John Harris

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Archive for October, 2010

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Cameron’s speech: Guardian columnists’ verdict

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Our writers give their verdict on David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham

Anne Perkins: A speech without a theme

There are interesting ways of talking about fairness (Will Hutton aired some in his column on Sunday about paying for higher education. David Cameron is clever and interested in political ideas, and he is a prime minister brave enough to take his party into coalition who also needs to find a way of explaining the thinking that’s guiding the spending review. But anyone who hoped to hear some description of the way he thinks about fairness and how that might shape the spending decisions we’ll learn about a fortnight today will have been disappointed.

Though fairness was billed as the theme, the speech actually turned out not to have a theme at all, and fairness emerged as only one short under-developed passage among all the other short and under-developed passages. His idea of fairness was entirely limited to the relationship between the average taxpayer and the benefit claimant and based on the perception that now seems to be driving Conservative thinking, that there are large numbers of people turning their back on available work for the pleasure of hanging round all day “on their sofa”.

Quite a lot of Tories, who once took the reasonable view that most people work if they possibly can, can now be heard at parties saying things such as: “they’ll work if they’re hungry”. He promised that those with broader shoulders would bear more of the burden: a persuasive idea, which rightly includes the upper-middle income bracket hit by child benefit changes, but which should surely extend beyond to the top rate taxpayers.

There seemed to be two conflicting ideas in Cameron’s speech. The first, which framed it, was: “we’re all in this together”. The second, which provided the meat in the sandwich, was that there are some people who aren’t in it. They are the people on their sofas instead of going out to work, and those who don’t step up to take part in the big society (which made a glossy reappearance this afternoon). They are, according to Cameron, the drain on whom the money is being “wasted”.

This is not “we’re all in this together”. It was a speech of soundbites that left a lingering impression of a sunny headmaster of a privileged school addressing bright eyed boys and girls before they all went off somewhere nice for the summer. Overshadowed by the looming spending review, it was low on substance and offered nothing more than exhortation.

John Harris: Dreamy, impenetrable or extremely patronising

At the tail-end of the election, we made a film in Cameron’s constituency: Witney, where the Cotswolds blur into Oxfordshire. A few people we met said the villages therein had undoubtedly played some role in the idea of the “big society”. And fair play to them: the charity shops, summer fetes, scout troops etc did amount to what some people call “social capital”, and a kind of high-end version of the good(ish) society. Note also: hardly any poverty there, a lot of retired folks, plenty of millionaires, no real sense of the rat-race.

Which brings me to that speech.

Hey you! Do you want to set up a free school? Be a special constable? Turn your workplace into a mutual? Take this or that service off your council and somehow run it yourselves? Put on a fete, or open a charity shop?

It’s a nice idea. But watch the film we made during Labour conference about the lives of even pretty affluent people in the Mancunian suburb of Altrincham. They are time-poor. They barely have enough hours spare to feel they’re being good parents. Thanks to the cuts, their lives will be getting even more stressed and harried. And then – and forgive me for a bit of class politics here – they behold a very wealthy man with a cut-glass accent telling them their country needs them, it’s all about the “big society”, and they need to get with it.

Most of this will either sound dreamy and impenetrable or extremely patronising, or both. Most of it is half-formed, to be charitable. My sense after watching that is that it will inevitably blur into the cuts agenda, and people will feel it’s being sold to them with cynical motives (note how the Tory line this week has been to say they’re not cutting for ideological reasons, and then Cameron bangs on about statism and “revolution” – bad move).

The delivery was as good as ever. But the pacing wasn’t up to his usual standard, and the funny bits were a bit crap. But here’s the main thing: the message collides with reality, and then drops to the floor. That’s what happens if you found your vision in Witney, rather than say, Warrington.

Julian Glover: An engaging vision of the future

This speech ambled about, limped into a few bad jokes and then stumbled into the “big society”. At that point, and all the way to the end, it was transformed. David Cameron spoke fluently and sincerely about the liberal case for the reconstruction of the relationship between the state and the people. You can question his belief in the possibilities of change. But do not doubt that he is persuaded by the necessity.

He began, like his coalition partner Nick Clegg a fortnight ago, in much too defensive a tone. This part of the speech lacked any clear thread, other than that he had become prime minister and that the deals needed to allow this to take place had been worthwhile. The hall gave this a tolerant rather than enthusiastic response. Tories seem happy with the fact of the coalition’s creation and accepting of its consequences, but far from sure about its ideological meaning.

Cameron is not like that and this speech, more than any other he has given, strove to put heart into the modern Tory message. Many people in his party are unconvinced by his obsession with social responsibility and do not understand what the big society is supposed to mean. The prime minister tried to tell them. He emerged as an idealist: overoptimistic, perhaps, about the potential benefits of the reform, as well as about the retreat of the state, but someone at least prepared to venture an engaging vision of the future which goes beyond the correction of Labour’s budgetary disaster.

This is radical liberalism, of a sort, with talk of prison reform and social improvement rather than authoritarianism. Will we all found new schools, start new businesses, help each other out, as Cameron envisages? Not always. But he is right that the state is the product of, and the servant of, society. Citizens decide the future, not government. The prime minister said so boldy. These, he thinks, are the ideas of a new generation.

