David Cameron has today delivered a speech on education, at the opening of the Norwich Free School. It offers an astonishingly reactionary and in many respects deeply ill-informed view of what schools are about. But it’s just the latest in a line of utterances in which huggie-hooding Dave, a man whom the Telegraph Blogs regarded as not quite one of us, has fallen in line with the ethos and values of the tabloid right.
So what’s happening?
One explanation is that this is the real Cameron emerging. I think there’s some truth in that – I’m not sure anyone really fell for the “compassionate conservatism” inclusiveness schtick before the election, and here he seems to be reverting to type – the red-faced Bullingdon boy spluttering about feral youth and health and safety destroying the fabric of society. You can take the boy out of Eton …
But I think there’s something much deeper than that, and I think a comparison with Margaret Thatcher is quite instructive.
Watching Cameron and Co, one’s respect for Thatcher as a political operator increases. That old Cromwellian quote about the russet-coated captains, who knew what they fought for and loved what they knew, comes strongly to mind. Thatcher made sure her people were looked after – she tapped into a deep populism through her sales of council houses, her attacks on unions, and so on. On Maggie’s farm they always fed the pigs – Cameron expects the police to be the front-line against the effects of his policies while cutting jobs and pensions. Thatcher was supremely shrewd at picking her battles. And she knew how to appeal to her natural support in middle England, even when the actions of her government conflicted with their interests.
Cameron and his cabinet of millionaires cannot seem to manage that. Middle England is taking a colossal economic hit as a result of his – and more specifically Osborne’s – politics. We’re seeing double digit increases in domestic fuel prices; the cost of a university education soaring; cuts to libraries and other services that Middle England relies on; house prices are falling; changes to child benefit are hitting middle-class families hard; older people on fixed incomes, with interest rates close to zero, are being tanked. Of course the poor are being hit far harder – homelessness rose by a staggering 17 per cent last year, and cuts in benefits and services are taking as much as 20 per cent of the poorest’s incomes away – but Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not care about the poor, except when it comes to making examples of them.
It’s impossible to imagine Thatcher attacking the living standards of her core supporters so hard. In part there’s a difference in background; whatever one may think of Thatcher, for someone of her gender and her class to become Tory leader – a Tory icon, indeed – required energy, work, sheer guts. It’s a world away from the monied ease of this cabinet of millionaires. Thatcher knew something of adversity (despite enjoying huge personal privilege, especially by marrying a very wealthy man); Cameron and his cabinet know nothing of it, and lack the moral and intellectual capacity to deal with it. Look at Cameron’s red-faced anger in the House of Commons when Labour people attack him; and his treatment of women MPs at PMQs suggests that there’s a rather nasty strand of misoginy behind the shiny mask.
So faced with the obvious fact that economic policy has become a disaster, and is hitting his supporters hard, it seems to me that Cameron has retreated into a world where life is easier. He’s taken up political residence in Daily Mail land, where he can rally his supporters by pandering to the atavistic instincts of his media supporters. It’s an environment where the nasty tendency of the real world to bite back can be minimised, and where the inconveniences of contrary evidence can be comfortably ignored. It’s the world where things are simple and that bloke Delingpole has a point. He’s saying – you may not be able to afford to heat your house this winter, and your children are going to graduate with £50k of debt and no job prospects, but at least we’re articulating your values and standing up against political correctness gone mad. It’s a world where he and his orchestra of Telegraph bloggers and Daily Mail leader writers can fiddle calmly while the economy crashes, and while the democratic deficit in our society acquires proportions that the economic deficit never possessed.
And it’s not about strength, or realism, or being honest, or any other of the words that Conservatives like to use when they’re indulging in fantasy. It’s ideological bread and circuses, to distract Middle England from failures that Tories in Government cannot comprehend or begin to deal with. And it’s a symptom of stark, staring fear.