Reading the tweets, commentary journalism and looking at some of today’s front pages (particularly the i newspaper) you’d be forgiven for thinking that in yesterday’s speech David Cameron came out with a five year plan to put the means of production in the hands of the workers within our lifetimes. One could mention the gulf between Cameron’s rhetoric and the lived reality of the policies his government have implemented. Or to point out that the key points of his speech — love of country, desire for “social cohesion”, respect for the armed forces, extension of British power globally, property rights, homeownership, the family, justified inequality- are absolute pillars of a modern conservative worldview. But it is more vital to note, in contrast to these uncritical and bordering on subservient opinions, Cameron’s speech was completely consistent with the themes and direction of the Conservative Party under his leadership.
How short are these journalist’s memories? Have they been wiped clean by a summer of wall to wall Jeremy Corbyn? This is the man whose entire project has been to detoxify the Tory brand. He replaced the authoritarian torch with a lovely green tree, only to row back when the policy themes changed a little and more “security” themed fonts were required. He told us that young people wearing hoods were not a danger but should be given a hug. He went on a jaunt to Norway to see the impact of global warming and hugged a husky. He embraced the work of the Tory think tank the Centre For Social Justice (the name alone!) whose reports (for example Breakdown Britain) formed the basis of the key themes of the 2010 election campaign, fixing what Cameron defined as “Broken Britain”. The creator of this think tank, Iain Duncan Smith, enemy of disabled people up and down the land, was encouraged to tell stories of his conversion to the themes of social justice in centre-left magazines, to endlessly repeat that reduction of child poverty was a key theme. In 2009, Cameron turned up at the Demos think tank for the launch of its Progressive Conservatism project and said that
progressive conservatism — the idea that today, conservative means are the best way to achieve progressive aims will be the underlying philosophy of any government I lead.
And went on:
The ‘progressive’ half of progressive conservatism represents the ends we are fighting for — our vision of the good society and the good life. This vision is not exclusive to the Conservative Party, or any other party. I’ve always thought it’s silly to deny the truth — that in politics most of us are actually fighting for the same things.
The Demos project was led by one Phillip Blond, who eventually moved on to establish his own think tank Respublica — Cameron attended the launch — whose whole ethos was to provide a relatively intellectually sophisticated account of how Cameron could articulate and implement this vision — how Cameron could be a “Red Tory”. In turn other think tanks sprung up — Bright Blue and The Good Right being amongst them.
This is not to begin mentioning the key Steve Hilton inspired policy platform The Big Society. Here Cameron and his team said that Thatcher was directly wrong and there was such thing as society, it was not just not the same as the state. Voluntary organisations and community groups would redistribute power to the people. Cameron even said that, alongside London Citizens, he would train community organisers! The 2010 manifesto was called “Invitation To Join The Government Of Britain”. It talked about reform of the banking system and building a greener economy and reduce youth unemployment. People like Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman and those they influence started panicing that this was Labour’s natural territory and that they should embrace this whole platform.
David Cameron recognised this in his attempt to define a pro-social politics that was concerned about people’s well-being, mental health and resilience. His idea of a “big society” was a recognition of the way our social relationships have become more impoverished … We in Labour made a mistake by dismissing Cameron’s pro-social politics. We now have the opportunity to develop our traditions of reciprocity, mutualism and co-operation. The party grew out of collective self-help and popular movements of self-improvement. Labour’s social alternative must be about rebuilding Britain from the ground up.
I could go on at length for some time. I really could. The simple fact is this. As commentary journalists your job is not to take Cameron’s word at face value but to contextualise and interpret them in the wider context of his party, their beliefs and the whole of political history. It is not to transparently pitch his lines as natural facts but judge them against empirical reality with precision.
The amnesia concerning Cameron’s key projects is quite spectacular. Like every speech comes totally shocking and new.