David Cameron’s `Welfare’ Legacy. Thatcher’s Son or Macmillan’s Heir?

As voters go to the polls today to decide whether Britain should #remain in Europe or #brexit, today’s guest blogger Robert M Page considers Prime Minister Cameron’s legacy in terms of social policy…

Robert Page

Robert Page

Provided David Cameron is able to secure majority support for `Remain’ in the European Union Referendum vote on Thursday June 23rd, and can then swiftly reunite his party, he may finally be able to turn his attention to his political legacy.

In terms of social policy will he be seen as someone who steered the party in an avowedly One Nation direction or, rather, as someone who proved to be a loyal `son’ of Margaret Thatcher?

Toxic social legacy

Although sympathetic with Thatcher’s neo‐liberal economic agenda, Cameron has sought to distance himself from her more toxic social legacy since becoming party leader in 2005, not least because he recognised the importance of neutralising New Labour’s reputation as being the only party committed to social justice.

Unlike those hard‐hearted Tories who appeared to relish sticking the boot into the vulnerable and disadvantaged, Cameron was keen to reach out to `hoodies’ and those who had opted for alternative lifestyles, provided that they demonstrated a willingness to `play by the rules’ and avoid unnecessary forms of state dependency.

His `One Nation’ sympathies led him to declare his unwavering support for the NHS and to encourage other judicious forms of state intervention, particularly where such action could help galvanise citizens to take greater responsibility for tackling problems in their own communities (`The Big Society’).

One Nation luminaries

Those who question whether Cameron can be seen as an heir to the `compassionate’ post‐war conservatism of One Nation luminaries such as Harold Macmillan, point to the sudden reversal of the party’s commitment to match the then Labour government’s ambitious spending plans following the economic crisis of 2008 as evidence of a deep rooted attachment to Thatcherism.

Certainly, his decision to impose an austere economic strategy after becoming leader of the Conservative‐Liberal‐ Democrat coalition government in 2010 seemed to offer convincing evidence of a Thatcherite lineage.

“Cameron’s progressive instincts were also displayed by his decision to press ahead with controversial social reforms…”

Cameron responded vigorously to such criticism by pointing to the limited, proportionate, sacrifices his government had asked those on lowest incomes to make in response to the economic crisis as well as his efforts to protect both the NHS and overseas aid budgets. He also drew attention to the party’s `mobility enhancing’ educational reforms and the introduction of a path breaking Universal Credit scheme designed to provide working age adults with an easier transition back into paid work, as evidence of a One Nation mind‐set.

Cameron’s progressive instincts were also displayed by his decision to press ahead with controversial social reforms, such as establishing the right of gay people to marry, despite opposition from within the Tory heartlands.

After securing a majority Conservative government for nearly twenty years in the 2015 General Election, Cameron has continued to brandish his One Nation credentials. The introduction of the National `Living’ Wage, school and prison reforms and the prospective transformation of the life chances of children in care have all been portrayed as One Nation initiatives. It has, though, been far from plain sailing.


Iain Duncan Smith’s decision to leave the government last March, after accusing the Prime Minister of abandoning the positive social agenda that he had crafted over the previous decade, provides evidence of scepticism even amongst his once most loyal of followers. Moreover, the government’s proposed changes to tax credits and disability benefits, which were subsequently abandoned after they were exposed as having an adverse effect on some of the most vulnerable citizens, provides further evidence of a diminishing commitment to One Nation conservatism.

When viewed in conjunction with the growing numbers of citizens relying on Food Banks, the inequities of the `Bedroom Tax’, the draconian sanctioning of working age claimants and the continued willingness of some Ministers to refer to claimants as `shirkers’ (rather than `strivers’), it seems that Cameron may struggle to secure a One Nation welfare legacy when he steps down as party leader in 2020.

It might transpire, though, that David Cameron’s reputation as a One Nation Conservative may only be established in retrospect after a neo‐liberal successor, most likely Boris Johnson, has put into effect a social policy agenda of a much deeper Thatcherite blue.

#eureferendum #remain #brexit

Robert M Page is Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham.  He has written extensively on the post-war British welfare state.  

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1 Response to “David Cameron’s `Welfare’ Legacy. Thatcher’s Son or Macmillan’s Heir?”

  1. 1 Dejected, disgruntled and divided: Britain’s EU referendum | The Policy Press Blog Trackback on June 27, 2016 at 2:14 pm

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