that society…
“becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
So the ‘British promise’ isn’t new, and even if Miliband’s emphasis was obviously different it’s clear that the talking about fairness between generations harks to a rich vein of undeniably conservative thinking. It’s an important concept, that promotes a pragmatic meaning of fairness - and also allows a conservative to talk coherently about the future, providing intellectual ballast for policies from poverty reduction to debt reduction.
That means this is a serious philosophical battleground. When published, Red Tory was recognised as borrowing heavily from ideas more associated with the left – mutualism, local economies and so on – and Blue Labour, which Miliband’s speech gave a clear nod to, follows the ideological kleptomania-by-colours. This debate will influence thinking for years to come.
There’s also a more immediate political and electoral importance to Miliband’s musings.
Demographic change makes navigating relations between age-groups increasingly vital: those baby-boomers are a hefty voting bloc, and the younger generation a potentially angry one.
What’s more, intergenerational fairness (well, maybe not the actual phrase) resonates with people – it goes to the heart of what most people want from life.
No political party or intellectual tradition can assume it has a monopoly on refining, developing and benefitting from the concept. So this might not have been a great speech.
But precisely because it strayed into traditional Tory territory, if Miliband and Labour develop this theme, then it will surely merit a deeper response.