On David Cameron and the Big Society

There is one feature of David Cameron which, it occurred to me while watching the television coverage of the speech he gave in Kennington today, bothers me more than any other.

No, it isn’t Mr Cameron’s allegiance to George Osborne, although for the record, the Ugly Bridesmaid syndrome isn’t exactly improved by transposition to the long-aisled nave of general election politics. It isn’t his distinctly unreliable grammar, disappointing though this must be in the context of what passes these days for a classical education. Nor is it even the weirdly hectoring, bad-tempered tone he invariably adopts in public discourse, although I find this distracting enough, as it always makes me wonder what he’d sound like if — and, admittedly, it’s a counterfactural one struggles to entertain for any length of time — he wasn’t talking down to someone he didn’t much admire in the first place.

No, the worst thing about David Cameron is the way in which he’s always threatening to ‘give’ things to people.

Admittedly, the gift of the moment varies. On some days, Mr Cameron is going to give ‘power’ to us. On other occasions, in contrast, we are to be given ‘opportunities’, or sometimes even ‘rights’. The precise choice of gift, needless to say, is up to Mr Cameron and the clique, err, circle of wise, disinterested, all-but-omniscient folk who advise him.

We cannot, of course, be given unlimited ‘power’, any more than we can be given the wrong sort of ‘opportunities’, because what would we do with those? Make a mess of them, of course. We might well do the wrong sorts of things. Not least, some of us might make better choices than others, which would lead to inequality, which is self-evidently very naughty indeed. Fairness, clearly, is a matter of outcomes being massaged by a benevolent state until they are equally beneficial for everyone involved — isn’t it? Perhaps that nice Philip Blond, architect of the Big Society and Cameroon court philosopher, will let us know. And as for ‘rights’, these are to be doled out by Mr Cameron like penny sweets disbursed by father to a crowd of raucous infants on an overlong family outing, part bribe and part instrument of pacification. Let’s just make sure we all remember to say ‘thank you’ afterwards, yes?

But enough of this 12-gauge irony. At the risk of sounding like an improbable cross between Billy Bragg launching into ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and the sort of retired colonel for whom those old Freedom Association pilgrimages to Runnymede were the high point of far, far too many long years, Mr Cameron’s conception of ‘rights’ does not accord very closely with the view, long held in these parts, that British subjects actually possess certain rights, anciently extracted from the Crown, which, for that reason, do not now have to be ‘given’ to them by anyone.

Admittedly, the existence of these rights has been anything but static. Arguments over their nature and extent have led to the sort of set-piece historical crises which generate high passions even now, and in that sense British history can be read, by those who like that sort of thing, as a chart of their relative health. So, up to a point, can the corpus of our common law. The lack of any single document in which our rights — let alone ‘powers’ or ‘opportunities’ — are comprehensively enumerated has, perhaps rightly, been regarded by some of us less as evidence of constitutional eccentricity than as a matter of rather admirable distinctiveness. And while far too many traditional rights have eroded substantially over the past century or so, often under the cover of conferring other ‘rights’ — the ‘right’, for instance, for the voting majority to make free with the private property of the minority, which we all take for granted now, as if no other course were possible — enough cognizance of this older sense of ‘rights’ remains to make Mr Cameron’s language jarring, perhaps even downright disturbing.

Of course, whatever jarring is going on here is no doubt enhanced by the fact that I don’t really believe in Mr Cameron’s ‘broken Britain’ in the first place. Long-time readers may, I suppose, find this surprising. They’d have a point. As ought to be obvious from all sorts of posts here passim, here is plenty that I don’t particularly admire about the age in which we live. So capacious is the scope of my grumpiness, indeed, that some of it probably does, alas, coincide here and there not only with the grumpiness of e.g. HRH the Prince of Wales and Professor Scruton, but also with Philip Blond himself. The difference, I suppose, is that none of the evidently flawed state of human affairs leads me to believe that Britain is, in any meaningful way, more ‘broken’ than usual — that the bad folk are more depraved, that cruelty and callousness is more evident, that virtue is any more vanishingly rare — or that anything very novel needs to be done to ‘fix’ it.

