Thursday, October 02, 2008

'People Want to Know What Values You Bring': Grave Dave Cameron's Vision and Values

What makes Cameron tick? Last week I looked at the vision and values of Gordon Browns speech, now its 'Dave's turn. Except this was more grave than Dave. When Nick Clegg compared David Cameron to an Andrex puppy, he was partly right. Camerons speech to the Tory conference was certainly very long (65 minutes), but it certainly wasn't soft.

(Full text of the speech is here, quotes below are in italics. )

Strangely, in pragmatic political times, we've had two strong 'values' speeches. Brown was heavy on duty, service, and especially 'fairness'. Cameron was even more explicit:

(people) want to know whether our politics, and let's be frank, whether our politicians - are up to it. In the end, that's not really about your policies and your plans. Of course your plans are important… so people want to know what values you bring to big situations and big decisions that can crop up on your watch.

and so he told us. There were some clear inconsistencies between his stated values, and what he actually proposed to do, but we'll come to that later. But lets look at those values:

1. Responsibility:
For me, the most important word is responsibility, not a libertarian free for all, but personal, civic and corporate responsibility to others 'that's what this party is all about'. There was a superb section where he nailed Miliband (interesting that he went after Miliband and Johnson, the 2 Labour pretenders, as well as Brown), turning 'there's no such thing as society' back on Labour:

David Miliband said that "unless government is on your side you end up on your own."
"On your own" - without the government.
I thought it was one of the most arrogant things I've heard a politician say.
For Labour there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between.
No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on.
No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in.
No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
You cannot run our country like this.

Responsibility and society go hand in hand: " we will only be a strong society if we are a responsible society." Responsibility recognises that there are other factors than just what I want, or what suits me.

That was cashed out later on in terms of benefit reform, the behaviour of politicians, and being able to admit to failure. Irresponsible bankers were fingered for the economic crisis, and 'fiscal responsibility' was put at the core of economic policy.

2. Family:
"I'm a forty-one year old father of three who thinks that family is the most important thing there is." That line came early on, and family featured at the top of the Broken Society section, and how we fix it. Cameron was clear "If you want to know where the change will be greatest from what has gone before. It is our plan for social reform. be as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform." So the biggest change the Tories will bring is social change, and at the centre of that is family policy.

Why? Because "family is the best welfare system there is (and)... commitment is something we should cherish as a society." There was a hint at other things too - the broken family structure in the background story of those in prison, so hopefully Cameron has more to say than just this. His 3 proposals to strengthen families were: flexible working, backing marriage in the tax system, and 4,000 more health visitors.

I'm sorry, but if that is the engine room of the most radical social reform since Roy Jenkins, then then that's a bit weak. Very weak. Health visitors are fine so far as they go, but there is so much more that can be done to support families in terms of relationships support, parenting skills etc. (though see this).

At least at the core of this there is a vision of a "stronger society". Whether 'conservative means' can achieve 'progressive ends', is another question.

3. "Leadership, character, judgement"
In a full frontal attack on Browns 'this is no time for a novice' jibe, Cameron spend a long time spelling out an alternative view of leadership. I couldn't work out whether "thinking before deciding is good" and "go with your conviction, not calculation" (said within 4 sentences of each other) were mutually contradictory. But Camerons argument was that it's what you've got, not what you've been through, that makes you a good leader. Experience, if you've not learned from it, is a hindrance not a help.

Part of Cameron's leadership is a commitment to teamwork - he carefully namechecked all the major players in his team (even David Davis, remember him?), and it's striking to note that the shadow cabinet currently looks like a better team than the real thing, with several of the most talented Labour MP's on the back benches (Clarke, Milburn, Blair), or having done so much to annoy people that they're damaged goods (Balls, Byers, Mandelson, Reid, Blair again, etc.). There is a strength in depth to this opposition team, and Cameron does seem able to bring the best out of them. To have bound the notoriously independent IDS into part of a cohesive unit is an achievement in itself.

4. Within this there was a lot of talk about right and wrong.
"The popular thing may look good for a while. The right thing will be right all the time." Cameron applied this to Afghanistan, law and order and family policy. Someone commented afterwards that it was a bit of a Daily Mail speech, and perhaps that's right.

Cameron's rights and wrongs were a fascinating blend of old and new Conservative: sound defence, patriotism, the Union and fiscal conservatism, alongside gender equality, social justice, green politics and international development. Though the Tory tree logo gets its share of bashing, it's quite a good image for where the Tories find themselves: strong roots in one tradition of thinking, but trying to draw on them for something leafy and fruitful in the present.

5. Religion (not)
As if to prove Theos wrong, all the leaders have avoided religious references: Brown made a fleeting allusion to the Good Samaritan, Clegg made a joke, and Cameron invoked God only to show us how angry he was. Aside from the reference to faith in the Miliband attack, that was it.

6. Walking the Talk
Early in the speech Cameron said "it's not just about your values... the best you can do is tell you make decisions" and he went on to set out 14 statements which were, basically, value statements. He seems a little confused about what 'values' are, but at least he's got some.

However, how he applied those values was a little confusing. Family policy, as I've noted, looks rather weak, and Tory solutions on both the NHS and schools were pure free market: publish information, reduce regulation, and open the thing up to more competition. Cameron stated that for the NHS people want an 'informed choice'. No David, we want a good doctor at our local hospital. When you're ill, you don't want to excercise your right of choice, you just want to get better. There has to come a time when we stop being consumers, but it didn't sound like it would happen under this leader.

On hearing the speech, it came across as a strong statement of the kind of leader Cameron would be. On reading it, I'm slightly more confused. There are so many value statements here, and so many vying for top spot: responsiblity, family, leadership, change, "Conservative values", mending the broken society, deciding on the basis of thought-through process, deciding on the basis of gut instinct, and so on.

Earlier in the conference Cameron went for a jog, slowed to a walk as he neared the hotel, then speeded up again when he saw the media. His speech was an attempt to portray himself as a man who wouldn't stop running, even when it got painful, even when it didn't look good to the media. There seems to be a gap between Camerons values, and how they work themselves out.

And finally....
And despite the occasional nod to 'quality of life', none of the leaders yet has gone after the big issue: is a consumer society powered by credit a sustainable one? In fact, can it be a 'society' if it's based on consumption? This lies at the core of green issues, banking, social justice, international development, mental health, social cohesion and so much else. There's no point in fixing the roof whilst the sun is shining if the foundations are built on sand.

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