Last week David Cameron delivered the best speech on modern Conservatism since Keith Joseph’s lectures in the late 1970s. Read to the Demos think-tank on Monday 30 January, it was a paper of real stature: lucid, original, candid and thoughtful.
Journalists do not much care for philosophical stuff unless it contains an ‘announcement’ or ‘throws down a gauntlet’, so this attracted little notice. No matter. This speech dispels doubts as to whether Cameron can bring to his party more than a shrewd grasp of marketing. It marks him as an intellectual leader too.
I shall now attack the speech. Too important a piece of thinking to be politely applauded, the emergent Cameronism deserves searching questions. For readers who have not read the speech, here in merciless summary is what Cameron said:
Under Margaret Thatcher the Conservatives so comprehensively achieved their goal of curing the economic ills and the Us vs Them mentality of 1970s Britain, that they delivered not just the country but their own party into a wholly new landscape. It was a place in which they felt lost. They have spent the years since then trying to come to terms with their own success, but have found it psychologically difficult to confront one of its most obvious fruits: New Labour and Tony Blair.
Mr Blair has had the advantage of being able to take Conservative achievements for granted, and to try to build on them. He recognised something which had begun to trouble Margaret Thatcher and troubled John Major mightily, but to which Tories never found their voice in response: a loss of anchorage in our culture, anchorage into family, community and morality; and the way a minority of our countrymen were adrift, excluded from growing national prosperity and confidence. Blair articulated the problem masterfully and promised movingly to tackle it. Conservatives dithered: should they paint him as a poseur and secret Marxist or veer rightwards on to territory they could call their own?
But after eight years it is now Blair’s turn to dither. The harvest has failed — blighted by Labour’s ancient instinct to rely on big government for answers, and by Blair’s personal instinct for seeking the attention-grabbing quick fix. Our economy is furring up, bureacracy is growing and the state is top-down and top-heavy.
Tories now have the advantage Blair once had: a growing consensus that the governing party is running into the sand, no culpability for it, and a set of solutions in tune with their instincts. These Cameron characterises as ‘sharing responsibility’ between the state and ‘civil society’: the individual, family and community. He talks of what can be done by businesses, social enterprises and voluntary organisations. A Conservative government striking a balance between social justice and economic efficiency, between the state and the small platoons will be, he concludes, ‘fulfilling, not betraying, our inheritance’.
I have compressed cruelly. Allowed to breathe, the speech is compelling. Cameron himself anticipates the most obvious objection: fine phrases are easy; but more detail, please, on where you strike the balance, who these small platoons will be, and how we empower them. His answer, ‘we’re working on it’, should satisfy most of us for the time being.
I have three bigger difficulties, not so much with the lack of detail as with the broad philosophical thrust.
The first is a dilemma Keith Joseph often stressed. ‘Civil society’ — you and I, family, private duty, voluntary groups — needs a stimulus before it acts. Something must prick the conscience. The sharpest thorn is necessity. In Ethiopia, whence I have just returned, Mr Cameron would see civil society alive and well. This is because family and village are all a needy Ethiopian has to turn to, and family and village know it.
The more brutal the alternative, the more willing civil society will be to chip in. That is why Brownites suspect that a Tory party which argues for a bigger role for civil society may secretly contemplate cutting state welfare. This is what Labour will argue. The Conservatives need an answer.
One answer might be that they do not plan to cut public spending, but to redistribute some of it away from the wide riverbed of the public sector, and down the myriad local waterways through which, in civil society, we support each other: ‘channels’ (in George Eliot’s phrase) ‘which had no great name upon the earth’.
A fine thought. But here my second problem arises, and takes me back to Ethiopia. The small-is-beautiful Cameron theory of local and ad hoc action is essentially what has driven British international development policy for the last couple of decades. Redirect funds (says the theory) from government-to-government work and into the coffers of non-governmental organisations: aid charities, most of them.
But the more money non-governmental organisations receive from government, the more they begin to resemble governmental organisations. In the developing world these days the NGOs behave just like apparatuses of state. Their staff drive big, new, white Toyota 4x4s, reliably to be found not out in the wild, but clustered around the best hotels. Aid workers become adept not at teaching bricklaying but at drafting 90-page regional disability strategies. When funding has been secured, methods and results opened to Whitehall scrutiny, and the Health and Safety Executive invited in, a community or self-help outfit’s distinctive talents begin to atrophy: experimentation, nimbleness, risk-taking, unstuffiness and an absence of paperwork.
To summarise: could a Tory state sponsor non-state solutions without killing the thing it loves? One big embezzlement scandal involving a newly empowered community group, and everyone might retreat into checklists and form-filling.
I leave until last the question which troubles me most. That Cameron speech was a work of art, and the Cameron vision a beautiful thing. But it puts one in mind more of a landscape designer surveying his plan for a country-house garden than of a general awaiting a war. ‘We shall have the roses here,’ one imagines Mr Cameron breathing, ‘and a little wild rockery of community groups there, ring-fenced by a herbaceous border of various ad hoc grants for promising schemes — and a very modest spinney of civil servants down below the ha-ha.’
But in war and government the first casualty is the plan. Within months a Cameron government will see the price-tag on every hope edge up, and soon the campaign will turn into a bloody battle against escalating costs, slashing blindly to left and right and stumbling through the mud, the air thick with the media cry of ‘Tory cuts’. The horticultural comparison is not with designing a garden but with a rearguard action against advancing briars.
What will Mr Cameron have to arm him in this fray, once the plan is gone? I want to believe it will be a visceral Tory antipathy to the creeping increase of public spending, and a visceral Tory sympathy for citizens who pay too much tax..
In another speech, perhaps? I hope so.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.