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.
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David Cameron’s globetrotting, self-proclaimed “jobs mission” was apparently intended to both reiterate Chancellor George Osborne’s message that Britain has reopened for business and embrace foreign secretary’s William Hague calls for a new diplomacy that reduced our overreliance on America and sought closer ties with the emerging powers of tomorrow. A new blunt diplomatic style has certainly emerged from the Prime Minister but it is questionable whether or not it shall prove fruitful for the nation’s interests.
In interviews over the course of the trip Cameron has admitted that in coalition it takes longer to get MPs from his own party on board. Perhaps this loss of immediate influence over Conservative MPs has encouraged the new Prime Minister to be more assertive and presidential in speeches, or “frank” as he puts it, so that he can exercise power elsewhere. What Cameron has hurriedly defended as honesty others see as risky brutality. In Turkey he referred to Gaza as a “prison camp” in a shameless attempt to please his hosts and has followed this of course with the more widely publicised criticism of Pakistan’s terror links whilst in India. Cameron appears to have been trying to score easy points with his host nations by verbally attacking their old enemies, whilst apparently forgetting the all seeing eye of modern media and the importance of the UK’s relations with Israel and Pakistan as well as Turkey and India. In the case of Pakistan his comments were particularly misguided as progress was being made and will only ever continue with close cooperation from the Pakistani government and military. Inflammatory comments likely to destabilise a fragile but necessary partnership in security will not serve Britain’s interests, even when the PM insists that his comments only referred to widely known truths.
Cameron’s defence of his behaviour has shown his naivety as a leader and statesman. Repeatedly he has insisted that he would not feel comfortable being dishonest and he sees no reason to not say what he thinks and point out the realities of situations. This sort of answer might please voters at home and indeed it seems that the Prime Minister is more comfortable as leader of the opposition, using his bluntness as a tool for political gain through his “Cameron Direct” meetings. The fact is that even though Cameron has merely stated the widely known reality of situations, diplomacy, particularly when you are seeking to gain from it, requires subtlety and the judgement to pick which issues you are blunt and firm about.
Given that Cameron insisted the whole huge trip, entourage and all, was about securing jobs for British people and markets for recovery, he has missed an enormous opportunity to take a worthwhile gamble instead of being reckless in other areas for reasons of image. I have examined the idea of a “New Politics” on my blog before and whether or not this is something Cameron truly believes in or simply a political tool his first foreign policy tour has been a failure. Firstly if we assume that Cameron uses the idea of a “New Politics” largely as a politic tool, which frankly I do, Cameron has blundered over Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. By committing to a withdrawal date in 2015 he has not only placed an unwanted burden upon the armed forces but started a countdown towards political suicide; in the likely event that the situation on the ground does not permit a total pull out in the time limit he has agreed to, mostly to appease President Obama. Secondly then, if we take the idea of “New Politics” seriously, Cameron missed a perfect, opportune moment to take an inspirational stand against non-renewable energy in the wake of the BP Oil spill and call for a new way forward.
Whilst in America Cameron made a lot of noise about not simply pandering to the Americans anymore, being realistic about the nature of the special relationship, calling us a “junior partner” but insisting he would get a better deal for the UK out of future relations. However what actually happened was that Cameron downplayed the significance of his own nation, abandoned the Scottish legislature, branding their decision to release Megrahi as wrong (whether it was or not, did he need to come down so hard on the Scots?), and failed to defend an oil company vital to thousands of Britons’ interests that is also full of American shareholders, executives and only exists because of the world’s richest nation’s unquenchable thirst for the black gold.
If Cameron was the prophet of “New Politics” he claims to be he would have expressed deep regret at the damage caused by the oil spill and agreed that it was right BP clean it up (whilst insisting it would do no good to destroy BP as a company). He would then have referred to President Obama’s previous description of the spill as a disaster on the level of 9/11 and recognised this as his moment to touch the hearts of the world as Tony Blair did in the wake of that attack and unite two nations across the Atlantic. He would have argued that the tough truth exposed by the spill was that our way of life was dangerous and destructive as well as unsustainable, and therefore required a more urgent solution. He should have appealed to America and Britain’s joint legacy of leading the world against new challenges and offered to support and partner President Obama in pioneering a new generation of renewable, clean energy sources that would provide jobs and investment in the short term and vital energy security in the long run. He would have pointed to his government’s commitment to deficit reduction to show that he believes in sustainability in all areas of government but also urged the President to set aside funds for replacing the dependency on oil with innovative, inspiring new technologies. He should have left America with this message for green jobs and carried it to his meetings with all world leaders as the defining aspect of his diplomacy and insisted green restructuring be closely tied to economic recovery as it continued. This universal, unifying message would have been far more suited to a Prime Minister on his first foreign policy trip and far more inspirational than cheap, undignified point scoring. It would also clearly state Britain was open for the right sort of business; green, sustainable business with jobs that would last, instead of empty promises alongside policies like the immigration cap that rendered them immediately worthless.
All in all Cameron’s first foray into international leadership reinforced some opinions I held of him before and during the election. As a competent government leader on the world stage he does not compare to the gruff efficiency of Gordon Brown and his ideological spending cuts are likely to alienate important economies rather than entice them. His apparent commitment to passionate, inspirational political ventures does also not extend to urgent challenges like climate change, which might just allow Britain to find a place in the world again. His hasty honesty and radical conservative policy are thankfully tempered, albeit loosely at times, by his Liberal coalition partners, but Clegg and co must be careful that crafty Cameron does not amass all the political capital gained by the coalition.
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