This isn’t, for the avoidance of doubt, some uncharacteristic collapse into Whiggish credulity regarding ‘progress’. On the contrary, it’s just a basic Tory recognition than the world is generally pretty full of wickedness, woe and so forth. Nor does this mean that one ought simply to shrug and do nothing to address very evident wrongs. But at the very least, it’s a counsel against the sort of immoderate rhetoric that invariably calls forth immoderate ‘solutions’. Is Britain more socially divided now than it was in 1832? Are our politics really more corrupt than they were in the 1670s? Were there no Jack Tweeds before the mass media revealed to us the existence, such as it is, of Jack Tweed? When was this perfect age when an unbroken Britain flourished?

All of which leads me, perhaps unfairly, to another suspicion regarding ‘broken Britain’, which is that, in the sort of imaginative nostalgia laced with inchoate paranoia the phrase seems to conjure up, it somehow functions as code for the sorts of things that Mr Cameron doesn’t quite dare to articulate, but which in aggregate mesh neatly with the texture of corporatist logic evident both in Mr Blond’s pronouncements and in Mr Cameron’s reflection of them — which is to say, the idea that Britain is now in fact too diverse, too complex, too full of choice and variety and heterogeneity, to an extent that threatens to make it not only uncomfortable for some of its citizens, but also ungovernable for those charged with leading it.

The paranoia, at least, will resonate with the sort of voter who doesn’t much like signs in Urdu or Polish appearing on her high street, doesn’t like seeing men kissing each other, but would quite like to see lots more people in prison and, if possible, the return of National Service. To that extent, I suppose, it may create some tiny frisson of electoral advantage — alienating though it may be to the rest of us. And since the pursuit, acquisition and retention of power may be the one set of priorities which Mr Cameron himself brings to the party here, this may in fact explain his otherwise puzzling adherence to the doctrines of Blondist corporatism, or as Mr Cameron prefers to brand it, ‘progressive ends, conservative means’.

‘It is the duty of government to make it difficult for people to do wrong, easy to do right,’ said Mr Cameron today, quoting with warm approval the words of one of those safely-dead, hence apparently harmless Liberal politicians. All of which could, I suppose, be mistaken in bad light for ‘progressive ends, progressive means’, especially as some particularly off-message conservatives will persist in asserting that the duty of government is, in contrast, to protect life, liberty and property, whilst otherwise letting people get on with ordering their own affairs as they see fit.

But in any event, the Gladstone quotation does, if nothing else, lay bare the managerial, paternalistic, in some ways highly authoritarian nature of the soi-disant ‘liberal’ Cameroon project. Today, for example, Mr Cameron promised that his government would deliver ‘a radical blueprint for redrawing society based on a belief that the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down’ — but if the best ideas come from the ground up, then why is it necessary for the state to ‘redraw’ anything at all, let alone ‘redraw’ something as complex as ‘society’ itself? Why not just let ‘society’ get on with it, under the rule of law? Because for all the insistence here on getting rid of the Big State — the one genuinely appealing feature of Blond’s language — in his formulation, the Big State is somehow always required when it comes to making the Big Society of which Blond, and apparently Cameron too, claim to dream.

And this is the problem, in brief, with the entire Big Society schema. In the matter of the so-called free schools, for instance, why should the nation state use tax money to fund yet another tier of set of state-run schools, in this case quasi-independent ones, when the parents of children who already attend independent schools are denied the sort of state subvention that the quasi-independent schools will receive? If one’s edging in that direction, why not introduce education vouchers? Indeed, as far as that goes, would it not make more sense to cut taxes and leave education to the private sector on the basis that if education is, like food and clothing, both useful and conventional, most people will have the wit to secure it for their own families?

Similarly, if the goal is to get charities, faith groups and social entrepreneurs more involved in providing solutions to substance dependence, would it not be a good idea to ensure that taxpayers have more money to give to such enterprises, through the expedient of cutting their tax bills?

