During David Cameron’s second outing at PMQs as Conservative leader, way back in December 2005, Tony Blair caricatured compassionate conservatism by quipping that “the only difference between compassionate conservatism and conservatism is that under compassionate conservatism they tell you they’re not going to help you but they’re really sorry about it.”
Sadly, the row over the spare room subsidy (which, inevitably, has become known as the bedroom tax) has shown that nowadays, we are often not even willing to say we’re sorry.
This is not to say we should say sorry for the economic inheritance we were left with. Nor for the deficit we are working to clear. Indeed, there should be no danger of us relenting in the pinning of the blame firmly on Labour.
This issue is that the defence of the more substantial efforts to get the deficit down, particularly in the area of welfare reform, is not human enough. We are at a rhetorical impasse. Labour are intent on ignoring the abstract need to get the benefits bill down by focusing relentlessly on the concrete individual cost. In response we get little more than the ‘tough decisions’ line to take form the Government.
But acknowledging the toughness of decisions should not equate to indifference to or even rejection of the consequences of those decisions.
The problem for those of us who think that ‘compassionate conservatism’ is more than a meaningless add-on that applies during the good times but can be quietly let out the back door when times are tough, is that the government isn’t displaying any real regret.
Presumably this is because regret is considered to be tantamount to admitting fault or blame. But the stubborn refusal to acknowledge that there might be human costs to much of the deficit reduction is only going to reinforce the whiff of nastiness that so much work was put into eradicating in opposition.
At the same time as pointing out the provisions that are made to protect some of the most vulnerable, we ought to acknowledge the impact on real people of the reforms we are making.
Many will posit, out of electoral calculation and/or genuine belief, that the cost is worth paying, or that the loopholes that are being closed are worth closing, or that the benefits on offer currently are too broad or too disincentivising to work, but we shouldn’t pretend that there isn’t someone who feels that they are paying that cost. Reducing the amount of money some groups of disabled people who might not be eligible for exemption receive or effectively compelling them to move is a stressful burden to place on them. It might be unavoidable, fair, unfair or whatever, but it is foolish to pretend that it is not happening and doesn’t make people feel like they are having something they are entitled to taken away. We are fond of comparing ourselves to the surgeon who wields the scalpel. Don’t blame the surgeon; he didn’t make you ill. True, but that doesn’t mean that the scalpel doesn’t hurt.
It is not about whether the bedroom tax itself is right or wrong. It’s that it does nothing for the concept of compassionate conservatism not only not to help people, but to fail to fulfill Blair’s sarcastic definition by not even saying we’re sorry about it.