When Prime Ministers attack...

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A few weeks away from marking a decade as his party’s leader, this week David Cameron had the benefit of not one, but two former Prime Ministers warning him over his poverty and inequality legacy.

First up was Sir John Major, in his ‘Hinton’ lecture for NCVO entitled ‘A Nation at ease with itself?’. You can read extracts here.

Then, yesterday, Gordon Brown delivered CPAG’s 50th anniversary lecture. Extracts here but you can read the story of the day here.

Two different Prime Ministers from two very different political traditions, yet both volubly uneasy with the kind of rhetoric being used by ministers and the impact of policies on families.

Here are the main points of agreement:

1. Both talked about social justice in the context of British values

Major: “Among the many attractive qualities of the British is an enduring belief in fairness.

As Colonel Rainsborough observed in the Putney Debates over 250 years ago: “... the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as [has] the greatest he...”. So had he then, and so has he now. The Colonel was a Leveller – I am a Conservative. But, upon this, we agree. We may never achieve a perfect society, but we can surely create a fairer one.”

Brown: “These reforms are totally counter to what I call British values. They are antagonistic to the work ethic because they will diminish incentives to work, they will undermine personal responsibility, because it is working families who are being hit most, and they will mean there is less compassion for children in our country, which is surely one of the most important features of a civilised society.”

2. Both expressed their unease with the kind of demonising language used by ministers

Major: "Let us cast aside a common misconception. Everyone out of work is not an idler. Everyone in receipt of benefits is not a scrounger. Of course idlers and scroungers exist – and governments are entirely right to root out the cheats who rip off the taxpayer. But the focus must not be only on those who abuse the system; we need equal concentration on those who are failed by the system."

Brown: "The myths have dominated the policy thinking of people who know little about the conditions of the people they represent." [Gordon Brown then debunked 8 myths]

3. Both regard tackling poverty as an investment in the UK’s future

Major: “A crusade to widen prosperity more equally will not only ease hardship, it will build our national wealth – and health.”

Brown: "Children are not to blame for their hardship if they are born into a poor family."

They are our future - the scientists, engineers, computer whizz-kids and carers of the coming generation - and every child should have the best start in life. That’s only fair.”

It would be an unwise Prime Minister who dismisses such a distinguished, doubled-barrelled blast.

But, unless David Cameron responds quickly, his legacy could well be presiding over the biggest rise in child poverty in decades.