Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Cameron enigma

"There is such a thing as society; it is not just the same as the state". That is David Cameron's big idea for 'social responsibility', which he once again made central to his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester.

But the unresolved question is whether he intends a break with Thatcherism, or a rehabilitation of it in gentler tones for different times.

Today's speech offered another characteristic Cameron masterclass in political ambiguity, in which he kept faith with the core instincts of his largely Thatcherite party while seeking to reach out far beyond it too.

Cameronism as a kinder, gentler Thatcherism

The case for continuity between Cameron and Thatcherism is strengthened by two things. Firstly, the extent to which his speech opened with a strikingly ideological attack on 'big government' and the state - and was heartily cheered for it.

And here is the big argument in British politics today, put plainly and simply. Labour say that to solve the country's problems, we need more government.

Don't they see? It is more government that got us into this mess.

Secondly, it is revealing to discover that the authorship of David Cameron's favourite Thatcher-distancing quote is .... Margaret Thatcher herself.

Here she is in her Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture of 1996

To set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other

Cameronism as anti-ideological

Yet David Cameron is probably not ideological or doctrinaire enough to be a true blue Thatcherite. He stresses responsibility over individualism, and always maintains a tricky balance - he does not wish to repudiate or uproot Thatcherism, yet he wishes to reconnect to earlier Burkean Conservative traditions too.

So Cameronism was also, today, defined as a less ideological project around 'simple beliefs' in a long-standing Tory tradition of slightly apolitical, undoctrinaire 'common sense', most notably practiced by Stanley Baldwin and John Major, though the latter was often mocked for similar sentiments as those offered by Cameron today.

Cameron's 'simple beliefs' may chime with many people, though they lack political edge when they are sentiments with which almost nobody could disagree.

His homilies often have a Conservative resonance - though concerns about rampant individualism and whether families sit down together for dinner were part of Blair and Brown's New Labour communitarianism too. And where the left has won arguments - for the NHS, for international development, for birth not being a barrier to life chances, and now for the idea of the minimum wage or SureStart too - Cameron will deliver a progressive homily instead, rather than seeking to make an insurgent Conservative challenge to entrenched beliefs.

Once they exist, these issues and causes are simply not a matter of ideology, as he argued explicitly in his recent NHS speech.

Cameronism is about means, not ends

So what motivates the Cameron project is an argument about means, not ends. There is an incisive discussion of what that might mean in Julian Glover's cover essay in the new issue of Prospect. Glover argues that the Cameroons have a clearer idea of what they want to do than most observers realise, while they themselves acknowledge that they have not found a public language to explain quite what that idea is.

Cameron believes that big government is the cause of the broken society - and, it seemed today, even that big government was the cause of the financial crash and recession. But this has long been a right-wing critique (popularised by Correlli Barnett and others) that the post-Beveridge welfare settlement was a historic wrong turn. This is often too simplistic an argument - often romanticising the pre-welfare society, and risking implying that the withdrawal of the state will itself generate a social solution.

So it remains unclear how far, in practice, Cameronism would differ from what Glover calls "a boilerplate small government agenda". Yet that is apparently not the Cameronite aspiration, though it is that of much of the party. If the argument is in reality not really for less government but a different way to operate government, Cameron may be over-selling to his party how much he shares its ambitions. And it may be unlikely that the Conservatives could, in practice, be able to significantly reduce the scope and size of government, an ambition which eluded both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the end.

But that would be a longer-term source of tension within the right. The initial rather greater question for the modernisers is what reason there is to believe that the (extremely vague) alternative conservative means will deliver the hoped for outcomes.

We are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.

If the state can not do this, the central question for a Cameron government remains: how?

Cameronism is about instincts, not ideas

Finally, Cameronism is about Cameron. Again, he could be seen as coming close to a New Labour pragmatism of 'what works' but he is also appealing to a long-established Conservative tradition which is sceptical of ideology but believes in a pragmatic Tory statecraft, making decisions not according to any fully-fledged ideology but instead drawing on sound instincts which need not be fully articulated.

David Cameron made a trust less in manifestos and policies, and 'trust in me' pitch for this pragmatic High Tory statecraft.

He said today:

But I know that whatever plans you make in Opposition, it's the unpredictable events that come to dominate a government.

And it's your character, your temperament and your judgment, not your policies and your manifesto – that really make the difference.

Since this Cameronite ambiguity seems to have brought him considerable political success this far, it was extremely unlikely that the enigma would be unravelled today.

Yet Cameron's closing remarks focused on character on judgement over ideology or policy were a reminder that, even if successful, he would not intend to unravel the enigma on the other side of a General Election either.


Bearded Socialist said...

he seems between having a philosophy and not having one.
His idea seems to be that the state crowds out good things and that it's removal will improve things by not being there.
i don't believe it, but i wouldn't

Newmania said...

I read the speech and then watched it later , what struck me was how much there was in it that would not please the Party
Environmental = Taxes /Liberal Hand wringing cant
Taxes - The refusal to withdraw the 50p rate which we all know was an expensive political gesture
Ring fencing International Aid - An expensive hobby and a democratic outrage given its continued unpopularity
The EU- Nothing much.... despite a historic lie and betrayal
Nothing on tax cuts

Mt reading is different to yours . I have digested a lot of the literature from those who wished to move the Conservative OParty back to the centre . He is emphasising conservatism over Thatcherite Laissez Faire but retaining the style of the former .

Cameron however is not a wet, socially sound and I suspect dry on the State and Economy too

Blair occupied the centre and then moved it , Cameron wants to do the same in two terms.