The MP for Witney is a Tory Prime Minister for our times. Not too blatant a representative of the landowning and military class (though do scratch and sniff), nor the child of a grocer, but a public relations man. What you see is anything but what you get. Like Blair, Cameron is first and foremost an actor.
So it pays to unpick his pronouncements this week. Take the conference speech.
Let’s begin with the brief: “Here was the challenge: To make an insolvent nation solvent again. To set our country back on the path to prosperity that all can share in. To bring home our troops from danger while keeping our citizens safe from terror. To mend a broken society.”
Nope, not done any of that. Fail. A sovereign nation becomes solvent by repudiating non-existent, made-up, so-called debts, not by imposing austerity on the most vulnerable. (Precautions are necessary, however.) A decent country ensures prosperity for all by zero tolerance of tax evasion, not just of benefit fraud. To avoid soldiers being killed and maimed and the public becoming a target for terrorism, why not stop being Washington’s eager little poodle? (Special relationship? Nice gimp mask Dave.) As for a broken society, it is NOT broken. Thanks to the incompetence of the London regime under all three major parties, it is in fact wrecked.
“We are in a global race today. And that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours. Sink or swim. Do or decline. To take office at such a moment is a duty and an honour and we will rise to the challenge. Today I’m going to set out a serious argument to this country about how we do that. How we compete and thrive in this world, how we can make sure in this century, like the ones before, Britain is on the rise. Nothing matters more. Every battle we fight, every plan we make, every decision we take is to achieve that end – Britain on the rise… And to those who question whether it’s right to load up a plane with businesspeople – whether we’re flying to Africa, Indonesia, to the Gulf or China …whether we’re taking people from energy, finance, technology or yes – defence … I say – there is a global battle out there.”
Nothing matters more than winning that egg-and-spoon race, does it Dave? Britain on the rise. Throbbing with thrust. We have to ask what planet Cameron is on. As far as we’re aware, there’s only the one. So to talk of continuing growth in order to maintain our differentials is catastrophically irresponsible. To avoid planetary burn-out, the developed world must mark time while the rest does what it has to do to deal with absolute poverty and adapt, just as we must, to the post-oil world. This really is no time for jingoism. Superficially, the theme might appear to be about meeting the challenge of global competition, perhaps as an alternative to global growth in a world that recognises the finite nature of its resources. But Cameron has not in fact moved beyond growth, which he mentioned eight times in his speech. Competition gets only one mention by name.
It’s also worth questioning what, in Cameronland, national success actually means. In what sense is a global company, based in Britain, actually British? If it arranges its affairs to pay tax somewhere else? Or if its shareholders could be just about anybody? Bristol Airport belongs jointly to an Australian investment bank and a teachers’ pension fund in Canada. The French government runs Bournemouth’s buses and supplies electricity to half our region. Wessex Water is owned by a conglomerate in Malaysia. Until we are prepared to take our community’s assets back under democratic control, any stake we may have in Dave’s world is by condescension and not by right. And since on average these assets were privatised at a discount of 30% on their market value, let’s not be hearing any nonsense about full compensation.
If you can stomach it, listen to Cameron praising the NHS as he buries it. The number of managers down? Of course, if you contract-out everything to the private sector the staff magically disappear from the payroll and become someone else’s problem. The numbers of doctors, dentists, midwives and operations all up? Well, what do you expect in a country with sky-rocketing population growth? More of your money spent on health care abroad? And since when was it the UK Government’s job to meet any shortfall in the health budgets of other countries (many of them more than rich enough to look after their own)? Thanks to the Big Society initiative, the donations that used to aid charity work overseas now have to keep services running at home, and all because the UK has made the political choice to pretend to be skint.
What’s the real story behind ‘public service reform’? A phrase to conjure with there. Not public service improvement, please note. Just reform. Change, for better or for worse. Unless you’re a contractor bidding for whole new tranches of profitable activity. That’s better. Definitely. And it should come as no surprise that donations to Tory funds follow. The taxpayer gives money to the contractor and the contractor gives some of it to the Tories, who respond with more of the taxpayer’s money. Surely, any firm donating money to a political party, especially one that is either in government or with a strong chance of becoming so in the near future, should automatically be barred from tendering for government contracts? Isn’t that obvious? Wriggling around the issue with talk of due process and administrative safeguards won’t make the smell of corruption go away.
There is regularly concern about the power of lobby groups and think-tanks but the concern is to some extent misplaced when the entire Government is in effect a lobby group for its funders. A party that governed in the public interest would as a matter of unshakeable principle subordinate capital to community, and not the other way around. We have the quasi-religion of ‘propertyism’, when what we need is economic democracy. And the only folk more opposed to that than the Tories are the other two big parties.
“We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war …we just get behind people who want to get on in life.”
