Monday, July 07, 2008

Does he mean it?

David Cameron gave a pretty interesting speech in Glasgow today. The Tories are often accused of not having any policies. In fact it's really the only one of Labour's attack lines that has gained any traction. It's also not very fair: there are plenty of policies, on lots of different subjects. What has been lacking is a framework for them - a sense that you know what you're getting from the Tories. It's what Thatcher undoubtedly had - the standard cabbie response of 'you knew where you were with her.' Does this speech get us any closer?
On school reform, we think the current school system must be replaced with a new system that breaks the stranglehold of the educational establishment and gives parents what they want and what their children deserve: innovation, choice and competition that delivers high standards for everyone, everywhere. We will simply not tolerate objections to our plans from the people and organisations who are responsible for the continuing failure of too much of state education in this country.
The education policy has been well set out already, and it's only because people still aren't really listening that so few people have noticed how radical it is. I know not everyone agrees with me (contrarians and the Welsh mostly) but the Tory policy of effective vouchers and the break-away from the state monopoly on publicly funded educated has the capacity to be supremely effective.
On welfare reform, we think we need to end the idea that the state gives you money for nothing. If you can work, you must work. We will insist on it, and believe me, we will stick to our guns when the going gets tough.
Fine sentiments, in my opinion, with the proviso that I'll believe when I see it, and not before. Governments of every stripe have tried this line, and they've all failed so far.
And then came a very interesting passage:
I think the time has come for me to speak out about something that has been troubling me for a long time. I have not found the words to say it sensitively. And then I realised, that is the whole point."We as a society have been far too sensitive.
In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.
Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.
Of course as soon as a politician says this there is a clamour - "but what about all of you?" And let me say now, yes, we are human, flawed and frequently screw up. "Our relationships crack up, our marriages break down, we fail as parents and as citizens just like everyone else. But if the result of this is a stultifying silence about things that really matter, we re-double the failure. Refusing to use these words - right and wrong - means a denial of personal responsibility and the concept of a moral choice.
We talk about people being "at risk of obesity" instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.
Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.
There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is why children are growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please, and why no adult will intervene to stop them - including, often, their parents. If we are going to get any where near solving some of these problems, that has to stop.
Too many of Cameron's speeches and articles are suffused by precisely this over-careful mealy-mouthedness. If the Tories have really discovered (or more likely are finally prepared to acknowledge) that problems that can't be properly discussed have no chance of solution, then that is cause for a good degree of optimism.
On the other hand, as someone said, politics is the art of telling people what they want to hear, even when they want to hear 'things they don't want to hear'.

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