Cameron reclaims society

About the author
Tom Griffin is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Bath and a freelance writer. He is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

Tom Griffin (London, OK): It was as, as Janet Daley notes, a very traditional Conservative speech, and one which paid due obeisance to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

 Yet David Cameron's conference address this afternoon also contained an interesting inversion of the rhetoric of the 1980s: 

For Labour there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance. You cannot run our country like this.

It's difficult to avoid the comparison with Mrs Thatcher in 1987:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand"I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or"I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

Although expressed in diamatrically opposite terms, the underlying arguments are actually very similar. Thatcher certainly did not intend to downplay the role of charity, nor Cameron that of individual responsibility. Both emphasise the limits of the state.

Are there substantive differences? In Thatcherite terms, the 'irresponsible' bankers who Cameron denounced today were arguably individual men and women looking to themselves first. 

Yet in the rhetoric of the broken society, they could equally be seen as part of the "culture of incivility' whch has undermined 'rules and order in the public realm.'

If the credit crisis has demonstrated anything, it is that short-term self-interest is not enought to sustain that order. That may present Cameron with a deeper challenge than he is yet prepared to acknowledge.