Jackie Ashley: Let the big society go

Let’s give credit to Cameron: he’s a smooth operator, making by far the best speech of the three party leaders this conference season. He also had the best jokes, from “Neil Kinnock says he’s got his party back – Neil, you can keep it”, to “We’ve been compared to a dead parrot, but we were only resting.”

But beneath the easy manner and the confident quips, the speech failed. By trying to link the coming cuts to the “big society”, Cameron muddied the waters.

A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that 55% of people had never even heard of the big society; 54% thought it was good in principle but wouldn’t work in practice. The big society is, and always has been, a dead duck.

The evidence of the last few days should have been enough to convince Cameron of this: however much he talks about “fairness” when it comes to the cuts, there were howls of outrage from people who face losing their child benefit – whose first concern (obviously) was their own budgets rather than any idea of fairness.

Cameron would be well advised to let the big society go – despite his best attempts to explain it, it just doesn’t chime with the times we are in. People are far more concerned about their own jobs or benefits than about how much they can do for their country right now. Much more of the big society and the revitalised parrot might fall off its perch.

Aditya Chakrabortty: A cynical rewrite of the past two years

So here is Cameron’s recent economic history of Britain. The mess we’re in now has got nothing to do with bankers – who got barely a mention in the speech, apart from a plea to them to lend more. The debt is all because of feckless Labour – whose economic policy David Cameron actually supported until the winter of 2008.

The IMF and the EU back his massive spending cuts – and we all know what economic geniuses preside at the IMF and the EU. Let us be clear: this goes way beyond the usual conference grandstanding – it’s a cynical rewrite of the past couple of years. A massive failure of the private sector has been Photoshopped into the fault of the state.

Well, we were all there when Lehman Brothers fell over, and that’s certainly not how I remember events. And if voters can’t trust Cameron to be straight on how Britain got here, how can they believe his justification for the cuts?

George Monbiot: Twenty-five words on the environment

So that’s it, is it? Twenty-five words; 0.4% of the speech in which the leader of the “greenest government ever” lays out his vision for Britain. Here they are: “more green”, “a new green investment bank, so the technologies of the future are developed, jobs created and our environment protected”, and “carbon capture and storage”. That, dear reader, is your lot. Even when Cameron recited a long list of his government’s achievements, there wasn’t a word about the environment.

That’s not surprising, for its achievements to date are hard to detect.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change survives by a whisker: Chris Huhne’s speech to the Lib Dem conference was a desperate litany of wishful thinking, as there are no visible means of supporting his aspirations. Defra, which was supposed to be cutting quangos, has instead created a new one, whose purpose is to deregulate farming, already the greatest cause of habitat destruction and species loss.

The Department for Transport has launched a new war on cyclists and pedestrians, by cutting road safety grants. There’s nothing that could have fitted into a conference speech. So Cameron chose the wise course – silence – and hoped we wouldn’t notice.

Polly Toynbee: Mr Nice Guy – but not for long

What Cameron has is an essential reasonableness of tone, a conversational plausibility and even, yes, likeability. No one can ever take that away from him. But with Gordon Brown vanished from the stage like a pantomime King Rat in a puff of smoke, niceness is no longer a USP, because Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have lashings of it too.

This speech required much more. He had to make the country believe cuts this mortally deep are necessary and that throwing so many people out of work is a price worth paying. Reaching for Lord Kitchener didn’t do it.

Cameron needed to convince us that his “big society” would be the antidote to all the pain he is about to inflict. But right and left alike are equally perplexed and his party did not warm to the notion at the conference this week. Charities are distraught at the cuts in grants and contracts they are already suffering, so Cameron has had to cancel big society town hall meetings up and down the country for fear of rows with the voluntary sector everywhere.

The truth is that even a genius team of speechwriters could not have squared the impossible contradictions in Cameroonism. There is no way to be this tough, yet fair, this harsh, yet create a gentler, more community-spirited nation. Pigeons come home to roost on 20 October, and the hard numbers will mean no more Mr Nice Guy.

• To read the verdicts of Michael Heseltine and others on Cameron’s speech, click here.

Anne Perkins
John Harris
Julian Glover
Jackie Ashley
Aditya Chakrabortty
Polly Toynbee
George Monbiot © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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VIdeo: Conservative party conference: Are we all in this together? | John Harris

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Harris’s fringe: John Harris gauges the reaction to the Tory welfare changes in Edgbaston and Newtown, two Birmingham areas at different ends of the socio-economic scale

John Harris
John Domokos

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Video: The greenest government ever? | John Harris

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Harris’s fringe: The coalition promises big things on climate change. At the Conservative conference, John Harris wonders whether the ‘big society’ can be a green one

John Harris
John Domokos

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Video: Conservative cuts: ideology or necessity? | John Harris

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Harris’s fringe: At the Conservative conference, John Harris asks whether the cuts agenda is being driven by fiscal arithmetic or a Tory belief in a smaller state

John Harris
John Domokos

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Video | Labour party conference: Miliband’s middle England

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Harris’s fringe: John Harris speaks to the new Labour leader and heads for the suburbs to road test Ed Miliband’s big idea: life beyond the bottom line

John Harris
John Domokos

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