David Cameron’s speech was a mix of the old, the new, the borrowed and (fairly obviously) the blue. First, the old. Large chunks of the speech were real meat and drink stuff for the delegates. The biggest cheers were reserved for Margaret Thatcher, Europe and a drubbing for Ed Balls. More surprising, however, was that some of the style was a bit crusty. David Cameron is the prototype modern politician. You’d struggle to put a cigarette paper between him, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband in terms of appearance and background. But, despite this, he stuck to some of the rhetorical flourishes of a bygone era of Conservatism. Remember Peter Lily’s “little list”? David Cameron had the same disastrous flirtation with amateur poetics:
Corporation tax – cut. The jobs tax – axed. Police targets – smashed. Immigration – capped. The third runway – stopped. Home Information Packs – dropped. Fat cat salaries – revealed. ID Cards – abolished. The NHS – protected. Our aid promise – kept. Quangos – closing down. Ministers’ pay – coming down. A bank levy – coming up. A cancer drugs fund – up and running. £6bn of spending saved this year. An emergency budget to balance the books in five years. An EU referendum lock to protect our sovereign powers every year.
Now for the new. Cameron made a compelling case for the Big Society. After having got a bit of cathartic Labour bashing out of the way, and yet more pseudo rap, he pointed out that it wasn’t Labour who had been “smashing up our town centres on a Friday night or sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefits” (for the record, this sounded a lot more gracious at the time than it does in print). He argued that, although Labour had centralised too much, “it was the rest of us who swallowed it, hoping that if the government took care of things, perhaps we wouldn’t have to”.
Cameron instead presented a radically different vision of the relationship between citizen and state. He said that “citizenship isn’t a transaction in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than you, and it matters what you think and feel and do… We need to change the way we think about ourselves, and our role in society. Your country needs you, and today I want to tell you about the part we’ve all got to play, and the spirit that will take us through.” It provided the strongest moments of his speech.
That takes us seamlessly on to the borrowed. As Cameron pointed out, the Big Society is something that he has been talking about for years. As it begins to grow as a concept, however, the resemblance between it and Tony Blair’s Respect agenda is becoming more obvious. For one, Cameron and Blair are agreed that anti-social behaviour isn’t just about poverty. Today, Cameron complained that “for too long, we have measured success in tackling poverty by the size of the cheque we give people”. Launching Respect in 2006, Blair argued that “the vast majority of people, including families on low incomes, behave perfectly properly.”
In today’s speech, the government’s pledges on police reform have also been subsumed under the Big Society heading. Cameron promised “neighbourhood beat meetings where you hold the police to account” as part of his devolution on power to the people. Similarly, Blair promised that the police would have to hold “face the people” sessions and respond to a “community call to action” within a set deadline.
Finally, for the blue. As I noted at the start, there was some real meat and drink stuff for the party faithful. But I’ll count that as red meat, not blue matter. The real true blue man-of-the-moment was local government’s very own Eric Pickles. Eric is rapidly emerging as something of a grass roots Tory favourite. Cameron was fulsome in his praise for “the big man on the side of the people”:
Eric has come in to government and hit the ground sprinting, which I can tell you is quite a sight, leading the most radical shift in power this country has seen for decades. More freedom for local councils to keep more of the money when they attract business to their area, to finance big new infrastructure projects and to run new services. More power for neighbourhoods to keep local pubs open, stop post offices from closing, to run local parks, to plan the look, shape and feel of their area.
It’s great to see local government in the limelight, and Eric deserves the plaudits. His speech on Sunday had the requisite cheap shots at his predecessors. But it also had some very welcome commitments. He complained that:
Right here in Birmingham, there are two notorious gang families who have cost taxpayers £37 million. What an appalling waste. It doesn’t have to be this way. Council spending on early intervention for children and families can deliver £10 of savings for every pound spent. Investing money to address the causes of social breakdown is far more effective than subsidising the symptoms. So we’ll allow councils to pool the budgets across the public sector: social services, care, housing and health improvement, and reward councils for delivering results and preventing social breakdown.
Local government will welcome this resolve. It remains to be seen, however, what the spending review will serve up. Local government must make savings. But it shouldn’t be the whipping boy for other departments that have been far more wasteful.