But on Mr Cameron drives with more ‘gifts’:

Let’s give new powers to people to keep local pubs open, stop post offices from closing, to run their local parks, to help decide on planning decisions that affect their lives, to spend the profits from developments on local playgrounds and youth facilities.

I’ll admit that I’m baffled by giving people ‘powers’ to keep pubs open — when last I checked, pubs hadn’t yet been nationalised, while the powers necessary to allow the state to force a private individual to continue on with a private enterprise he no longer seeks to pursue would be pretty impressive, even by Mussolini-in-his-1930s-prime type standards — while the whole business of handing ‘profits from developments’ back to the state, purely in order that the state might then dole at least some of these out to the electorate, lacks encouraging precedents.

I would also add, here, the mild observation — provided by an American friend (hi, Dan!) — that when the great state of California set off upon a course of incontinent referenda, the result was bankruptcy.

Mr Cameron, in any event, is keen to point out that all these gifts come at a price. In the strange, stilted, incantatory language of formal public utterance — for in this sense at least, he has clearly learned nothing from Mr Obama — he makes this clear:

Personal responsibility. Social responsibility.

The right balance between liberalism and conservatism.

Trusting the individual, but demanding a commitment to society in return.

This will be the core of every policy: if it encourages irresponsibility we shouldn’t do it and if it encourages responsibility we should do it.

‘Responsibility’, it turns out, is all about doing what Mr Cameron wants us to do, since it is perfectly clear from the logic of all of this that it cannot be meant in the sense of actually doing what we ought to do, simply because we know we ought to do it. One is reminded of the parent who, wishing to flatter her toddler with the illusion of choice, offers her by way of an on-the-go snack an organic apple or a selection of vegetable crudités — but not the partially-hydrogenated pseudo ice-cream with extra chocolate sauce and a flake, because that would clearly be a choice too far.

All of which ‘nudging’ works marginally less well, obviously, once children learn to read well enough to become apprised of all the choices on offer — let alone once they acquire their own funds and, more to the point, the ability to spend them as they like. But Mr Cameron, one assumes, isn’t planning to let that happen any time soon.

Meanwhile, as plenty of decent, law-abiding British people can attest — the craftsman who wants to carry a knife because he needs it for his work, the MS patient who would quite like to relieve her pain with cannabis, or the journalist who wishes to report from the front lines of the Afghan conflict during the present election — there are clearly still plenty of choices which we still can’t be trusted, no matter whether Mr Brown, Mr Cameron or indeed that nice Mr Clegg is in charge.

Will the day come, I wonder, when, fed up with waiting for someone to ‘give’ them the rights that matter to them, the British public will seek recourse to the deeply conservative notion that these rights — rather than being treats in the gift of elected politicians — are in fact their historic birthright, and start laying claim to them accordingly? Who knows? In the meantime, however, the fact that the current leader of the Conservative party sees fit to offer up by way of substitute Philip Blond’s Big Society — a synthetic, semi-corporatist fig-leaf engineered to disguise this ragtag agglomeration of electoral expediency, authoritarian impulses and the continued toleration of an expensive yet dysfunctional welfare state — tells us a considerable amount about the current state of the party, its disconnections from its own history, and the extent to which it deserves to weild power.


Filed under politics, Tory things

8 responses to “On David Cameron and the Big Society

  1. Have I got in through a gap in the wire or are comments open again on Fugitive Ink?

    Anyway, here goes.

    Great post (I’ve missed saying that here) if rather depressing in its identification of what must be some sort of circularity. It’s like deja vu all over again.

    Cameron – with his charmless Chancellor; his triangulating, shallow, modish political philosophy; his public school polish and sense of entitlement; his cliquish and centralised mode of management; his unthinking progressivism; his disregard for history; his empty, verbless rhetoric (have I missed anything?) – is Blair. All he lacks is the toothy charm.

    I really do hope he confounds the comparison.

  2. Hello there, Gareth. Yes, the comments were switched off when I had pneumonia and hence wasn’t feeling particularly conversational, but they are back now — for the moment, anyway. In any event, it’s always good to hear from you.

