At first sight, David Cameron was an eccentric choice to give the Guardian's Hugo Young Lecture last month. Even more startling was the fact that he chose the occasion to make his most important speech on social policy, before an audience entirely drawn from the metropolitan liberal establishment. But the lionising of a Conservative leader by the guardians of the Guardian was firmly based on mutual self-interest.
David Cameron delivers the Hugo Young Lecture, 10 November 2009
Ever since Labour's stock began to fall under Gordon Brown, institutions of the Left that depend on state patronage — and that includes the Guardian, which has thrived on public-sector advertising — have been ingratiating themselves with the new, "progressive" Conservatism. For his part, Cameron has grasped the opportunity to neutralise a potentially hostile liberal elite, particularly the BBC. He has colonised the Left's issues, while playing down those associated with the Right, not because he thinks the Guardian's readers will vote for him, but in order to appear statesmanlike, open-minded and moderate to the swing voters who recoil from tribal politics of any kind. This, the "triangulation" strategy of Clinton and Blair, has never been seriously attempted by Conservatives before. When historians look back on Cameron's career, his rapprochement with the Guardian may well mark the high point of Tory triangulation.
"The Big Society" speech turned out to be a bold attempt by the Conservative leader to set out how he intends to "use the state to remake society". Predictably enough, there was a visceral reaction from many on the Left: they dismissed Cameron's ideas as cynical, opportunistic and hypocritical to boot. Comments on the Guardian's website from the paper's stalwarts ranged from the sneering (Polly Toynbee, who calls Cameron a "butterfly") to the apoplectic (Madeleine Bunting, for whom he is "duplicitous" and "incoherent"). Yet there was also admiration at the sheer chutzpah of a Tory leader parking his tanks on Labour's lawn. Frank Field, the veteran Labour MP who for many people embodies what is left of the liberal conscience, observed that Cameron hadn't merely mounted "a raid into Labour territory. The speech declares war on Labour's reason for existence." Field warned that "the time for jeering at Cameron is over. Labour's survival will now entail outmatching his programme."
What is it about the Big Society speech that has caused such consternation on the Left? Many of the arguments of the speech had been well rehearsed before, notably at the Manchester party conference in October. There, the Conservative leader set out his views about how and why Brown's expansion of the state had failed to reduce poverty and inequality. What is new is that Cameron now proposes a big new role for the state to redistribute and devolve power to a "bigger society". He believes that the state must be transformed to enable society to shoulder more responsibility. His Big Society would not only reverse the decline in social mobility of the Blair-Brown years, but create more confident, independent and active citizens. The Tories are not just stealing New Labour's clothes, but their entire wardrobe. There is a tactical aspect to this, too. The Major years were marked by a series of Conservative defections, carefully timed by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell to cause maximum mischief. Now the boot is on the other foot. For disillusioned Blairites contemplating a long period in opposition, what's not to like about the "progressive" Conservatism mapped out in the Hugo Young Lecture? Cameron's Big Society sounds a lot like Tony Blair's Big Tent.
The consternation is a matter of style as much as content. Never before has Cameron revealed the influences that have shaped his brand of "modernisation". No previous Conservative leader would have peppered his prose with references to intellectual luminaries from the progressive pantheon, from the "rich intellectual tradition" of the Edwardian New Liberals, L. T. Hobhouse and J. A. Hobson, to Hugo Young himself, as part of his critique of the Fabian-inspired expansion of the welfare state. It is this lost Gladstonian era, before the bifurcation of liberalism and socialism in Britain, that so excites thoughtful Blairites, such as Lord Adonis and Mr Field. Admittedly, if Cameron, or whoever wrote this speech for him, had actually read Hobson, he would know that this "economic heretic", as Hobson liked to think of himself, was also a repulsive anti-Semite, given to tirades about Jewish plutocrats sinking their "fangs" into their victims. Ideological cross-dressing is a risky business, but Mr Cameron moves swiftly on to drop more contemporary names that will reassure the Guardian-reading classes that he is indeed a "progressive Conservative".
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