Jack Newman and Richard Hayton


The Conservative Party’s ubiquitous ‘levelling up agenda’ has developed from a useful political soundbite to a cross-departmental governing mantra. It guides policy in a wide range of sectors and has attracted a great deal of interest from journalists, think tanks, and academic researchers. Broadly, levelling up is a mission to create greater regional equality, primarily (but not exclusively) by investing in local infrastructure and public spaces. However, while it appeals widely to Boris Johnson's disparate electoral coalition, the levelling up agenda raises a great number of dilemmas for the government, not least the key questions of taxation and devolution.


Equally as troubling, but much less likely to receive attention from politicians or commentators, are dilemmas about the ‘theory of change’ that will come to underpin the levelling up policy programme. Our research on David Cameron's big society agenda' and 'social justice agenda' shows that these cross-departmental governing mantras can be fundamentally undermined by incoherent assumptions about the nature of social change. If 'levelling up' is to fair better than the Conservative Party's previously failed ‘big society’ and ‘social justice’ projects, it must develop a coherent model of social change to underpin its practical policy mechanisms.


Increasingly, policymakers are reflecting on their assumptions about social change and will often include an explicit section in policy documents outlining their ‘theory of change’. However, these reflections are often brief, uncritical, and tend only to relate to policies rather than wider political agendas. In academia, on the other hand, philosophers and social scientists have long explored theories of social change at great length and in great depth. Our research engaged with three issues from these academic debates. We then analysed a range of government policy documents from the Cameron era to uncover the assumptions made about those three issues.


  1. The first issue relates to the existence of human agency (do we have free will? are we responsible for our actions?), the existence of social structure (how is society structured? do structured power relations have causal effects?), and the relation between them (what does it mean for agents to make choices in structured contexts?).
  2. The second relates to the distinction and relation between the material aspects of society (e.g. environment, economy, distribution of resources) and the cultural aspects of society (e.g. beliefs, language, knowledge). Key questions include: ‘is one more important than the other?’ and ‘how do the two interact to bring about change?’.
  3. The third issue relates to the central question about social change, specifically how change and stability are the product of structural and/or agential factors, and the product of material and/or cultural factors. However, questions also arise about the extent to which society is in a constant state of flux or whether it is broadly stable apart from brief periods of upheaval.


In applying this framework, we focused on two central governing mantras of Cameron’s government, which could be considered the equivalent of the current government’s levelling up agenda in their cross-departmental reach. Firstly, we considered the ‘big society’, which sought to triangulate between Thatcherite individualism and state-centred approaches to politics by appealing to voluntarism and charity work to deliver public services. Secondly, we examined the ’social justice agenda’, the party’s approach to poverty and unemployment, which similarly appeared to break with Thatcherism by embracing the notions of social justice and relative poverty.


Concerning both of these central planks of ‘Cameronism’, we found fundamental contradictions on each of the three issues in our framework.


1. Agency and structure

We found a contradiction between the assumption that society is made up of morally responsible agents and the assumption that the state must reorganise society so that people become morally responsible agents. The difficulty of implementing the latter pushed the government back towards the former, and therefore to inaction. This can be seen in the retreat of the big society project, which would only work if ‘every adult played their part’. At the same time, the government argued that because the social fabric of communities was being stripped away, people now lacked moral responsibility. By positing this moral breakdown, the Conservatives set themselves an almost impossible policy challenge and simultaneously undermined the premise on which the big society was based.


2. Material and cultural

We found a contradiction between the assumption that people act according to financial incentives and the assumption that people act according to values. Rather than creating an approach that unified these two approaches, policy documents tended to oscillate between them. The immense policy challenge of implementing a mass change in values was considered in the early days of Cameron’s leadership; for example, the party considered policies that taught children about charitable giving. It was also attempted to some extent with the National Citizens Service, which sought to instil community values among young adults. However, as the policy challenge of changing values became clear, the government increasingly moved towards policy solutions focused only on financial incentives. The simultaneous commitment to two contradictory theories of behavioural change eventually contributed to tensions in the implementation of the key social justice policy, Universal Credit.


3. Stability and change

We found a contradiction between the assumption that social change is organically evolutionary and the assumption that social change will occur according to the government’s radical programme of reform. Both the big society and the social justice agenda sought to create radical changes in social organisation and individual behaviour by reforming systems of public service delivery. However, at the same time, both were developed from assumptions about organic change over multiple generations. Ultimately, government policy solutions tended to ascribe to a theory of change that was either agency-driven or structural, and either material or cultural, rather than attempting to develop a more nuanced understanding that combines these factors.


Our analysis shows that the key policy agendas of the Cameron modernisation project were underpinned by contradictory and shifting assumptions about the nature and causes of social change. These contributed to the failure of two key governing mantras the ‘big society agenda’ and the ‘social justice agenda’. The lesson to be learnt here is that combining different political traditions is not just about rhetoric – it requires deeper theoretical work to address contradictory assumptions about the nature and causes of social change. If Boris Johnson is to hold together his disparate electoral coalition by implementing his ‘levelling up agenda’, he must look to its underlying theory of change. Otherwise, the agenda is likely to create a short-lived and ill-conceived policy intervention.


Author biographies

Jack Newman is a Research Fellow at the University of Surrey, currently researching regional politics and devolution in the UK. His wider research interests include British politics, social policy, and the philosophy of political analysis.

Richard Hayton is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds and has published widely on British Politics. He is a former trustee of the PSA and was Convenor of the Conservatism Studies Specialist Group from 2011 to 2016. 

This blog post summarises key arguments from a new research paper: Newman, J. and Hayton, R. 2021. 'The ontological failure of David Cameron's modernisation' of the Conservative Party'. British Politics. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-021-00159-7. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.