What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

August 16, 2006

David Cameron: a fake Tory or a fake liberal?

At long last, the Tories have unveiled some policies. Well, not policies exactly; more a statement of aims. Well, maybe they’re not all aims; but they do give a direction of intent.

Built To Last is billed by the BBC's Brian Wheeler as “Cameron’s quiet ‘revolution’” (note the inverted commas) - a more sober analysis than the Beeb’s Political Editor Nick Robinson managed when the first draft was published, back in February: “The Tories have long craved one. Team Cameron now hope they've created one - they know what it did for Tony Blair. I speak of a ‘Clause 4 moment’ - a moment that convinces the country their party has changed.” This orgiastic encomium was rightly hooted down in derision by those who recognise a vacuous brand re-launch whose hype has gone hyperbolic.

Credit where it is due. The new version of Built To Last is a sequel which improves hugely on the original
(which was plainly Built Too Fast). Where the prequel was almost comically vapid - a bunch of slogans in search of a purpose - at least there is an attempt now to sketch out, if not a route-march, at least a gentle stroll through the countryside.

There is now no room for Mr Cameron’s empty homily, “The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money” (which comes easier, I guess, from a millionaire). Gone is the really rather odd notion that “a successful Britain must be able to compete with the world” (“in”, sure - but “with”?). And absent too is the belief that “government should be closer to the people, not further away” (why can’t the people be closer to the government?).


Of course, there is still enough verbal enuresis sloshing about to keep Mr Cameron in diapers ‘til the next election. Bizarrely, the very first sentence is perhaps the weakest - “Our party seeks to cherish freedom, advance opportunity and nurture responsibility.”


“Seeks to” - what kind of yellow-bellied, limp-wristed, pussy-whipped language is that? Surely freedom can be cherished, opportunity advanced and responsibility nurtured without their first needing to be sought? Unless, that is, the Tories have forgotten where they put them, in which case I sympathise, because I’m the same with my keys.

But, of course, this is the new-look, metrosexual, girly-man Tory Party, in which the vocative is banished. Governments no longer make laws: they “encourage” (seven mentions), “support” (five), and “share” (five). This is because “change” (nine) is all around us - it’s everywhere we go - and each of us must take “responsibility” (17) if we are to “find true and lasting happiness” (one, which is one too many).

The Tories are alert to accusations such terminology might make them sound emasculated. I remember some advice I was once given - if ever you are writing a document which is essentially a sales pitch make sure you use the word ‘visceral’. It’s strong, emphatic, and no-one is exactly sure what it means. Whoever wrote Mr Cameron’s foreword - and, who knows?, it might even have been Dave himself - must clearly have been given similar advice about the word ‘revolution’. It appears six times there, though nowhere else, and is never once used correctly. Perhaps his auto-correct has been trained to insert ‘revolution’ wherever the phrase ‘slight change’ would otherwise appear?

But maybe I have fallen into the Tories’ cunning trap, lulled by the soporific gentility of Built To Last’s chloroformic phrasing? Who can say what shards of glass Mr Cameron might deliberately have sprinkled among this pick ‘n’ mix - too small to see, unless they catch the light, but sharp enough to draw blood from the unwary?

  • What might be the “constructive Unionist response to the West Lothian Question” that they promise? Is this code for ‘English votes for English laws’, which their last manifesto pledged?
  • What, for example, do the Tories mean by “new approaches to planning and building regulations” when promoting the construction of housing? Is this code for stripping from local councils their planning and building enforcement powers?
  • And can anyone tease out for me what I am to make of the commitment to build “into our energy policy an understanding of how energy insecurity threatens national security and stability”? Is this code for ‘nuclear power - bring it on’?

Answers on a postcard, please, to The Conservative Party, 25 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0DL. (But don’t forget first to ask the permission of whoever pays the tax bill in your household.)

It would be churlish, however, not to welcome some of the sound, liberal measures proposed in Built To Last. Mr Cameron’s commitment to scrapping ID cards is a welcome reversal of the policy he inherited from his predecessor, and I’m delighted the Lib Dems will no longer comprise the sole official opposition to this expensive, irrelevant and authoritarian stinker of a scheme.

The emphasis on drugs rehabilitation - rather than a commitment to throw yet more money at the failing war on drugs - is also a baby-step in the right direction. It is, though, a shame that Mr Cameron was forced during his party’s leadership contest to retreat from his unequivocal 2001 position: “I am an instinctive libertarian who abhors state prohibitions and tends to be sceptical of most government action, whether targeted against drug use or anything else.”

