Friday 13 November 2009

Cameron the centraliser

David Cameron likes to warn us all about the dangers of Fabianism - which he thinks of as top-down command and control centralisation. (He was at it again at The Guardian on Tuesday: Perhaps Cameron focused more on his Hayek when reading PPE at Oxford, so we may need Stuart White to compile a short reading list for him of Tawney, GDH Cole and other left and Fabian voices on mutualism and social responsibility).

But does he really believe in his own critique anyway?

Anybody who looked at the way he runs his own party would certainly doubt it.

There is, at least, an intriguing tension between Cameron's professed ends and means: he believes the vision of decentralisation and empowerment can only be driven through be the small, dedicated central clique who get what 'the project' is.

Increasingly, whatever the issue, the means seem to return ever more power to the leader.

Cameron sees the genuine need to increase gender diversity among his party, yet many in his party believe the real issue behind the means he wants to employ is about central control versus local autonomy, and getting a few more loyalists into a modern Thatcherite parliamentary party.

The same pattern can be seen in fevered village speculation following PR Week's report that Francis Maude has a little list of who will or won't make the cut to be the advisers and spinners of a new regime, should such curtain-measuring 'transition planning' not prove sadly premature.

'Cutting the cost of politics' is a popular right-wing theme - though no opposition party in history has ever had anything like the level of state-funding and support that the Tories have enjoyed since 1997.

But look again at the story, and surely the real agenda once more one of control.

Traditionally, cabinet ministers have had two special advisers each, but the Conservatives are planning just one special adviser per cabinet minister, with a separate pool of special advisers based in Downing Street.

Ministerial special advisers would focus on policy, while only those based in Downing Street would be authorised to deal with the media. The Tory plan would reduce the overall number of special advisers in government.

I imagine all Prime Ministers might idly think that stopping any Minister or adviser from talking to the media without authorisation from the centre would be jolly nice, though old hands like King Canute might advise Dave not to overestimate his powers in such things.

I doubt the right will trust Mr Maude's judgment over who should be regarded as a 'sound' advocate of the New Toryism.

And I imagine the Lobby might just laugh off the idea, rather than seeing it as a serious threat in drying up any sources of stories and briefings.

Or they might need to be making contingency plans for secret lunches and samzidat contacts. It could just be the sort of thing to make a professed new age of openness and transparency could become a much more cloak and dagger affair.


Unknown said...

It's all so eerily familiar, isn't it?

Replace the word "Cameron" with "Blair" in this post and you have a decent description of the New Labour "project" from the mid-90s onwards...

Will Davies said...

As a Guardian leader rightly acknowledged, Cameron's speech has to go down as one of the most audacious of recent political history. The notion that a smaller state will alleviate poverty defies nearly any political, economic or intellectual logic one can possibly imagine.

Reaganism was a triumph of conservative intuition over economic science. The supply-side logic (which George Bush Snr descibed as 'voodoo economics') and the Laffer Curve (drawn on a napkin to prove that higher income taxes lead to lower net tax revenues), had no intellectual credibility, but did have some form of political coherence. Conservatives believed these things to be true or right on some quasi-empirical, quasi-moral level.

But Cameron's Hugo Young lecture does not resonate with either economics or intuition. It was a triumph of branding over both. Nobody believes that smaller states help the poor (and they sure as hell don't claim to know this). This is nothing more than conservatism claiming kindness as a branding value, and it's appalling that he should be allowed to get away with it.