David Cameron: a fake Tory or a fake liberal?

by Stephen Tall on August 16, 2006

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…