Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Can Cameron Mend "The Broken Society" ?

There has been a lot of coverage given to David Cameron's speech in Glasgow yesterday. The full text is here and I commend it to you. As usual with a Cameron speech, you have to cut your way through the undergrowth of platitude to get to the real sense of what the man is saying and where he is coming from.

I suspect his attempt to call the Glasgow East by-election "the broken society by-election" will fail. That may suit Cameron but he knows the real battle in Glasgow East is between the SNP and Labour and that both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are spectators. While I don't agree that defeat for Labour will in any way lead to a challenge to Gordon Brown, it would be another psychologically damaging blow to Labour.

However, back to Dave....To be fair, he admits early on that "Everything depends on a strong economy" but there has been an almost embarrassing silence from Osborne on how the Conservatives would deal with the new economic reality I have alluded to before. With the stock market still falling, oil still well above $140 a barrel and huge levels of fear and anxiety across the board I can't see this "strong economy" appearing anytime soon. What does Cameron call "strong" anyway ? I presume he means an economy that is growing fast enough to mask a reduction in levels of public expenditure to bring the share of GDP absorbed by such expenditure back toward 40%. Yes, fine if you can guarantee say 4.5% growth year on year. If the economy grows much more slowly, say 1% or less, then reducing public expenditure will mean real cuts and in areas like adult social care, even the most prudent Conservative shire counties are, I can tell you, struggling to manage.

So, it appears that Cameron is either unable or unwilling to be straight about what a Conservative Government could achieve or would do if the economy were not to recover to the extenst seen in the 80s or 90s and where is or are the mechanisms to achieve such strong levels of growth ?

Anyway, back to cuddly social issues...

As a Londoner, I can accept Cameron's concentration on knife crime though I doubt the prison population could take any kind of additional influx of convicted criminals and what will the penalty for knife crime be - a year, five years, ten years ? Indeed, what Cameron is NOT saying is "if you carry a knife you will go to prison" - he is, in fact, saying "if you use a knife to commit a crime, you will go to prison" and that's a subtle nuance which, as usual, the media has completely missed.

IF Cameron wants to be serious about knife crime, he has to be serious about gang culture and the brutalisation of teenage society. A lot of knife crime seems to be committed by the young on the young. A "blade" isn't just a form of protection, it's a symbol of power and belonging. I wonder if we shouldn't instead be working to "recognise" certain gangs or crews in the sense of giving them places to meet in exchange for a total ban on knives and violence, drugs and drink. Those gangs who don't want that would be forcibly disbanded as would any crew involved in violence or drug-dealing.

The passage on school reform is vague beyond belief - we know from past utterances that Cameron likes the idea of schools run locally not by elected Councils but by Governors replete with or dominated by Conservative activists. However, I'm sure the Shadow Education Secretary will be forthcoming with some ideas in due course.

The most contentious passage of Cameron's speech deals with "morality". Now, as a liberal, I am extremely uncomfortable with any politician trying to tell me how to live my life though Conservatives and Socialists seem to have little trouble. Cameron speaks of "moral neutrality" and a "de-moralised society" but I don't think that's fair. Concepts of Right and Wrong can and do exist but they are far less uniform than before. I find it incredibly arrogant and presumptious that David Cameron should be the arbiter of what is "Good", "Bad", "Right" or "Wrong". The Conservative Party isn't a religious movement and those who seek moral guidance can speak to representatives of their Faith or another Faith if they choose.

In a city of some eight million people, there cannot be a single "Right" or "Wrong" and the abilty to co-exist generally transcends personal moral codes. I don't like the person who plays his or her music loud on the Tube but is it MY place to tell them to turn it down ? What right do I have to impose my moral guidelines on anyone else ? Inevitably, this means that there are behaviours which most people don't like but do tolerate and that, ultimately, is what it's about - toleration. Most people don't have the luxury of living in moral isolation and nor do they have the power to impose their morality on others ergo, we are forced to accept behaviours we ourselves do not like because we are unalbe to change them.

That may sound inherently depressing but progress does happen slowly. The overwhelming majority of people behave responsibly and respectably. It's probably fair to say that drugs and alcohol are often contributory factors when people behave badly and I think the scale of general mental health issues isn't well understood and appreciated. Urban life can be hugely frustrating at times and while elements of Cameron's comments on flexible working are to be welcomed, far too many employers are unable or unwilling to allow employees to work flexibly.

My final comment is that responsibility doesn't begin and end with families. Many people no longer live in the kind of "nuclear family" unit that Cameron so idolises - does that mean those of us not in traditional family structures have no role ? Families do fail - it's always regrettable but if there is abuse involved, it's often the only option for one or other partner to leave. No one condones abuse so let's be realistic. We are none of course wholly saints or wholly sinners. of course, divorce and family breakdown are deeply traumatic especially for children but so is abuse within marriages and relationships.

Yesterday's speech reminds me once again why I am not a Conservative and why I could never vote for David Cameron. I respect his sense of morality (how could I not ?) but I don't want his sense of morality controlling our country. We are too diverse for that now - he's wrong about the "de-moralised society" and some of his solutions don't recognise how diverse family and faith structures are now.

In any case, if "everything depends on a strong economy", none of this may matter as I can't currently see how our or any other western economy is going to return to strong growth anytime soon.

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