Ever since Margaret Thatcher launched the most destructive British premiership in modern history by quoting St Francis of Assisi, I’ve been wary of politicians who arrive waving olive branches.
So when David Cameron, in the words of the Conservative Party, promises ‘to shake up the tax and benefits system to boost marriage as part of his campaign to mend Britain’s broken society’, I don’t sense the glimmer of a new dawn.
It is second nature for prime ministers, or those who aspire to the role, to promise to fix things. I have a well-thumbed report by my desk entitled Bringing Britain Together, which pledges a ‘new approach’ – one that is ‘comprehensive, long-term and founded on what works’.
Arguably, nine years is too soon to judge whether or not it has succeeded. What’s clear, and should have been at the outset, is that we’re dealing with persistent and perennial problems.
Just as New Labour can’t hold the Tories responsible for the decline of neighbourhoods over the course of 30 or 40 years, so David Cameron is on a hiding to nothing if he imagines teenage pregnancies, failing schools, drug abuse and crime are a phenomenon that can be swept away with a commission on social justice and a few tweaks to the tax and benefit system.
The analysis in Tony Blair’s foreword to that nine-year-old report was spot on: ‘Experience shows that success depends on communities themselves having the power and taking the responsibility to make things better.’
David Cameron, too, has made encouraging noises about devolving power and responsibility.
But if you devolve responsibility, a ‘campaign to mend society’ is just flannel. You can facilitate other people’s work to mend society, but it’s theirs, not Westminster’s.
Large-scale programmes such as the new deal for communities and housing market renewal, for all their flaws, are premised on the recognition that significant change takes a generation or more.
The realisation is dawning – albeit slowly in some quarters – that strong, sustainable, locally accountable organisations must continue their work.
There are no quick fixes for a broken society. But there are many institutions, from the best local authorities to development trusts, faith-based groups and local charities, that build bridges, provide opportunities and engage with the people governments find hard to reach.
The right role for the rest of us is to help them do their jobs better.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine