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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Peter Morgan may or may not see his script for the 23rd James Bond film become a reality, and it may or not be a picture directed by acclaimed director Sam Mendes, but Morgan has certainly not struggled to make films about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Equally serial impressionist Michael Sheen has not found it hard to play the charming leader, taking on the role in previous dramas The Deal, The Queen and now The Special Relationship. Sheen has made a living out of playing real people, from the chaotic camp of Kenneth Williams to the masculine self assurance of football manager Brian Clough and he has always fitted snugly into Blair’s recognisable suits and effortlessly donned his trademark grin. As with Morgan’s previous examinations of Blair The Special Relationship looks at a particular period of this remarkable man’s life through a narrow lens with a small cluster of essential characters. This is the story of Clinton and Blair; the President’s influence on the Prime Minister, the wives influence on the two men’s friendship and the advisers grappling with how best to make use of such ideological and personal bonds.
Blair’s devious tabloid spin doctor Alastair Campbell slammed Morgan’s latest drama before it premiered on BBC2 on Saturday night as a complete work of fiction bearing almost no relation to the facts and events as they happened. Now whilst it must be true that Morgan wielded creative license to craft a number of personal scenes between the two leaders and the leaders and their wives, as he cannot have known the content of such intimate chats besides glimpses from memoirs, Campbell’s utter rejection of the drama’s credibility may be down to his own less than flattering portrayal. The special media adviser appears to be a brash, sneering and crude presence throughout. He represents the dark side of Blair he had to embrace in order to haul Labour out of Opposition in a new media age, a dark side of tabloid manipulation and sinister back stabbing and sordid scandals. Campbell is less of a character in Morgan’s drama than a commentator providing rolling coverage of the headlines at the time, highlighting the worst of public bloodlust and opinion, slipping in details that both provide background and represent the scale of the struggle Blair faces to get things done, when faced with an indifferent public more motivated by the shape of a President’s penis than his foreign policy commitments.
In fact given the political nature of the subject matter it’s hard to get to know any of the characters in The Special Relationship, because we don’t know them and neither did Morgan writing the script. We recall the events of the time, remember the urgency they tried to convey in their speeches and are familiar with their managed images in front of the flash bulbs. But even when we see Dennis Quaid’s brooding Clinton, seemingly drained by scandal and the web of lies he has entangled himself in, it’s impossible to deduce the sentiment of the man, he’s presented as a blank, an enigma of a stress deliberating how best to handle the political fallout. Hillary is arguably the most lifelike character in this drama and she is sensitively played. The restrained emotion is there, visibly only just in check but her ambition and necessity trap her in her situation. She doggedly soldiers on.
The events, somewhat inevitably, are major characters in themselves in this historical drama. That’s not to say we don’t get insight into character; it’s clear early on that despite Clinton’s insistence that Blair owes him nothing he expects good old Tony to tow the line. Initially he does so, movingly and hesitantly sticking his neck out over the affair, but when Blair makes a stand on Kosovo Clinton is not prepared to be in Blair’s debt, he was always managing the upstart Brit whatever the praise. It’s when the plot gathers pace over the Kosovan crisis that this drama comes into its own, engaging far more than the early, plodding set up of the Clinton-Blair relationship. Blair refuses to be politically positioned like a pawn by Clinton and the stage is set for confrontation. Churchillian like speeches full of inspiration captured the mood of the new millennium, a mood of optimistic cooperation in which every nation with a moral compass could play its part and make a genuine difference, a mood banished by 9/11 and the subsequent retaliation. It’s odd to think that Clinton’s America, although led by an adulterer, was more trusted and respected around the world and that Blair was able to harness goodwill felt towards it.
Blair’s boldness wins over the American press, with gushing approval ratings calling for him to run for the Presidency. Throughout the piece however the more experienced Clinton urged Blair to consider his legacy, not just fickle opinion polls, and whilst it may seem triumph in Kosovo secured it for Blair we all knew it was to be eclipsed, and the drama ends ominously with his heart and mind in the right place, committed to a pragmatic, meaningful relationship with new Republican President George Bush, but ultimately to underestimate and be sucked into a damaging legacy he would never shake off. Popularity would pass by Tony Blair just as it passed for Bill Clinton and both men arguably spurned opportunities to make use of it. The Special Relationship of progressive centre left leaders, leading the world in a unified, positive banishment of right-wing politics to the dark ages never truly materialised. Morgan’s drama ends by asking topical questions raised by the release of Blair’s memoir; did Blair waste his legacy and was he ever the politician he claimed to be, given his current support for the coalition, or was he just a self-centred man grabbing his place in history with both hands, wherever he had to reach to? Whatever the answers, despite Clinton’s warning to Blair that rhetoric alone is not enough, both leaders had moments in this drama that demonstrated the enormous power of words in the hands of a politician and leader, the power to ignite, transform and inspire, but also sadly, to disappoint.
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