Alex Massie

Cameron Challenges Britain: Is Britain Up To It?

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There were moments, I confess, when David Cameron's speech to the Conservative party conference this afternoon was oddly, disconcertingly reminiscent of George W Bush's second inauguration speech. Each address was soaring, passionate and heroically optimistic. Bush foresaw a world transformed; at least Cameron's ambitions are limited to remaking this sceptered isle.

If Bush serves as a warning that words are not enough it might also be said that words are still required. There was, as Andrew Neil immediately pointed out, little that was new in the Prime Minister's address but, frankly, after the child benefit hash that was no bad thing. What we heard, however, was perhaps the most coherent - certainly the most passionate - declaration of Cameronism yet. 

As Pete says, the Big Society is back as a central theme, indeed the dominant theme, for this government. Eliminating the deficit in this parliament is a means to an end, not merely a virtuous end in itself. Consequently, there was more than a hint of Macmillan in this speech and Cameron explicitly rejected laissez-faire. This will disappoint some - see Richard Wellings for instance - but it recognised that the public mood, indeed what the public will stomach, is some way to the left of the Institute for Economic Affairs.

Furthermore, the coalition leadership seems acutely aware that, as the spending cuts begin to bite, it will be caricatured as the Nasty Government and so Cameron (and Clegg) must frame the debate in advance and offer something bigger and better than There Is No Alternative. The Big Society, then, is a challenge to that part of Cameron's own party that never really bought the idea in the first place and blames the failure to win an overall majority on the campaign's inability to clearly define what it, and its Biggish Idea, meant. Cameron's message to his party today, then, was "I actually believe in this stuff."

But if Cameron challenged parts of his own party he challenged the country still more. And here classic, even timeless, Conservative and Liberal themes took over: this was a paen to self-reliance, to thrift, to mutual support and hard work. Delivered differently it could have sounded moralistic, even threatening but, as Cameron packaged it, this message was transformed into something strangely inspirational. There was a quasi-American "can do" spirit about it that proved surprisingly effective. For a moment even cynicism was disarmed...

His critics complain that all the Big Society means is that there's no money, so do it all yourself. That's the sour, cynical interpretation. By contrast Cameron challenged Britons to be bovvered to take responsibility for their own actions, their own families, their own communities. The state will offer a help-up, not a hand-out. From free schools to elected police chiefs and GP co-operatives the message was not "you're on your own" but "you know best". As Cameron said:

Yes, they [Labour] deserve some blame, and we'll never let them forget it.

But the point I want to make is this. The state of our nation is not just determined by the government and those who run it. It is determined by millions of individual actions – by what each of us do and what we choose not to do.

Yes, Labour failed to regulate the City properly. But they didn't force those banks to take massive risks with other people's money.

Yes, Labour tried to boss people around and undermined responsibility. But they weren't the ones smashing up our town centres on a Friday night or sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefits.

Yes, Labour centralised too much and told people they could fix every problem. But it was the rest of us who swallowed it, hoping that if the government took care of things, perhaps we wouldn't have to.

Too many people thought: "I've paid my taxes, the state will look after everything."

But citizenship isn't a transaction in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It's a relationship – you're part of something bigger than you, and it matters what you think and feel and do.

So to get out of the mess we're in, changing the government is not enough. We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society.

spirits animating

The tough part, naturally, lies in the detail but successful governments need a sense of the wider picture too. Otherwise government becomes captured by managerialism and falls victim to the lowest bureaucratic denominator. On the evidence so far - child benefit and school building programmes being two good examples - this government is more careless with the detail than it need or should be but retains a powerful, surprisingly coherent sense of where it wants to go. Governments must sweat the small stuff but in tricky times they need to offer big picture leadership too. 

For all the criticism Steve Hilton receives - some of it justified - he can do the Big Picture stuff well. It's easy to carp at rhetoric and, certainly, rhetoric isn't enough but this speech was peppered with lines that could be though catnip for liberal conservatism:

"For too long, we have measured our efforts to tackle poverty by the size of the cheque we have given to the poor."

"We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system  with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society."

"If anyone says that we just need more money for better schools, better hospitals, tell them: we've been there - it doesn't work."

When we say "we are all in this together", that is not a cry for help but a call to arms.

Society is not a spectator sport. This is your country. It's time to believe it. It's time to step up and own it.

So mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people.

The knowledge in the heart of everyone – everyone – that they are not captive to the circumstances of their birth, they are not flotsam and jetsam in the great currents of wealth and power, they are not small people but big citizens. People that believe in themselves. A Britain that believes in itself.

Not a promise of a perfect country. Just an achievable future of a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone.

At this time of great national challenge, two parties have come together to help make it happen. Yes, this is a new kind of government, but no, not just because it's a coalition. It is a new kind of government because it is realistic about what it can achieve on its own, but ambitious about what we can all achieve together.

A government that believes in people, that trusts people, that knows its ultimate role is not to take from people but to give, to give power, to give control, to give everyone the chance to make the most of their own life and make better the lives of others.

Yes, we will play our part – but the part you play will mean even more.

Your country needs you. It takes two. It takes two to build that strong economy. We'll balance the budget, we'll boost enterprise, but you start those businesses that lead us to growth.

It takes two to build that big society. We'll reform public services, we'll devolve power, but you step forward to seize the opportunity.

Don't let the cynics say this is some unachievable, impossible dream that won't work in the selfish 21st century – tell them people are hungry for it.

So Cameron knows what his Big Society is and I think he has an idea how to reach it too. But the Big Questions looming here at the end of his speech is these: Are the people hungry for it? And are they up to meeting the challenge this bold, optimistic, perhaps foolhardy Prime Minister has offered them? Or will we one day look back on this conference speech with the same kind of abashed remorse with which we now recall George W Bush's Second Inaugual? 

UPDATE: I seem to have liked it more - or at least liked the bits Cameron was plainly most interested in - more than others. Tim Montgomerie calls the speech "forgettable" while Fraser thinks it "low-octane". Iain Martin, meanwhile, says it's clear the laddie's "not for turning" and Russell Le Page worries about 50s nostalgia.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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