    As for Cameron and Blair, though, the sad truth is that I actually have considerably more respect for Blair than I do for Cameron, because while I think much of what Blair did in power was seriously misguided, it seems at least possible (c.f. Campbell’s infinitely fascinating diaries) that he genuinely believed in much of what he was doing, sometimes to an inconvenient extent — the constitutional vandalism at home, the orgy of liberal interventionism abroad. Cameron, in contrast, appears to operate according to a logic of self-interested short-term expediency alone. And although the results may be equally unfortunate, there’s a level at which misguided idealism looks marginally more attractive than a slightly inept and sloppy version of the will to power.

    Or perhaps that’s unfair? I genuinely would love to be proved wrong on this.

  3. I’m very glad you’re feeling better. I’ve had pneumonia and it can take weeks to get over it. I was nostalgic for the days when the recommended recovery involved sitting on the Promenade in Nice for a year or so. But then one didn’t have antibiotics and so on, possibly making Nice all a bit moot…

  4. Thanks, Gareth. Sitting on benches by the sea is definitely still the way forward, antibiotics or no antibiotics, although admittedly the bench in question is more likely to be in Norfolk than in Nice …

  5. Antoine Clarke

    “Let’s give new powers to people to keep local pubs open, stop post offices from closing, to run their local parks, to help decide on planning decisions that affect their lives, to spend the profits from developments on local playgrounds and youth facilities.”

    This is perfect, in a horrible way. The National Service idea is as morally objectionable as the Vietnam War draft (not even the pretence of fighting Communism) and, just as that other Tory party invention, the National Curriculum, will be exploited by people whose objectives are the opposite of the clever fools who propose it.

    Pubs will be closed down. Post offices will stay “open,” in a zombie-like imitation of a commerce, with unionized labour, but cost so much in subsidies all other local shops will close. Opening hours will fall for staff training and courses. Local parks will be littered with half-completed “projects” (badly fenced off heaps of rotting timber, large holes filled with muddy water) where last year’s funds ran out and the next round of Commissars decide to introduce something new to mark their turn in office. New businesses will be blackmailed into paying for Socialist groups preaching Gaiaism or soft-core anti-colonialist Marxism (multiculturalism without the effort of learning about any culture, which is even more offensive in its mealy-mouthed patronising than informed opposition would be, in my view). Playgrounds will be closed because they are dangerous.

    The National Service scheme makes me angry when I see other Tory propaganda that might get my support, such as the phone box campaign showing blue thumbs up to “big society” and red thumbs down to “big government,” (I’d prefer a poster of Gordon Brown with the slogan “Down with Big Brother,” but hey, who wants my vote?).

    The more contradictions I see in Mr Cameron, the more I believe his bad points and discount the good. Mr Clegg has promised me a stonking tax cut. No one else has. He’s also sound on ID cards, immigration and the war on drugs (against the right two). I hope he means it.

  6. Dan

    As your American friend, thanks for the credit. This was a very intelligent and well thought out post. The Big Society seems like a cheap ploy that will be scrapped with in days of the election.

    But if Cameron is Prime Minister , given the other policies he is pushing, I would bet there will be many men and women in Kennington who will be doing all they can to keep the local pub open.

  7. Thanks, Dan — the last sentence of that made me laugh!

    And Antoine, thanks, too, for your excellent comment. I agree about National Service. As for Clegg, I can’t help wishing he’d be slightly braver when it comes to challenging the present political consensus on the decriminalisation of drugs, on immigration, on our involvement in Afghanistan, etc, etc — but I suppose I should actually just be pleased that he’s willing to be at all interesting on any of these subjects. (I also wish he’d be slightly less vindictive towards those of us who, we now discover, much to our surprise, turn out to live in ‘mansions’ — but to crib your remark, hey, who wants my vote?)

  8. Dan

    Thanks. Soon enough we’ll be in the heart of the UK – getting a jump on efforts to keep the local pub open and hopefully spreading some more laughter.