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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I can remember the media storm then as we witness another now. In the dying weeks of Blair’s premiership before Brown finally took office, the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister criss-crossed the country, controlled the airwaves, plastered the newspapers with his grey, weary image. It was all so desperate, so futile. A man who had done so much to secure his place in the history books but had also not achieved enough. A man who had done too much in some instances so that all his other work was overshadowed. I remember his helicopter landing at one of his much praised academy schools on the news, the crowds of children ordered to gather in bemusement at the fading celebrity anxious to go out with a bang, anxious not to be forgotten. All it all did was remind everyone what they disliked about him and enable Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period, in which the gruff Scott dealt with crisis after crisis, got on with the job, unconcerned by image.
Three years on so much has changed in British politics and Blair returns. How strange it seems to recall that Brown seemed the perfect antidote to years of Blair’s charm, that Cameron was perhaps weeks away from swift election defeat. Who could have predicted a Lib-Con pact that seems to have ushered in a new political era and at the very least left the Labour party isolated and leaderless? In one newspaper today the totality of media coverage achieved by the release of Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is compared to that of a budget and this is testament to how his legacy provokes a response from any British voter. It is impossible to be indifferent to Blair. Just as the average voter will passionately launch a diatribe against the Chancellor for raising fuel or cider duty, they will relish the opportunity to vent their feelings on Blair. Unfortunately for him and a man once so dependent on popularity his legacy is overshadowed by one thing: Iraq.
In many ways the issue of Iraq stands totally separate to all other aspects of Blair’s legacy but looms larger than everything else. So for example Blair can still be talked about as one of the top three post-war British Prime Ministers along with Atlee and Thatcher. He can still rightly be hailed as the architect of New Labour, a man whose visions and whims steered the course of history. Journalists and commentators still refer to him as the benchmark of the modern British leader, even the current Conservative Prime Minister does not shy from the title “heir to Blair”. Cameron’s reorganisation of his party in Blair’s style and the coalition’s continuation of Blairite reforms in areas like education, show just how successful Blair was in occupying the centre ground of politics so totally that it shifted to the left. His overwhelming electoral success redefined the British political landscape and leaves the Labour party with an enormous task in replacing him. And yet despite the continuing significance of his influence in the everyday struggle of British politics and indeed across the globe many believe he missed opportunities and even he now recognises this.
In his interview with Andrew Marr, Marr challenged Blair that he should have achieved more given the commanding nature of his majorities and the time he had in power. Blair’s direct response was a defence of what he did achieve but elsewhere in the interview true regrets and the motivation behind the title of A Journey for his memoir emerged. Blair admitted that he did not acquire a true vision until towards the end of his time in office, a vision about the structural reform of the state and modernising public services. In the beginning he had been “trying to please all of the people all of the time”. The most significant and influential strand of Blair’s legacy today relates directly to this in that people look to him for a master class in winning elections. In terms of policy Blair has only a handful of achievements he has now willing to enthusiastically champion as his successes and admits he left it too late to start initiating meaningful reform he took time to acquire a passion for. Prior to this costly, late revelation that occurred long after he had the surge of popular backing to properly carry it through, it seems he was content to leave matters of expenditure and policy largely to the Treasury, and to the statist agenda of Gordon Brown he so criticises.
Throughout his time in office though, Blair was enthusiastically active in areas of foreign policy. He embraced the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and with the exception of Iraq was successful in both achieving results and convincing the British people of the necessity of action. Large chunks of his recent interview with Andrew Marr inevitably focused on Iraq and the morality of the decision to go to war, but Blair was also asked about Iran. He made it clear that if he were still Prime Minister he would not rule out military action to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons and that to allow them to have such weapons would be unthinkable. Now of course the argument as to whether or not Britain should ever intervene militarily in Iran, especially given the lessons of Iraq, will be long and fierce. But Blair is not wrong to insist it should remain an option; Britain should have the capability. And yet at the moment a ballooning deficit and the extent of government overspend would mean an overstretched, slim line MOD mobilising to invade Iran at short notice.
This then is perhaps one of the worst aspects of Blair’s legacy. I do not disagree with his passionate moral crusade in many areas of foreign policy and his preference for interventionism. Britain still has a role to play as a civilized, developed nation and a proud history of just conflict. However Blair’s inaction whilst in office when it came to the restructure of the state leaves Britain underprepared for the decisions he believes to be right now and may partly explain his guilty donation of the proceeds of his book to the British Legion. Blair appears to be aware he asked too much of the armed forces. He now claims he would have taken a different path than Gordon Brown out of recession, a “New Labour” path that modernised welfare through the combination of public and private and reduced statist spending. He says he wants to see more power in the hands of individuals. Controversially he appears to praise the coalition at the end of his book, but insists he wants neither a bigger or smaller but “reshaped” state. If this was truly the case during his tenure as Prime Minister, then surely Blair could have recognised that some areas of government can only have “big government” solutions, as I have said in previous articles. One of these areas would be defence and yet the armed forces felt cutbacks during the New Labour years, unlike most other departments. An area where more private involvement could have been encouraged was in health, but the NHS budget swelled to become the government’s biggest burden.
An Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat far more real than Saddam Hussein ever was. This time the evidence is undoubtedly there. Iran and Israel poised with their fingers on nuclear triggers is surely not a recipe for a peaceful Middle East, not a stable environment for a young Iraqi democracy, not a safe haven for energy companies in ever growing need of oil, not the right backdrop for the fight against terrorism and slow withdrawal in Afghanistan. Tony Blair rightly insists Britain should be involved if global consensus is reached and action is taken, but the choices he made or failed to make whilst in government shall make it hard for any Prime Minister to commit to a successful intervention in which the lives of our service men and women are best protected. Whether or not Blair was right or wrong about Iraq he failed to introduce seismic change in government on the same scale as he did in politics, paving the way for the coalition to tackle New Labour’s excess excessively. The challenge for Blair’s eventual Labour successor, after winning the party and the country over, will be to find a middle way that promotes sustainable growth and equality, whilst not turning off voters.
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