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David Cameron on the Constitution

31 January 2006

David Cameron on the Constitution I went along to listen to David Cameron the new leader of the Tory party. He was speaking at Demos,  the London think-tank that helped to change the zeitgeist in the nineties and open the way to New Labour. Cameron gave a speech packaged as a major presentation of his emerging political philosophy (the link to it on the Conservative web site is currently broken).

He positioned himself as the person who can make Blairism work, and he deployed what seemed like powerful comparative statistics about why Britain isn’t working to rub the point home.  It was not inspiring, but he is intelligent, at ease with himself and a definite contender.

I was struck by the way that the Tory leader repeatedly called on ‘civil society’ as a force for the good. Apparently it will be essential to the success of his “compassionate conservatism”. Did the assembled press share a clear understanding of what it is? Perhaps he had been reading Michael Edwards (although I somehow doubt it) and the openDemocracy debate over Edward’s book on the concept, which was unfairly traduced by Neera Chandhoke in ‘What the Hell is Civil Society’.

In the Demos blog, Duncan O’Leary, contrasts Cameron’s view of the state with a quote from Gordon Brown. Cameron claims that Brown set his face against “sharing responsibility” and insists that “Only the state can guarantee fairness”. But is this, er, fair?

It seems that Brown actually said, “So fairness can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government”.  

Personally, I am not convinced that fairness can be guaranteed by anything this side of the day of judgment (which I am assured takes everything into account including earthly penance). But Brown’s is hardly a case against “sharing responsibility”.

After the speech a leading front-bench colleague of Cameron’s who accompanied him to the Demos office told me, “I think fairness is a great conservative term, it is appealing and can be measured”.

However Cameron used the word not at all. Nor did some other great words pass his lips, for example, ‘citizen’, ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’. Brown, in his recent wrestling match with Britishness made a great deal of fairness, claiming it was part of the ‘golden thread’ that links Britains to the Magna Carta, no less.

But ‘fairness’ is the central term in a new pamphlet by Nicholas Boys Smith which Demos launched at the event: ‘True Blue, How a Fair Conservatism can win the next election’ . It provides a witty account by a young man of being a Tory over the last ten years. He says that it is an open letter to his leader, but he told me that Cameron has not read it yet.

After he spoke Cameron took a few questions from the press. All except the last were about the headline grabbing spat with Norman Tebbit, Thatcher’s old-time, knock-about proponent. The last question was mine.

I asked Cameron whether, given he was being advised to create a fair Tory Party, with a fair economy that would create a fair Britain, he would share his view on whether the country could have a fair constitution with a fairer upper house and a fairer electoral system.

He told us that the Conservatives are bringing themselves up to date on the constitution. He is not very interested in the second chamber. Rather he wants to make sure that the House of Commons does a much better job and he thinks that it needs people in it who see themselves as legislators rather than proto-ministers. So that’s it for Lords reform.

On the electoral system, standing in front of a sign saying Demos he firmly ruled out proportional representation.

Instead, he had a smart formula, “everyone’s vote should be equal” meaning by this, he said, that everyone should be in a constituency of the same size.

With the UK’s winner takes all, first-past-the-post system, this really means that everyone should have an equal chance to have their vote stolen. Provided, of course, that the population is evenly distributed geographically in its voting intentions, which it is not.  

I’ll leave the maths to the specialists, but I suspect that re-drawing the constituencies on the lines Cameron proposes will give the Conservatives, especially in a three–party system, a comfortable permanent parliamentary majority with a minority of votes. It would also allow them to rule in confidence over Scotland and Wales, from whence, without PR, there will never be significant Tory representation in Westminster.

How can everyone’s votes be equal when they are not proportional, beats me. More significant, this is a pure, small ‘c’ conservatism that sees no problems with the existing constitutional settlement except the need to make it more efficient.

What do I make of Cameron? When Demos director Tom Bentley introduced him he congratulated him on thinking long term and addressing basic quality of life issues. For his part, Cameron stressed the need for “sustainable” policies and scorned Blair’s obsession with initiatives and headlines as “government of the short-term, by the short-term, for the short-term”.

This was bang on target. In a fight with either the Prime Minister or a Labour successor who does not have the time to shape his own distinct agenda, Cameron will win.

For the essence of the Cameron ticket is: “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (The more things change, the more they are the same thing).

How attractive it must be to have it both ways. He is not a Bush style neo-con right-wing ideologue. Rather
he is the latest modernisation of the oldest, most successful right-wing tradition on the planet.

The row with Norman Tebbit was about Cameron's heritage from Margaret Thatcher. She made her mark against the consensus politics that he now advocates by projecting her 'conviction'. Cameron is not dishonest, but such is his privilege he can be sincere without the need for conviction. 

He is distantly related to the royal family, comes from a wealthy background, was schooled at Eton. and made a bob or two in a media corporation. He announces that New Labour is to be congratulated on accepting the end of ‘them and us’.

He would say that wouldn’t he? But what if New Labour’s failure to reverse inequality means there is still a ‘them and us’? Perish the thought, of course, but having thought it… my feeling is that if there is a ‘them’ why Cameron is one of them – not one of us.

Perhaps it is the word “compassion” that sticks in the throat. Nicholas Boys Smith in his pamphlet even suggests the Party renames itself Compassionate Conservatives.

In a telling phrase the late right-wing politician and thinker Enoch Powell once said of devolution of power to Scotland “Power devolved is power retained”. What he meant was that real sovereignty would stay in the tight fist of British rule, whatever illusions the natives might have in the outer marches of the Kingdom.

So too with compassion. The charity and fellow feeling it extends can always be withdrawn, it is lent not given. Compassion is bestowed upon not owned by those it benefits.

In British terms this is indeed “the same thing”.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la same damn thing.

Far better than fascism. But one thinks of Harold Macmillan the mid-twentieth century conservative, author of ‘the Middle Way’ before the Second World War and Prime Minister after the Suez debacle of 1956. He was also the personification of Britain’s wasted years.

But it is a tragic indictment of New Labour that it should so have dissipated the democratic energy of its birth that Cameron’s pleasant appeal should be seen as a form of continuity and that it too is becoming associated with wasted opportunity.

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