I just got back to Prospect HQ, having spent a chunk of the morning at the launch of Phillip Blond’s new think tank, Respublica. It was an at once impressive and odd occasion. Held in a cavernous basement chamber with high vaulted ceilings in a plush hotel just off Whitehall, the event had something of the air of a wedding about it. David Cameron, the awaited guest, was late. Blond waited nervously by the entrance, elegantly besuited and looking just a touch nervous that his intended might jilt him at the last—a worry perhaps given a small bit of extra edge by a story in yesterday’s Times in which Cameron seemed to distance himself slightly, if only under pressure from business spokesman Ken Clarke. But he need not have worried. A flunky coughed into the microphone (the policy equivalent of “please be upstanding”), Cameron duly arrived, and David and Phillip walked down the aisle in front of around three hundred admirers—publicly sealing the marriage of the Cameroon and the Red Tory projects.
Not to make too much of this dubious analogy (and indeed noting that I was not alone among the wedding guests in finding it striking) but it struck me as appropriate given one the most interesting question in British politics at the moment: how seriously does David Cameron take both Blond’s radical project of re-imagining the right, and indeed his own more recent progressive Tory speeches? For the content of today’s event was fairly predictable: Cameron restated some warm-sounding prog-con themes, and Blond laid out a slightly different spin of his critique of the liberal view of society, the market and the state he aired in Prospect at the turn of the year. But underneath lies a more interesting question, and one which goes back to Cameron’s “big society” lecture at the Guardian on 10th November—namely the extent to which the marriage between the conservative high command and its more progressive followers is one of long term commitment or just one of convenience?
The “big society” speech is important here. Moving over some of the more audacious claims Cameron made that night—not least the promise to lower poverty by cutting the welfare state—there are, it seems to me, broadly two ways of interpreting the Kremlinology of that lecture. In light of Cameron’s more traditionally right wing conference speech in October, either it represents an important change in direction for the Tory leadership, or it was more like a consolation prize to those pushing the Cameron modernising message (and especially his chief adviser Steve Hilton). In the first interpretation, Cameron realised that he was in the wrong place politically (and possibly also ideologically) back in October, and decided to return to a more authentically modernising message only a month later. In the second, figures like Hilton lost out on the bigger stage of the conference speech, but were given a prominent public event in front of a liberal audience, essentially as a second prize—and in so doing confirming a suspicion laid out by Sunder Katwala and others that the Cameroon courtship of Red Toryism (much in the same ways as his association with Zac Goldsmith’s green toryism) is really a tactical, flexible association, designed mostly to help the ongoing process of decontaminating the Tory brand.
Much rides on which of these happens to be true, in particular because the message of Cameron’s Guardian lecture was so ambitious. The speech was notable “Hiltonian” — name checking all of the flashier thinkers the Tories have used to rebrand themselves intellectually, while also mentioning most of the lesser heralded modernising priorities, from greater use of data transparency to a push for national civil service as part of a new “culture of responsibility.” Blond’s influence was also clear in its language—for who else could have suggested to Cameron that he argue: “the paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them.” (Indeed, surely this is the first time in a century that any political leader in the UK, let along one of the right, has used the word “individuation”, a term Blond repeated two or three times in his lecture today.)
But the most important change outlined then was in the approach to the role of the state. As Cameron said then, and restated today, he now rejects the “naive” (but traditionally conservative) assumption that the state should simply be rolled back, and in turn “society” will revive in the absence of its dead hand. In its place he has a vision of state power in which central government has a role in “galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating” for social renewal — a claim for the efficacy of state intervention in community so optimistic and ambitious it would make most traditional left wingers blush.
But are they really serious, and what might such a move actually mean in practice? It is never quite clear if in these claim’s if Cameron is putting some real weight behind some of the less sexy parts of the current central state — like the office of the third sector, the Central Office for Information, or Gordon Brown’s notably ineffective council on social action — or whether he has something else in mind, perhaps using tax policy or simply a greater use of NGO and privately run social services.
My sense is that the higher echelon’s of Conservative HQ are serious in their intent, but are yet to fully think through what it might mean in practice, or how this type of highly interventionist statism in the short run (in an attempt to create healthy civil society groups) would be received by the majority of Cameron’s still decidedly un-red Tory party in the long run. It certainly implies allowing a much greater permeability between the state and NGOs, or at least this is what Blond seems to have in mind. In a passage of his lecture today about the “civil state”, he outlined a right for citizen groups to take over and run different aspects of local state services:
The monolithic state could gradually be broken down into an associative state where citizens took over and ran their own services so that universality would not be compromised but in fact would be more achieved as each particular area or need would finally be in a position to meet that need by delivering via this new power of budgetary challenge the new associative state.
There have been some early signs that Cameron is beginning to think through the implications of the agenda he seems to have signed up for, especially the part which apparently promises to use the state for types of intricate social engineering that would traditionally have been anathema to his party and its intellectual tradition. One might see last weekend’s announcement of a willingness to consider Community Buy back schemes, as James Forsyth noted at the weekend over at the Spectator, as one such nod in this direction. And if there is more in this vein of taking the “big society” and its scalpel state seriously, it will be fascinating to watch it unfold in the early month’s of an assumed Cameron government. If instead nothing happens on this agenda, it will be a pretty fair indication that the early romance between the Red Tories and the Cameroon high command was more borne of convenience than conviction.