Sociocentric frameworks revisited


by David Moss
June 2008


Writing in the Times on 8 May 2007, Oliver Letwin said:

"Cameron Conservatism puts no faith in central direction and control. Instead, it seeks to identify social and environmental responsibilities that participants in the free market are likely to neglect, and then establish frameworks that will lead people and organisations to act of their own volition in ways that will improve society by increasing general wellbeing".

Everyone had a good laugh at the time about the long words he used. But his message isn't funny.

Some people are likely to neglect their responsibilities. Granted. Those responsibilities can be identified. Who by? Presumably by a responsibility neglect tsar. Then what? It will be the tsar's job to make sure people do their duty. How? By enacting laws? No, by establishing frameworks. What does that mean? It's not clear, but the outcome is that people end up wanting to do their duty, they will do it voluntarily, laws won't be necessary.

Far from putting no faith in it, this is a case of "Cameron Conservatism" setting out to achieve "central direction and control" over nothing less than people's volition.

Is this still the proposed Conservative method a year later? It looks like it. The statement hasn't been withdrawn and Oliver Letwin is still listed as Chairman of the Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department on the Conservatives' website.

Is there anything new here? No. It is 2,300 years since Aristotle wrote his book on rhetoric. Some people disagree, but they're wrong. Daniel Finkelstein, a political strategist, argues that there are new ways to influence people. He even wrote an article about it – 'The five sexiest ideas in politics', covering social norms, reciprocal altruism, situationism, prospect theory and cognitive dissonance. Whatever turns you on, but there's nothing there Aristotle wouldn't have recognised.

There are limits to the power of spin:

• If the evidence simply isn't there (42 days), or is ignored (ID cards), or is falsified (Iraq), then no amount of spin will make a policy work.

• If the evidence is there, reality will out. Labour is relentlessly authoritarian, Gordon Brown's speeches on liberty cannot disguise that fact and David Davis has spotted it. So has everyone else.

• The law of unintended consequences still works – Gordon Brown can't have meant to make Crewe and Nantwich vote against Labour when he abolished the 10% rate of income tax.

• And some people are good at spin (Tony Blair), while others aren't (David Cameron).

David Cameron isn't good at spin? No. Eight days after Oliver Letwin's article, the Conservatives announced that there would be no new grammar schools and nearly destroyed their own party.

When David Miliband writes:

"Labourís success has been built on the Blair/Brown mantra that 'what counts is what works' ... from independence of the Bank of England to ASBOs to nuclear power, Labour ditched dogma and embraced common sense."


"... common sense remains essential, but it is not enough ... New Labour is learning the limits of pragmatism and Gordon Brown is driving the Government forward better to define and defend its convictions. It is one thing to ditch dogma; new Labour became expert at that before 1997. It is another to build a coherent ideology that provides a clear sense of direction for the country and speaks to peopleís aspirations. That is our challenge today."

there is sometimes a temptation to infer that today there is no vision, there is only spin. That is false. As Simon Jenkins has argued repeatedly and irrefutably, we are now in the 29th year of econocentric and sociocentric Thatcherism.

David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

© 2008 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd