Riot Reflections 3: Cameron bottles compassionate Conservatism

Alex Harries says Cameron’s contradictions have been laid bare

“Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.”  Jason Galsworthy probably meant to indicate that the practical realities of governance often diminish belief in one’s own ideals and that by extension, the needs of the electorate often crush intellectual posturing. David Cameron may this week, have served as a case-in point example of this phenomenon.

The vast majority of the broadsheet press was quick to condemn last week’s rioting whilst still recognising the deeper social malaise and inequality which must surely in some way have been responsible. Cameron, too, was right in lambasting the opportunism and criminality which seemingly sparked much of the copy-cat rioting across London and the UK.

However, it is Cameron’s deeper analyses which highlight his wavering ideals. He has adopted a worryingly familiar take on the problems, focusing on benefits, moral decline and policing, the bugbears of the Thatcher era. This sort of response would be expected from a Tory who had consciously modelled himself as an heir to Thatcher.

Yet throughout his tenure as Tory leader he has been keen to present himself as an atypical, compassionate Conservative. In many ways, his aristocratic, Old Etonian roots have shone through in his revival of 19th Century Toryism. The links he has sought to draw between his own Big Society philosophy and aspects of Disraelian Conservatism (equally as nebulous) and concern for social welfare have been more than tangential. This only increases the intrinsic contradictions at the heart of Cameron’s response to the riots.

In Tuesday’s Guardian, John Harris emphasised this apparent dichotomy between the progressive and Thatcherite elements of Cameron’s persona. As recently as last year the Prime Minister paid tribute to The Spirit Level, condemned relentless consumerism and lamented a system which “keeps millions of people at the bottom locked out of the success enjoyed by the mainstream.”  One could be forgiven for believing that this was the rhetoric of a Social Democrat who would respond to last week’s riots with calls for a fight against deprivation, inequality and a lack of opportunity.  Indeed, in last week’s Economist Bagehot observed that the events “might be expected to play out favourably for any Tory prime minister. But the current one is unusually well-placed to benefit.”  Nationwide upheaval could have served as a perfect opportunity to further this narrative of a Broken Britain and convince wavering centre-ground voters of his progressive compassion (or even ‘cultural conservatism’) whilst highlighting traditional Tory themes of law and order.

Instead, he’s bottled it. Rather than presenting a well-considered, visionary analysis which could serve both his and the country’s interests, Cameron has pandered to a discontented Tory right. Simplistic, knee-jerk responses first left him looking vaguely clueless, reasserting the idea of an insurmountable social divide between him and the public. Equally, they have solicited often negative responses from those inextricably bound up with the results of any solutions he may choose to enact. If Cameron really does believe in his woolly, ill-defined ideal of the Big Society, he’s almost certainly missed the best opportunity of his premiership to underline its practical reality.

Teens with no stake in their community, an overarching consumerist mind-set and a lack of personal responsibility, would supposedly be cured by this miracle pill. The question remains then, why has Cameron fallen back on Thatcherite “there is no such thing as society” principles? Why has he passed up the opportunity to win over sceptical floating voters in favour of convincing Daily Mail readers of his conservatism?

To merely dismiss this as a mistake on the ex-PR man’s part would be overly naïve. Instead, this reassertion of traditional Toryism has been a calculated choice on Cameron’s part and perhaps more than anything, a reflection of his worries and concerns. Cameron finds himself in a tough place. His overarching philosophy is being questioned on right and left alike, while the social and electoral impracticalities of his cuts programme are being laid bare.  Cameron has neglected the Big Society for one simple reason: he knows that the narrative underpinning it is redundant, or at least that selling this narrative to the electorate at a time of austerity, is a lost cause.

Especially in its volunteer aspects, the Big Society is fundamentally predicated upon the idea of a widespread revival of community. If there is any logical response to last week’s chaos then a call for a community-driven Britain wouldn’t be far short.

In Cameron’s ideal version of Middle Britain, libraries, town halls and community centres would be buzzing with activity. Charities, reliant as many are on state funding, would be indispensable to this vision. So, logically, the presence of Cameron’s Big Society” relies upon the presence of state infrastructure in order to foster the necessary sense of community and cohesion.

As much as Cameron has promoted decentralised public services, a strong public sector would seem to be a necessary pre-condition for the realisation of his philosophical goal. Therefore, not only do widespread and deep cuts ill-fit Cameron’s desire for a cohesive, responsible Britain, they fundamentally undermine it.

If Cameron really does believe in this project and is keen to realise it at a time of austerity, it would seem that he has entered into a callous game of ‘chicken’ with the electorate, waiting for them to blink first, scaring them into citizen activity. Just last month, Oliver Letwin argued that an atmosphere of ‘fear’ would be necessary in the public sector to improve services.

Letwin is certainly tightly tied up in this Big Society project. In February this year, when he came to speak at Eton, I pushed him regarding this apparent contradiction between Big Society and austerity. His answer was slick, well-rehearsed and attuned to his audience. Letwin discussed the village he inhabits in his West Dorset constituency (no doubt replete with city bankers and the like). Commenting on the closure of his local library and corner shop, he said it had been great to see local groups (I presume the WI) take over these services on a voluntary basis.

Surely, Letwin continued, this was irrevocable proof that we should have greater faith in the public’s ability to pull together at a time of austerity. This narrative works in the ‘green and pleasant land’ inhabited by a significant minority of the populace. These are areas where communities have survived, where wealth and privilege have given people idle time, and where historically speaking the population has not had to rely over much on the state for its livelihood.  In this small corner of England, occupied by a significant percentage of the Tory cabinet, the Big Society can co-exist with austerity.

Unfortunately, as Cameron knows all too well, if one substitutes the Home Counties for say the south Wales valleys, one is faced with a completely different set of circumstances.  These are areas where a pared-back state has already rendered community an almost unreachable ideal and where families are faced with cycles of deprivation, unemployment and reliance upon benefits. Here a limited state infrastructure has failed to foster community. This begs the simple question: how does Cameron foresee the survival of community when public services are further reduced?

Any attempt to enhance national cohesion by targeting deprivation, unemployment and poverty would intrinsically undermine government cuts.  The Tories have realised this, and are thus slowly reverting to their 1980s auto-pilot. Rather than working together in unity as part of an overarching ideology, the two pillars of Cameron’s premiership seem utterly incompatible.

Cameron has backed himself into a corner. He has been forced to play off talk of community cohesion with the need for sweeping cuts in order to stop the intellectual underpinnings of his Tory modernisation from tumbling down. If indeed, Britain is steeped in moral decline and a bigger, more cohesive, responsible society is the only way to solve it, then unfortunately for Cameron, a reduced state seems utterly inimical to this demand.

In the last few weeks Cameron’s contradiction has been laid bare. If public services are necessary for community then he has no choice. If he pushes on with cuts then all he can do is fall back on Thatcherism and blame the state for society’s ills. In so doing, he is only undermining the intellectual centre-piece of last year’s Conservative election manifesto. Cameron’s idealism has not necessarily been reduced. Rather, it has simply been rendered impractical.

Alex Harries is a student about to study history at Oxford who is gaining work experience with the IWA

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