This was one of the best speeches I have heard David Cameron give. It may not have been a masterpiece of oratory, he may have read from notes, left too make lulls lulls inspiring only a few standing ovations. But it was packed with mission, seriousness, vision, principles – and, most of all, a real agenda.
Just as last year’s conference speech laid out a Conservative defence of the free market, this year’s laid out a vision of the conservative society. That is to say: one which hands back power to communities, which trusts people and places huge emphasis on social mobility.
First, he positioned the Conservatives squarely in the fight against poverty – on the explicit grounds that Labour has lost that fight. And with news that means we can take him seriously: Iain Duncan Smith will return to government – hopefully to run welfare reform and implement the seminal work he has done with the CSJ. This is an appointment that speaks more to me than that of Dannett or Freud. Go into IDS’ room in the commons, and it’s a library of welfare reform papers.
Just a few hours ago, Pete blogged
about how Cameron would struggle to meet his word on welfare withdrawal rates – a theme of his speech. “For every single pound you earn, you keep just 4p,” he said of single mothers. “What kind of incentive is that?” He said – in what was, for me, the best passage that he wants the Conservatives to show just as much anger for 96% tax rates for the very poorest as they once did with Callaghan’s 98% of the richest. The floor erupted here, and I hope Cameron now incorporates the CSJ’s dynamic tax-benefit model to cure the problem he highlighted.
On education, it was brilliant. He managed to humanise Gove’s policy by talking about his own daughter – and when he does, his eyes light up. He wants to think when she goes to a state school that “this is my child, this is my [tax] money, give the money to the headteacher and spend less on Whitehall.” What a fantastic way of describing the voucher system. This gives a little of the revolutionary of Gove’s Swedish schools plans.
I was impressed with his repeatedly positioning himself against “big government” – listing the harm that it inflicts on a society, sapping responsibility and providing perverse incentives which run against the grain of human nature.“The more that society can do, the less we will need government to do,” he said – precisely right. And also “big government has failed in a big way – 2m living in workless households.” Again, bang on. If Labour’s “let them eat tax credits” approach was going to tackle poverty or promote social justice, don’t you think they’d have done it by now? Cameron was making these profound themes simple.
He had other powerful ways of outlining the problems. The deficit (“our children will be saddled with debt for decades to come”) and the legal red tape (“Laws so complicated that even their attorney general could not obey them”). He struggled to convey the danger of failure of a buyers’ strike in the gilt market, and said the usual self-flagellating nonsense about global warming. Everyone who contacted him “sent an email” rather than “wrote”. The ending was a little abrupt and the speech about ten minutes too long – he shouldn’t go on about health service when he doesn’t have a policy to discuss. Taking the military more seriously is good, though I suspect this just means more attention to smaller and less ambitious deployments. Some of it was daring – “I want every child to have the chances I had”. Eton costs £28,000 a year.
What impressed me most about it was the ideological integrity. Brown’s speeches are little nods to what he regards as various pressure groups: they have no narrative and neither does his government. A coherent thread can be woven though Cameron’s speech: that Britain’s problem (moral and financial) has been too much government and the Tory solution is to transfer power to communities. Thatcher made the mistake of being seen as an individualist agenda and Labour said there is a binary choice: crude individualism v the state: Cameron said today it is “we” rather than “me”, that the choice is community rather than the state. Or “big government” – the villain of his speech.
At the Tory conference there are all these posters saying “bye, bye bureaucracy” and the like. Excellent, I thought as I walked past them, why can’t Tories talk about that more often? And Cameron did. His agenda was coherent, diametrically opposite from that of Gordon Brown. Importantly, he used Tory language – previous leaders have used Labour language (“investment” rather than “spending”). He laid out the debate, on his terms. No one could doubt, listening to the applause as he mentioned the scandal of sink schools and lone parent marginal tax rates, that the Tories are genuinely furious about this. I couldn’t really care if it was short on bile and soundbites. It was a new way of seeing society: as James says in his political column it’s a very Tory solution to a very Labour problem.
We have yet to see many of the Tory plans – but the direction is, to me, clear and reassuring. Last week in The Spectator, we asked if Cameron was a revolutionary. On the strength of today’s speech, I think the answer might just be ‘yes’.
PS. I was pleasantly surprised to be asked earlier this evening to do a piece for The Guardian along the above lines – it’s online already. Read it here.
Reading other blogs, it’s strange to find myself against the conservative consensus on both main speeches of the week. I was underwhelmed by Osborne’s speech, which I considered a statement of the bleeding obvious rather than the “massive gamble” everyone wrote up. Cameron’s description of a conservative future was one I found well thought-through and credible. I suspect I’ll continue to disagree with him on how he gets to his destination, and how fast he should seek to move. But his speech showed - to me, anyway – that he really is heading along the right direction.