David Cameron talks pleasantly about lowering inequality. But his ideas are a messby Philip Collins / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
David Cameron could claim to be a Conservative, pure and simple. Often he adopts other titles, like liberal or progressive Conservative. But recently he has unwittingly adopted a new label: the confused social democrat. Cameron’s November 2009 Hugo Young lecture established inequality as a standard by which Conservatives wants to be judged—specifically the gap between the incomes of the poorest and middle England, not just the very poorest and the rich.
The lecture acted, in part, to correct the cartoonish depiction of the state that featured in Cameron’s address to the Conservative party conference in October 2009. He finally acknowledged the role of legislation in social progress—easy enough, as there are good examples of this during Tory governments, like the Factory Acts of 1819 and 1844. He also intriguingly refined his critique of the state. Where once he had been ideological in his criticism—the state cannot help because it is the problem—he was now historical: during the 1960s, Cameron claimed, the state just ceased helping. More important, however, was the desire to move his thinking further towards the left, saying: “we must use the state to remake society.” The only Miliband who disagrees with that is Ralph.
Then came an unanswered Cameron question: if government is the question, not the answer, how exactly does the broken society heal itself? To the extent that he offered a solution, he retreated. The state, in his earlier formulation, was not just an inadequate answer to social breakdown; it was also its cause. Now, all of a sudden, the state is part of the healing process. While Cameron’s strategy svengali Steve Hilton wrote both speeches, this shift was so stark it felt as if the two had different draughtsmen. If the Hugo Young was pure Hilton, the earlier smacked of his hard-headed press chief Andy Coulson.
Cameron’s new “egalitarian” platform is full of holes, whoever wrote it. He still seemed to think, during the Hugo Young lecture, that the state has eroded national solidarity. This is a bold claim, and one for which he offered no evidence. He still cannot wholly resist the image of the state as a society-devouring monster. “Today,” he said, “the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you’re doing it their way.” Is it, really? Where does he live, Burma?
The Labour party sentimentalises state power as the…