David Cameron, heir to Disraeli: “We are the Radicals now.”
In a speech constructed almost entirely on the ‘Big Society’ theme (which he mentioned about 10 times), David Cameron has soared above the interminable tedium of petty party politics and offered himself to the nation as a reforming radical. He is painfully cutting the deficit and repaying debt because he has to, but he is intent on renewing the nation because he wants to.
And we’re all in this together.
If there is to be fiscal discipline, fairness and social justice, there must be collective enthusiasm, individual responsibility and reward for industry. He will abolish the entrenched, top-down bureaucratic services if the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurial vision fills the void. The poor we will always have with us, but henceforth only the deserving poor will receive support from the state. He wants the British people to love their country because we’re all in this together.
This is Cameron’s patriotic social contract.
And with this, he stands four-square behind Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher.
Disraeli’s pursuit of ‘One-Nation’ politics was primarily concerned with the eradication of poverty, and this was to have an enduring appeal for the Conservative Party. A Jewish convert to Anglicanism, his faith may have been more about political expedience than spiritual regeneration. But he came under the influence of the New England Movement and thereafter made great gains in the most impoverished urban areas in the 1874 general election: his administration of 1874-80 saw public health bills, factory acts, education reforms and slum clearance initiatives which won praise even from the trade unions.
For Churchill, the ‘One Nation’ leitmotif was manifest in national unity, and that unity predicated upon the pursuit of the common good which was grounded in the Christian, Anglican basis of English political life. He once described himself as a ‘buttress’ of the Church of England, supporting it from the outside rather than being a pillar within. Whatever Churchill’s personal beliefs about the nature of God, his writings and speeches consistently equate Christianity with enlightenment and Anglicanism with patriotism.
For Thatcher, from a Nonconformist tradition, her conservatism was Tory in its Burkean deference to the great institutions of state but thoroughly Whiggish and libertarian in its iconoclastic challenge to the big agencies of state, her emphasis on the ‘work ethic’ kind of Protestantism, her patriotic belief in the national British Christian spirit and her notion of morality as the opportunity for free choice.
David Cameron sees a fusion in the spiritual, moral, political, and economic crises facing the nation: they can be addressed separately, but they are different descriptions of the same overall crisis. His ‘broken society’ theme stems from the same aversion as Thatcher had to the state’s interference in the exercising of individual free will. For her, morality lay in choosing between feasible alternatives. A moral being is one who exercises his own judgment in choice, on matters great and small, bearing in mind their moral dimension, i.e., right and wrong. If there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.
In a more Anglican fashion, Cameron has articulated the same theme. We’re all in this together, but the moral good lies in choosing to participate: it is a fusion somewhere between individual responsibility and community right. One does not need to manifest missionary zeal: a passive assent to the benign aims and objectives of the ‘Big Society’ will suffice. Out of this will flow service, self-sacrifice and voluntary effort. It is a vision wholly consonant with his ‘fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments’.
Unlike Thatcher, he has not come to set father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. She brought a sword: Cameron brings peace. His expression of Anglicanism does not seek to polarise or divide by setting one moral philosophy over another, but instead to unify and heal; to seek consensus in accordance with its traditional via media. His political philosophy is both Catholic and Reformed; Conservative and compassionate; One-Nation and devolved: it is Red Tory.
And, in accordance with the postmodern settlement, he tolerates the illogical disjunctions and internal contradictions. His worldview does not pitch Europe versus the USA or the EU versus the Commonwealth any more than liberalism is antithetical to conservatism. ‘It takes two’, he says.
And so the party of free-market capitalism is also the party of the poor: the party of localism and individual responsibility is also the party of the NHS. While Margaret Thatcher invoked the ‘extremism’ of the God of the Old Testament in her iconoclasm, David Cameron’s approach is of the new dispensation. His appeal to Disraeli stems from his awareness that under Thatcher the Conservative Party was perceived to have a harsh attitude towards the poor. And so his ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ has a distinct focus on those who have little, with policies on health and education in particular to ensure ‘social justice’.
“We are the radicals now”, he says.
By shifting conservatism from Tory paternalism to Whiggish individualism and local responsibility, Cameron’s vision is indeed radical. The move ‘from state power to people power; from unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose; from big government to the big society’ is laudable. He explains: “The big society is not about creating cover for cuts. I was going on about it years before the cuts. It’s not government abdicating its role, it is government changing its role.”
Cameron is simply completing the Thatcher revolution. His vision for education is one of the most liberating and empowering pieces of legislation ever: it is the logical continuation of Margaret Thatcher’s political objectives. While she democratised industry, the stock market and home-owning, she stopped short of giving choice to NHS patients and empowering parents to educate their children in the school and with the curriculum they wished.
This is where Cameron picks up. And he will soon find that what is good for education is what is best for health.
His speech may not have pleased everyone. And the whole conference has been somewhat overshadowed by the disastrous child benefit announcement. There are those who carp and criticise that the speech was a 'profound disappointment', 'illogical', 'peculiar' or even 'forgettable'.
But these have missed the point. This was not a speech about clarifying political policy, but inculcating a national mood. It was not a speech about philosophocal logic or particularity, but about subtlty shifting perceptions and understanding. The speech was forgettable because they all are – every one of them. What we remember is the sound-bite – ‘the white heat of technology’; ‘the lady’s not for turning’; ‘the determination of a quiet man’; ‘education, education, education’.
And we will remember ‘We’re all in this together’.
Disraeli said: “I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.”
The Coalition is not a hindrance to radical reform: liberal conservatism or conservative liberalism is not an oxymoron to David Cameron; just a via media tension which has to be tolerated to realise his vision.