Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday was something of a call to arms. Repeating the theme of togetherness he has persistently used during the last few months, Cameron urged the nation to get involved: “your country needs you” he said, invoking memories of Kitchener and appealing directly to the kind of nostalgics whose ideas of Britishness stem from Daily Mail editorials.
He turned to his ideological vision of “the Big Society” as the solution for taking the country through the “difficult times” ahead. Referring to the pending Comprehensive Spending Review, Cameron admitted unapologetically that there would be tough decisions to be made. But, he added, “the Big Society” would see Britain emerge stronger, as ordinary people with “the spirit that will take us through...step up” with a sense of “national unity and purpose”. “The spirit of activism...dynamism...to get things done...the spirit of social responsibility that drives [us].”
To emphasise the point, Cameron explained that Britain should be “a country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say – I am not alone, I will play my part, I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”
He frequently beat this drum throughout his speech. He pledged to fight bureaucracy, assist the transfer of power from the state to society and create a fairer and more prosperous future. He was particularly keen to emphasise the need to “work together in the national interest” and praised Liberal Democrat contribution to government.
As a liberal, it isn’t hard to identify with a rhetoric that promotes decentralisation and smaller government. I don’t want to see the return of heavy-handed government. I broadly agree with the PM that, whichever way the election result is interpreted, “Statism lost, society won.” It’s also a measure of how far the Conservatives have come since the days of Thatcher that Cameron is so willing not just to recognise that society exists, but to promote an ambitious vision to engage with and empower it. “Society is not a spectator sport”, said Cameron. “This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it.”
However, this heavy emphasis on his “Big Society” is unhelpful. I appreciate the ideology behind it. But it isn’t something that is resonating with the public, which in fairness doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “Big Society” largely because the Conservatives have been ineffectively selling it. And, although the Prime Minister argues to the contrary, as far as the public in concerned this looks like nothing more than a cover for cuts.
I know, and I’m sure you know, that the average person in Inverclyde – or Inverness or wherever – is far more concerned with the Big Issues than the Big Society. We’re interested in employment. We’re interested in public services. We’re interested in health, in education, in fairness. To be honest, we’re probably also more interested in the economic situation than we have been for many years, and have more than a passing concern about whether the government’s strategy to reduce the deficit will actually be...fair. Many of us are more worried about just making ends meet and already do a fair amount for our society and communities, and so it is hardly surprising if the “Big Society” is greeted with a certain amount of cynicism.
Mr Cameron did talk about fairness. “Fairness means supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency...[it is] giving people what they deserve”. Quite right, David. Unfortunately, in again trying to appeal to Daily Mail types, he then went on to use the example of “taking more money from the man who goes to work...so that the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working” rather than provide ideas about how to empower people to break free from benefits dependency. Going for the easy target, he preached: “if you refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others”.
He didn’t seem to have much to say about how to create a fairer society, other than a vague reference to “sorting out the banks”. How they were going to be "sorted" and what that will mean in practice he didn't say. Yes, he wants a better deal for small businesses. But that’s about it.
He had little to say about the pending cuts, which surprised many people inside the conference hall. He made the obligatory criticisms of Labour for having created the problem and for delaying cost-cutting. While he was unlikely to discuss detail ahead of the all-important announcement on 20th October, I might have expected a broad examination of the financial situation and an overview of how the government might reasonably deal with it.
At times, Cameron showed he remains a tribalist. He turned on Ed Balls for being “anti-inspirational, anti-success [and] anti-parents”. His cheap parodies at Labour’s expense might win laughs from a Tory audience, but were regrettable in that they ensured – as Eddie Barnes points out in The Scotsman - “the speech fell short of being above politics”. He would have been better resisting the temptation to show his tribal side, something Ed Miliband seemed to recognise last week.
One thing Cameron seems to have learned from the Labour leader is to be positive. It would have been understandable for him to have been pessimistic and defensive; instead what we witnessed was a welding of optimism and ideology.
The Prime Minister regrettably said nothing about Scotland, other than reinforcing his position as being pro-union. He did, however, for reasons best known to himself, refer to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. This was wrong, said Mr Cameron, “and undermined our standing in the world”. He pledged this would “never happen again”.
I found this intervention to be objectionable on two counts. Firstly, one of my friends lost his sister in the Lockerbie disaster and I find it distasteful for politicians to make either moral judgements or political mileage in this way. But, secondly and more importantly, it also betrays an attitude of distain towards the autonomy of Scotland’s parliament. Lest we forget, this was not a decision for the UK government to take but for the SNP government in Holyrood. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, Scotland must be allowed to make its own decisions; Cameron seemed to be suggesting that as Prime Minister he would be willing to interfere in matters of Scottish justice. If that really is how this man thinks and what his approach will be towards Scotland, he has clearly learned very little from previous Conservative mistakes.
For the second year in succession, Cameron’s speech was extremely light in terms of policy. He touched on ending the universality of child benefit, explaining that “it's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load”. He won applause for re-affirming the Tory position on Trident and, in a move hardly consistent with the government’s austerity drive, promised a tax break to “recognise marriage”.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, wryly commented: "The big society should be part of our message alongside welfare reform, growth and dealing with the debt, but to make it the pre-eminent theme is a mistake and a missed opportunity."
For all the positivity, this was a speech that failed to inspire and was – in a word – forgettable. The detail of the Comprehensive Spending Review, set to be announced in a few days, will guarantee that.
The full speech can be found on the BBC website.