David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.