David Cameron’s tour de force: thanks, but no, thanks
J and I must be among the very few who watched all 67 minutes of David Cameron's speech to the Tory party conference on television yesterday. Presentationally, as today's commentators all agree, it was a tour de force, delivered fluently and without hesitation (and almost, but not quite, without repetition or deviation, as required by the radio show Just a Minute). No autocue, no text: just a few notes on a small stand to which Cameron referred only occasionally. He prowled the stage, speaking conversationally, almost as if thinking aloud, a model of persuasive and likeable 21st-century oratory which practitioners of old-fashioned formal debating would do well to study. He was constantly interrupted by bursts of clapping by a rapt audience of the Conservative faithful: cut-away shots of some of them, gazing up at their Leader with something like adoration, did their party's image no favours. Almost every punchline drew applause, polite rather than enthusiastic in most cases; so it was all too noticeable that he was met with an uneasy silence when he praised the contribution of immigrants to British society and called for restraint in discussion of the issue:
I think this country has benefited immeasurably from immigration. People who want to come here and work hard and contribute to our country. I think our diverse and multi-racial society is a huge benefit for Britain … I want our Party, a modern Conservative party, to talk about this issue in a reasonable, humane and sensible way and to take the very sensible measures that are necessary.
They didn't seem to care for that.
There were other positives, music to the ears of Old Labour characters like me: abolition of 'pointless' Identity cards; elected mayors for our towns and cities; the rather vague suggestion that more powers should be devolved to local government (easier to preach in opposition than in office). These were guardedly applauded. But so were many other points that ticked all the old discredited Tory boxes:
- "get out of the European Social Chapter" — so that British employers can exploit their employees more ruthlessly than any other employers in Europe;
- "we will keep pushing for that referendum, campaign for a No Vote and veto that Constitution" (he meant the new EU treaty, which is explicitly not a new constitution) — making us once again the odd man out in our own continent, sabotaging much needed procedural reform to adapt the EU to its new enlarged membership;
- "it's time with local government to tear up rules and all the ring fencing and the auditing and actually say to our local councils, it's your money, spend it as you choose..." — tear up the auditing? Really? Even a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer might gag on that, surely?
- "'Deporting people for gun and knife crime', you can't do that because of the Human Rights Act", and "they will keep the Human Rights Act that actually hinders our fight against terrorism" and, worst, "we will replace the Human Rights Act" — when he must know that with or without the Human Rights Act, we are and will remain bound by the European Human Rights Convention for which Britain was largely responsible in a more enlightened age; so these false allegations against the Act are sheer reckless Blairite/Blunkettite populism;
- "How can it possibly be right that magistrates can only send someone to prison for a few weeks rather than a year? Yes we need to scrap that early release scheme in prisons..." — so the solution to the problem of our bursting prisons, holding more in proportion to population than any other comparable European country, is not to move those many who never needed to be sent to prison in the first place and to ensure that inappropriate imprisoning of offenders is reduced, but actually to send even more people to prison and keep them there!
- "the time has come for National Citizen Service where we say to 16 year old 'we have got a compelling programme that is about the transition from youth to adulthood, that's about your responsibilities in society, that is about community service, that will challenge you'… this sort of National Citizen Service for 16 year olds can teach young people the self respect and the social responsibility that we really need to make our society stronger…" — Compulsory National Citizen Service, Mr Cameron? How many 16-year-olds will sign up for it if it's voluntary? Will candidates for university be exempt or will they have to do it after graduating? How much will these youths be paid while doing their National Citizen Service? How long will they have to do it? What will it cost the taxpayer? Above all, what will they actually do? Provide cheap labour, without union or other employment rights, for government-approved and subsidised employers? This is not even half-baked. It's raw, and raw rubbish.
There's plenty more like this which doesn't bear scrutiny.
So beneath the relaxed, liberal, conversational style, the substance of this speech was largely a reversion to the kind of Michael-Howard, Iain-Duncan-Smith, William-Hague reactionary Toryism that has lost them three elections in a row. But it's questionable whether much of the objectionable small print — and I have singled out just a selection of the worst of it — will impinge on the consciousness of the ordinary swing voter in a marginal constituency or whether it will be reflected in this week-end's polls. More likely Cameron's youthfulness, energy, fluency and apparent sincerity (currently re-labelled 'authenticity' by the commentariat) will make a more favourable impression than his real message deserves. Let's hope that it will impress enough of the handful of people whose views determine the opinion polls' findings to drive Gordon Brown off his crazy plan to hold an election this year, an election which would be unwanted, unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unlikely to do anything but harm to a premiership which has begun so much more promisingly than most of us had dared to hope.