The audacity of Dave

Far from being a Blairite clone, argues Peter Oborne, David Cameron has the potential to bring truly radical change to the culture of British politics—but only if he dares to stick to his convictions
December 20, 2008
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Cameron on Cameron: Conversations with Dylan Jones

by David Cameron & Dylan Jones (4th Estate, £12.99)

The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain
by Douglas Carswell & Daniel Hannan (Direct Democracy,£10)

For the first half of the 20th century, we journalists understood that our role was to report politicians on their own terms. We did not try to interpret, still less challenge. On the contrary, it was understood that the role of a parliamentary correspondent was to set down and describe the words and actions of the leading statesmen of the day. Political speeches would be reported on newspaper front pages, often spread over several columns, the day after they were made. It was assumed that the reader would reach his own judgment. In his early novels, Christopher Isherwood insisted that he sought to convey an unrefracted version of reality to the general reader. "I am a camera," he said. Political journalists had exactly the same objective.

This culture of reporting survived until the 1960s, then vanished. Today, we have the cult of the political columnist (a phenomenon unknown till the 1950s), whose task is explanation. Meanwhile, the art of the reporter is no longer to report a political speech—rather, it is to identify and then isolate a sentence or off-the-cuff remark which will "make news." Often the original meaning or intention of the speech is overlooked or misrepresented.

Dylan Jones's delightfully old-fashioned book on David Cameron has been poorly received. The author has been accused of asking soft questions and failing to provide fresh insight. But these criticisms miss the point that Jones, whether deliberately or by accident, has reverted to the old tradition of political reporting. He plays Boswell to Cameron's Johnson. The least interesting parts of the book contain Jones's own observations, which can be readily skipped. The rest is fascinating. Jones has produced an exceptionally interesting, important and unusual work which cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to understand the essence of the Conservative leader.

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Jones followed Cameron around for a full year, going to his home, constituency and sitting in on private meetings with advisers. He was granted the liberty of asking anything he liked. There are reasonably exhaustive sections on drug-taking, family life and Cameron's Oxford career alongside lengthy discussions of Tory policy on health, welfare, education and so on.

It is inconceivable that Tony Blair at the same stage of his career would have tolerated such remorseless and unstructured intrusion. His formidable team of press handlers would simply never have permitted it. As leader of the opposition, Blair was a manufactured figure, reproduced on a daily basis by a team of experts. His opinions on any subject were only produced in laboratory conditions after market testing and rigorous consultation with Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould. It is interesting and, I think, important that Cameron is not like that. He certainly has advisers, but is not by any means dominated by them. This makes him a much more authentic and confident figure than Tony Blair at the same stage. In part this greater self-confidence reflects intellectual ease. Cameron got a fairly effortless first-class degree at Oxford, while

Blair secured a moderate second. Cameron's tutor, Vernon Bogdanor, insists that he was one of the ablest students he has ever had.

So this book goes a long way to dispelling the proposition that Cameron is just an empty brand. His beliefs shine through and, on one level, are very simple: Cameron is patriotic, family-minded, decent, optimistic and much more of a toff than he likes to convey. He can also be chilly. At one stage Cameron accurately notes that Blair allowed himself to be pushed around by subordinates and "wasn't tough enough on his team." Referring (I assume) to the sacking of culture spokesman Hugo Swire, Cameron tells Dylan Jones: "A while ago in a shadow cabinet reshuffle I had to lose an old personal friend, but I thought it was the right thing to do."

However, Cameron's critics like to assert that none of this is enough. They accuse him of lacking an ideological backbone, of focusing too much on presentation. This analysis cannot survive a careful reading of this book. It shows that Cameron is squarely rooted in a tradition of sceptical political enquiry that can be traced back to the origins of the Conservative party in the late 18th century, and can be traced through Edmund Burke through Disraeli to Michael Oakeshott.

This is to say that he has an abiding suspicion of the state, a corresponding faith in the importance of civic institutions and a scepticism about grand projects for social engineering. At the time of the French revolution, this set of beliefs set Edmund Burke against the human rights theories of Tom Paine. Today, the same beliefs distinguish Cameron's Conservative party from Gordon Brown's government. "I am very much a believer that if you give people power and control over their lives, they will create a better and stronger society," the Tory leader tells Dylan Jones. By contrast, he accuses Gordon Brown of wanting to "reorder the world from above." This conflict between the progressive and the conservative traditions will lie behind the day-to-day struggle at Westminster as the next general election approaches.

According to the Cameron analysis, New Labour offers change from the centre, the Conservative party change from below. Belief in Burke's "little platoons"—bodies like the women's institute, independent universities, a decentralised NHS, self-governing schools, the voluntary sector—underlies everything that Cameron says. This vision is intellectually coherent, and far more rooted in Tory thinking than critics inside the Conservative party have ever acknowledged. Cameron's political beliefs, applied in 21st-century Britain, would subvert the way we are governed.

The great issue—impossible to answer with confidence at this stage—is whether Cameron as prime minister would ever put them into practice. Doing so would involve a thoroughgoing attack on the British political class as it has evolved during the last 25 years. And this is what makes Douglas Carswell's and Daniel Hannan's tract, The Plan, so illuminating. Their book takes Cameron's core beliefs, follows them to their logical conclusion, and sets out what they might mean in government.

Daniel Hannan, an MEP and journalist, is one of the most talented, awkward and original of the new generation of Tories. Carswell, who entered parliament in 2005, is the founder of Direct Democracy, a think-tank which offers a radical, populist alternative to the dominant centralised Westminster system. In certain respects Direct Democracy can be compared to Charter 88, which sought to resurrect British politics from a broadly left-wing perspective in the late 1980s.

Hannan and Carswell maintain that the British state has failed to deliver decent government in recent years, whether in health, education, law and order, or any other field. They further maintain that there is a structural reason for this failure: Britain's centralised model is doomed to be inefficient. The answer, they suggest, is to bring government much closer to the people through instruments like locally accountable schools, taxation policies and county sheriffs—in short, through a massive shift in power from a central state to local communities.

The authors maintain that not only has government failed, but so has democracy. Parliament has ceased to be the voice of ordinary people. Instead, its powers have been given away—to the EU, to the executive, to unelected public bodies, to judges and elsewhere. Partly as a result of their impotence, MPs have converted into a self-serving political caste. "The British politician," they say "is no longer able to discharge his primary function. He cannot effect meaningful change in his constituents' lives. He has therefore ceased to be a vessel for popular will. No longer an agent of change, he has become a parasite."

So Carswell and Hannan advocate a number of changes to parliament: free election of the Speaker, massive diminution of the power of the Whips, truncation of MPs' at-present corrupt system of expenses. Simultaneously they want powers reclaimed from the EU, repeal of the Human Rights Acts and quangos made accountable to the public.

Some of their ideas are batty. But there is real power and integrity in their analysis, and it presents a conundrum for Cameron. The Tory leader can only remain true to his ideas by relinquishing power on a massive scale—to communities and to parliament. Oppositions have the luxury of toying with these sort of ideas. In government this kind of sacrifice is very painful.

There is a further problem. The Plan shows that, if Cameron follows the logic of his own rhetoric, he will find himself at war on several fronts: against the EU, the judges, Whitehall and his own MPs. The Cameron administration, if it comes, will be defined in part by how its leader resolves the contradiction between the engaging logic of his philosophy and the intractable reality of running a government.

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