And far too often do so, at the expense of what others hold dear. Nice for them, but being a bully isn’t nice. Cameron rounded on the nimbies in his party, and rightly so, even if for the wrong reason. For Dave accepts the insane policies of economic growth that drive the demand for housing that is correctly seen as offensive by those whose environment is being ruined. Let’s be clear. NIMBY is nowhere near good enough for us. Nobody’s back yard should be up for grabs.
Dave’s caring side showed through earlier in the week when he was asked by the Western Boring Views whether he’d back a cap on second homes: “Some of the controls people have suggested will drive out the investment and the building that is required to give these communities support. What is necessary in some cases is that we're not building enough homes that are affordable to local people. Getting rid of some of the planning controls. I think that will help those sorts of communities. Often the suggestion is why don’t you stop people selling their homes if someone else is going to use it as a second home. I think that is quite difficult to deliver in practice. It would be very bureaucratic. And I think it would rob a lot of people of the value of their homes.”
It’s impressive how delighted Cameron is that house prices in our rural communities are being driven up to meet the demands of the wealthy (such as those working ever so hard in the City of London at “socially useless” activities); and delighted too that more homes are to be built to meet those demands, despite the environmental damage this will do. It’s almost like listening to a Labour politician. Far from being an investment in the community, second homes mean that locals have to pay more for housing than they should and that the community has to find more funding than it should to offset the costs imposed by up-country predators.
When he turned to education, Dave talked a lot about success. But what he really meant was failure. Because in praising free schools he was praising the losers. Those who were too lazy (or arrogant) to engage in the democratic process to change the education policies of their local council. Or, having tried, had lost the argument. But now expect to be handed millions of pounds of public money anyway to experiment on children. If that’s a lesson in democracy, we can only hope no other countries are paying attention.
Is there anything wrong with ambition? Beware. Ambitious folk are, by definition, unhappy. At times there’s something not quite right about them, something swivel-eyed. When they don’t mind hurting others to get where they want to be. That’s not to say that folk shouldn’t do their best. Or even more – as Churchill insisted – if that’s what it takes to get the job done. But that’s something that should come naturally. Not from a sense of being driven, the sense of insecurity and fear on which the Tories feed. According to Cameron, “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.” Which can mean either that he has no idea of how the English language works or that he wants a still more unequal society. Not good news either way. But either way a completely unsustainable position. The philosophy that has dominated the last 30 years is that income distribution doesn’t matter. It’s better to grow the cake than squabble over how to divide it. In a post-growth world, income distribution does matter because the cake won’t ever be getting any bigger. And that should cause any Tory sleepless nights. As well as the military, since income distribution is as much an inter-national as inter-class issue.
“This is the country that… fought off every invader for a thousand years.”
Here was a quote that had historian Dan Snow in stitches. We could ask what Cameron thinks William of Orange and his Dutch army were doing marching across Wessex in the autumn of 1688. Dave’s maths are as approximate as his history, given William the Bastard’s victory 946 years ago this evening, but we can let that one pass. A much better target would be the idea that ‘this’ country is that old. The UK didn’t exist 1,000 years ago, but are facts to be allowed to get in the way of all this Boy’s Own stuff? Arch-unionists will always denounce our part in the revival of the Wessex identity, claiming it as anachronistic, an undoing of a historical destiny to centralise (but only as far as the Channel, mind you). In fact, we are careful to distinguish Wessex, the geographical frame of reference through which we view our world, from whatever other state or states existed on its territory at particular dates in history.
Unionists, Cameron included, make no distinctions. One country. Always have been. Always will be. Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set. In contrast, we see nothing but a cause for disgust in the idea that Britain should be ’great’, if by that is meant having a sense of superiority over others, equally blind to their merits and to our faults. No chauvinism please, please, we’re too small a planet for that.
If you can’t have them punching the air for Britain, how about shedding a tear? Was it Dave’s masterstroke to mention his dead disabled son and bask in reflected Paralympic glory? Or just mawkish?
But that was merely the warm-up for Thursday’s unveiling of plans to mark the centenary of the First World War, to be orchestrated by Wiltshire MP Dr Andrew Murrison. A warmonger makes casual reference to the war to end all wars and it passes largely without comment. So does the fact that quite a few of Britain’s disabled athletes wouldn’t even be disabled if the PM had given peace a chance. It’s long been seen as sophisticated in establishment circles to embrace war, as a normal part of making the world safe for capital to do its business, at the expense of broken lives and squandered taxes. Now that the last men who fought in it are silent, the stage is set to re-present the First World War not as an avoidable human tragedy but as a great national triumph. And invite history to repeat itself yet again. For to commemorate what was an utterly pointless European civil war as Britain’s second finest hour and to elbow the context out of the way is to learn nothing. Cameron, a thoroughly revolting man, would have it so. Dulce et decorum est. (Best buy-in the bunting before prices rise.)