Friday, 9 October 2009

Cameron's speech isn't a lurch to the right. His message has remained consistent.

‘Compassionate’, ‘red’, ‘progressive’ – whichever adjective one applies to the conservatism which David Cameron espouses, his leader’s speech, at conference yesterday, reemphasised its key characteristics. The modern Conservative party’s credo has moved on since the 1980s and Thatcherism. It is socially aware, committed to addressing poverty and steeped in a ‘one nation’ tradition which Tories rather neglected in their overzealous embrace of free market liberalism.

The Guardian is wrong, in this morning’s editorial, to imply that Cameron’s speech attempted an incongruous marriage of convenience between a pre crash message of compassion and a post crash discourse of state trimming. The twin principles of social responsibility and a less intrusive state have been inseparably wedded within the new Conservative philosophy since its inception. Cameron does not believe, and has never suggested, that big state solutions are the best means to tackle social problems.

There is no inconsistency. The fusion of progressive aims with the notion that a state should enable, rather than impose, which the Tory leader outlined yesterday afternoon, might have been drawn directly from Danny Kruger’s ‘On Fraternity’, a formative Cameroon text.

Neither has Cameron taken a dash from the centre to a position of extreme libertarianism. Labour, and its supporters, would wish to portray his attack on centralism as a commitment to hack out from underneath the most vulnerable any residue of state support. This is a blatant distortion. It is quite clear that Cameron is a strong supporter of the NHS and intends to maintain the welfare state, albeit that he wishes to reform the way in which these services are delivered. He does believe, however, that it is more efficient to devolve responsibility from the centre, to the people who are providing the service. And he envisages a welfare state which operates as a safety net, rather than a first stop for handouts.

The aspiration of a smaller state is qualified and placed within the context of more than eleven years of centralising Labour government. It is a culture of bureaucracy and unaccountability, with government forever expanding to meddle more intrusively in people’s lives, to which Cameron is opposed, not the idea that the state must provide basic services. He believes that efficient, unobtrusive government, working in harmony with a flourishing civil society, can provide better results in terms of fairness, prosperity, cohesion and community. That means fewer targets turning police work into a statistical exercise, professional people free to use their skills unfettered as they work in public services, an NHS which patients feel is accountable to them, competitive schools and dismantling the ‘surveillance state’.

Far from representing a dangerous strand of right wing libertarianism, many of Cameron’s aims would look at home in a speech by Tony Blair. Fortunately for the Tory leader, he will not have to battle with a centralising chancellor, devoted to bloated public service behemoths directed from Whitehall and intent on undermining his position as premier.

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