I’ve mentioned before that since become Prime Minister, David Cameron’s major political speeches read as if the speechwriter has taken an early Blair speech and run it through a Conservativamizer (tm).
Yes, it tries to be an early Blair speech, this time the Forces of Conservatism one from 1999. Look at the structure: Amusing letter about the opposition? Blair has “a man who said did I know the Tories had been listening to Britain. They can’t have been listening too hard, he said. They’re still here”. Cameron has “a man from Leicestershire called Ray” who is “a longtime Labour supporter” who has come to see that the “The policies you are making, the changes you are making, appear to be good for this country” and begs the PM to stop before his world view is disjointed. Oh so hilariously, the PM promises to disappoint him.
Notice too who is prayed in aid. Cameron quotes Thatcher and Churchill. Blair appropriates Keir Hardie and Attlee.
This is the real clue to the purpose of both speeches. The old heroes being called to service in the causes of today. In both cases, the speech is a rallying cry against a big bad wolf that needs to be beaten back – The Forces of Conservatism for Blair, the Enemies of Enterprise for Cameron. The challenge our enemies pose to our shared cause are so great, each leader argues, we must rally round and fight them together.
Cameron’s speech is basically a love letter to the Conservative party, and a reminder to the troops that David Cameron’s government, from which the Liberal Democrats have apparently temporarily departed, is truly a Conservative one. Only the Conservatives are the party of enterprise, says the man who made Vince Cable the Secretary of State for Business.
Blair’s speech served a similar purpose – it was a blatant attempt to rally the Labour party around a “third way” agenda by badging all those who opposed him as a small c conservative.
Blair’s “Forces of Conservatism” speech was intended to signal to the Labour party that the government he was leading was a radical one that fitted perfectly into the great values of the Labour movement.
Blair wished to rally a party bridling at a “middle of the road” strategy and refers directly to the attack that he is following tory economic policy.
However, there are two differences between the speeches. Both signal a surprising weakness from the current Prime Minister.
First, Blair’s speech was given to Labour in the 1999 conference, after the midpoint of his first government. Cameron is having to call on the old verities less than a year into his government. He is trying to shore up his support very early indeed.
Second, look not at what is in, but what is left out. Tony Blair’s speech was a paen to progressive politics, but it was also a challenge to the Labour movement. Blair includes a long section on how the Labour party never fulfilled its potential.” Born in separation from other progressive forces in British politics, out of the visceral need to represent the interests of an exploited workforce, our base, our appeal, our ideology was too narrow. People were made to feel we wanted to hold them back, limit their aspirations, when in truth the very opposite was our goal.”
This comes after Blair brands some in the Labour movement as a “force of Conservatism”.
Cameron dares no such move. The Conservative party is not only the only party on the side of enterprise, its history is apparently flawless.
Banks need to lend, Cameron says, but apart from that the only people who stand in the way of an enterprise society are regulatory civil servants, town hall paper pushers and government procurement managers.
Now, I suspect many people will agree that these people are enemies of enterprise, but they make a pretty unconvincing big bad. If Britain has stopped growing purely because of a bunch of clerks wielding complex forms, we’re in bad shape.
Besides, as history it doesn’t make much sense. Yes, regulation is a problem, but do you remember planning officers demanding a multi-billion pound bail out? Procurement is a major issue, no doubt. But I don’t recall procurement staff selling mortgages to any American with a pulse, then refusing to lend to business when their bets went wrong.
This one-sidedness is the great weakness of the speech. It is what keeps it from being anything more than a party rallying cry.
If there had been recognition within Cameron’s speech that there are enemies to enterprise far more ingrained and insidious than can be erased with an enterprise zone or a lifting of a regulation, the message would have rung out more clearly.
Imagine if Cameron had said that the reforms of the eighties were vital, but in truth not all boats had been lifted by the rising tide. Too many had sunk, and that was not good enough for the new national challenge.
Cameron could go on to say that the enemies of enterprise included those who were willing to allow only market forces to decide where businesses could prosper, and that he saw it as his job as PM to change that for ever, to extend to everyone the chances Thatcher gave to some.
It would have involved an attack on the soft bigotry of low expectations, a belief in the entrepreneurial power of everyone, a passionate call for the nation to provide the skills, education and support for those who have never had the chance to build businesses that could create growth.
Such a pro-enterprise agenda would place infrastructure, both the hard infrastructure of road rail and cable and the soft infrastructure of skills, research and talent at the heart of what makes Britain a great place to build a business. It would be a “Big society” type of plea and one firmly in the one nation tradition.
Instead, there’s a brief reference to an enterprise allowance scheme, with another plug for a Thatcher era-programme, and then it’s back to pressing traditional Conservative hot buttons.
So after reading the speech, my question is – why did Cameron feel he could not take on a single verity of his party, even as he praised it to the skies?
My nagging suspicion is that the speech reveals a concerning truth – Cameron genuinely does not think there is any enemy to enterprise in Britain that regulation and supply side changes can’t fix. In which case, his “growth” agenda will be just be reheated Redwoodism.