Many of the themes which he touches upon form familiar territory for the Conservative leader. The idea of distributing power to localities, rather than centralising it. The notion that the United Kingdom should assume responsibility for its own laws and judiciary, rather than allowing a maximalist interpretation of European edicts to copperplate a substantial body of legislation or unduly influence its interpretation by judges. The insistence that social justice is better pursued by empowering communities and encouraging responsibility, rather than by imposing ‘one size fits all’ solutions from the centre. The article’s final instalment talks about the information age complementing “the progressive Conservative philosophy: sceptical about big state power; committed to social responsibility and non-state collective action”.
It is also a wide ranging article and some of its sorties are a little speculative and would sit more easily in a policy document, rather than in a treatise for action being placed before the British public, a year or less before a general election.
Cameron’s localist instinct is sound enough. If communities are to be persuaded to take responsibility, then they must have the means available enabling them to do so. Distributing decision making about schools, policing, housing and health locally, as far as is practicable, is a worthy aspiration. Even the ‘general power of competence’ makes sense, so long as local authorities are clearly accountable and the task of bailing out various failed local initiatives does not repeatedly fall to national government. However I do wonder about the merits of a mooted ‘power of initiative’ which would instigate referendums wherever 5 per cent of the electorate demanded it. If this is to be a serious power then it raises practical problems in terms of costs and implementation. If it is desperately difficult to invoke then there is little value in introducing it in the first place. I appreciate that the expenses scandal has precipitated public disillusion which must be addressed, but introducing widespread populist referenda seems less to me like constitutional conservatism and more like new Labour gimmickry.
For similar reasons I have reservations about the proposal to introduce a fixed term for parliament. There is a strong argument, which Cameron makes well, that the House of Commons has become emasculated in recent times, in favour of the executive. He suggests a range of measures which would restore its historic role and enable it, once again, to make a thorough job of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account. I applaud the notion that the balance of power should be tilted away from the prime minister, towards MPs. But there is a difference between restoring the best aspects of parliamentary democracy to the House of Commons and depriving the prime minister of a prerogative which he has historically possessed. There should be compelling evidence adduced to demonstrate that stripping the prime minister of this power will contribute to more accountable democracy, before such a move is considered. And the repercussions it would have in a range of possible scenarios, should a government fail to be formed, should a government’s position become untenable, should the country resoundingly lose confidence in a particular parliament, need to be scrupulously evaluated.
In contrast I believe Cameron may have dismissed the issue of a new voting system too lightly in his Guardian piece. He argues that proportional representation is not a good voting system because,
“Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals.”
Which is, so far as it goes, an entirely justifiable contention. Larger, multi-member constituencies would deliver a fractured House of Commons, from which a government would have to be fashioned by agreement between parties. The list system, if it were introduced, would further cloud politics’ transparency. But other voting systems do exist which need not enervate democracy or compromise the two party system. Alternative vote allows the electorate to express its preference in a more nuanced fashion than first past the post, but it prevents the diminution of power associated with proportional representation. Although I believe that Cameron is right to discard PR as an option, he should keep an open mind to a replacement for first past the post which might offer voters more scope to articulate their choices.
If the detail of the proposals which the Conservative leader has laid out can, in a very few instances, be questioned, their instinct cannot. By reacting to the current crisis by committing to genuine movement towards accountability, transparency and participation, Cameron is demonstrating that he is a far more responsive politician than the current prime minister. Indeed he has been skilful enough, in his Guardian article, to illustrate that the progressive conservative principles which he has been communicating during his leadership can be extrapolated to offer the type of political change for which there is such public hunger. A message of decentralisation and empowerment does not need to be adapted to the challenges which have been publicised over the past number of weeks. Its precepts already offer the transformation which is required.
All of which means that Cameron does not need to cast round for 'radical' ideas to capture the electorate's mood. He need only keep faith in the strength of his existing programme and argue its merits on the basis that it will deliver what the public wants.