It's been an interesting week for Conservative Party leader, David Cameron. Last Sunday morning, one of what I suppose was one of the most open "secrets" in Westminster finally emerged into the public domain when a serialisation of a book about the life of Cameron alleged he had smoked cannabis at Eton and had nearly been expelled. Today, in what I consider a far more significant development, Cameron has made a speech about the state of society. You can read the full speech here:
Let's deal first with the cannabis "story". I find myself halfway between righteous (or should that be self-righteous ?) indignation and the "so what?" which seems to have been the response of the London media. Having a spliff at the age of fifteen does not, of course, disqualify anyone from becoming leader of the Conservative Party or Prime Minister. My problem with this is not that David Cameron smoked cannabis - my problem is that to me it shows a weakness of character. As I see more of Cameron, I see a man desperate to be liked, desperate to be popular and desperate to be "one of the crowd". So much of Cameron's politics and political activity since he became leader of the Conservative Party has been less about the "selling" of Conservative ideas and principles but the desire to be "liked" by everyone and not to do or say anything that challenges that.
I have long believed that Cameron is not fit to be Prime Minister. I believe he is brittle under pressure and his media performances have often been at their worst when he has been challenged and when he is not "in control" of the interview. There are times when politicians of principle say and do things that aren't liked or popular - Margaret Thatcher knew that, Tony Blair has come to know it too. I worry that if he gets to Downing Street, David Cameron will be at the whim of "advisors" and "friends" to an even greater extent than Tony Blair has been. Perhaps the most revealing and trenchant criticism has come from Noel Gallagher of Oasis.
And so to today's speech. The first thing to say is that it could seen as the "de-Thatcherising" of the Conservative Party. The party of economic competence is now the party that puts family and social cohesion before economic prosperity. If I were being spiteful, I would say that we can all look forward to being poor but happy in Cameron's Britain.
As I read the speech, I could hear another voice speaking these words. Margaret Thatcher - hardly. Tony Blair - possibly. No, this speech could have been said word-for-word by John Major. This is Cameron's version of "back to basics" - this is the return of John Major, much vilified by the Right of the Conservative Party.
There's little about the diagnosis of society that anyone can disagree with. That said, the causes are many and varied and need to be understood in order to come up with solutions. Of course, the State cannot and should not be the sole solution provider. This speech alludes to the role of individual and is about changing behaviours rather than legislation.
However, we are what we are because of a combination of the socio-economic and cultural influences that affect us. We have seen massive social and economic changes in the past thirty years and are only now seeing the consequences. The economic liberalisation of the Thatcher/Major years was a necessary response to the rampant corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s but it has had important social side-effects. The vast increase in personal disposable incomes and the larger increase in property values has transformed life in London and the South_East for example.
When I was growing up in south London in the 1960s, my mother didn't work. My father earnt enough to pay the bills including the mortgage (2.25% fixed !) and that meant my mother was around all the time. Nowadays, both parents are forced by the sheer cost of living in London to work. As people have become cash-rich and time-poor, they have used material goods as a substitute for quality time with their children. David Cameron is wrong to blame "absent fathers" in isolation. He needs to look at an economic culture which compels parents to work long hours simply to survive while perpetuating the myth (especially to children) that happiness can only be found from the latest gadget or newest item of designer clothing.
In order to achieve the social changes he argues for, Cameron will need to take on and slay a number of sacred cows and liberal capitalism may well be one of them. In addition, the liberalisation of licensing and gaming controls perpetuated by successive Conservative and Labour Governments has done much to disfigure our towns and cities tunring them into virtual "no-go" areas especially at weekends.
Finally, there is "popular culture". What are we to make of rap artists who parade expensive cars and clothes around as a "uniform" ? Whatever the merits or otherwise of the music itself, the fact remains that advertising and popular music also conspire to perpetuate the myth of happiness through the acquisition of "things".
Is there then an answer ? No, there are probably several, possibly conflicting answers. As with environmental politics, it will be challenging to change behaviours. I applaud Cameron for trying to tackle the issue though his solutions are half-hearted at best. If it achieves nothing other than to start a meaningful national debate, that will be a start. It will also show that the murdered South London teenagers may not have died in vain.