And - though here I am pretty much a lone voice in the Lib Dems - the Tories deserve a straight Alpha for advocating that universities should have “the freedom to raise an additional element of financing through tuition fees”. This country faces a simple choice. It can either have world-class universities funded both by the state and tuition fees, with generous financial assistance available for those who need a helping hand; or we can commit ourselves to free higher education, and watch our universities sink into decline as they run out of the cash they need to compete against the world’s best. Labour has realized this; the Tories have now accepted this; my party will, sooner or later, have to come to terms with this as well.

The best that can be said of Built To Last is that it is a start. The dots are now there on the page, even if they are not yet joined.

But what it doesn’t resolve is the fundamental tension at the heart of the Cameron ‘revolution’ - does he mean any of it? This, after all, is the guy who, just 18 months ago, wrote the Tories’ “It’s not racist to think there’s too many of ‘em over here” manifesto. Have his views changed so radically since then? Is he a “liberal Conservative”, or a “Conservative to the core of my being”?

Die-hard Tories, the Cornerstone Groupies, are hoping this centrist, moderate liberalism is all a bluff - that Mr Cameron’s hoodie/African/tree-hugging will distract the electorate from the implementation of the next wave of Thatcherism. Most other Tories don’t currently care - they just want Labour out, and for the natural order that is a Tory Government to reassert itself. The policy stuff can go hang until Downing Street is an occupied territory once again.

The rest of us can still only hazard a guess. Maybe Mr Cameron is a fake Tory? Or maybe he’s a fake liberal? Which means there’s only one thing for certain…

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Labour has realized this; the Tories have now accepted this; my party will, sooner or later, have to come to terms with this as well."

I just wish you had something stronger than an argument from 'resigned inevitability'. I'm on my faculty's staff student committee at Cambridge, so I'm well aware of the serious funding problems at even our best endowed universities, but given liberals are also committed to an increase of the top rate of tax and a decrease of funding for irrelevancies (ID cards being the ever-giving example) I'm not so sure we have to be among those to give an emphatic 'yes' to tuiton fees. Yes, with a wasteful Labour government or a anti-tax Tory one, they are a necessary evil - but there are a million other issues which are more important to rally the party around more integral to providing a unified vision for a liberal britain, no?

Stephen Tall said...

You can call it 'resigned inevitability', I guess.

But my reason for supporting market tuition fees is that I want to see Britain cotinue to be able to boast some of the best universities in the world, attracting the best students on a needs-blind admissions basis, and retaining a glittering array of teachers and researchers.

Starving universities of the cash they need to compete in the global educational market will not achieve that.

And I do not believe the state is able to fund the investment that would be required - or that the political argument could be made for such a massive injection of funding when there are so many other competing calls on the public purse.

I've written in more detail about this here: www.stephentall.org.uk/articles/8.html

cheers, stephen

Anonymous said...

"And I do not believe the state is able to fund the investment that would be required - or that the political argument could be made for such a massive injection of funding when there are so many other competing calls on the public purse"

Don't think you'll find disagreement on the need for the funding but it's hard to understand this dogmatic determination that the funding *must* be from fees.

How many £billions do you think are required? It's still a drop in the ocean compared to what's spent on healthcare, social services, defence etc.

And importantly it's also an investment which over time (prob 20 years - but we're into long-term decision making, that's why we back PR) will erpay the money the state puts into it. Hence I have no trouble funding this investment out of general taxation. Indeed I'd prioritise it over some of the out-of-control spending in the NHS, for example. At least higher education has a much better payback prospect for the state (if not necessarily for any one individual).

So tell me again, why *must* this money be funded out of fees?

Anonymous said...

>>So tell me again, why *must* this money be funded out of fees?<<

Because if you wish to spend taxpayers' money on improving educational opportunities to have the most beneficial effect on social equity, the priority has to be the earliest years, when those being educated are least able to make their own choices as to the personal costs and benefits of their educational experience.

Stephen Tall said...

"How many £billions do you think are required?"

Well, let's start from one simple fact: Harvard's endowment of c.£12bn is more than double that of all the UK's universities combined.

And because US universities break even on their teaching - unlike their British counterparts, which lose money on teaching - they are able to compound interest their endowments, and so are pulling away from the UK every day.

Though the US is not an higher education paradigm, it's worth remembering that, though universities are free to set their own fees:
- the US spends twice as much %GDP as the UK on higher education;
- the average tuition fee is lower than in the UK;
- the majority of students at Ivy League universities qualify for fee assistance;
- and more US school-leavers go on to higher education (60%) than in the UK (45%).

We could, I'm sure, argue this all day. I accept I'm in a minority in the Lib Dems on this issue. But I have yet to see a truly convincing explanation for how we will levy sufficient tax to ensure well-funded universities, while at the same time setting them free from state interference.

Tabman said...

Anonymous 12.46: "liberals are also committed to an increase of the top rate of tax"

Not any more thankfully.

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