Is Cameron a small state Tory?

It is a famous mystery whether David Cameron believes in a smaller state and indeed whether this of any other beliefs matter to him or his politics. This weekend, we seem to be a little nearer a plausible answer.

Curiously, it matters what we end up believing about George Osborne. Conservative political commentators are deeply opposed as to wether Osborne is a right-wing small state Tory (Peter Oborne said he was on the Today Programme, 23 October 2010) or a pragmatic centrist with Big Society overtones (Matthew D’Ancona, same show). One clear conclusion from this disagreement is that Osborne is opaque. He talks about his regrets at the present cuts, but is often described as thinking them sound on permanent ideological grounds as well as temporary fiscal ones (see, for instance a column by Bruce Anderson in the FT at the time of the 2010 conference). 

It seems fair to concluded that if we can’t make our minds what Osborne thinks or wants, then we are in the same boat about Cameron. After all, the men are supposed to be in close agreement.

I think there is a way through these issues. Sunder Katwala  of the Fabian Society said on The Week In Westminster (23 October 2010)that Cameron is a One Nation, pragmatic, High Tory who wants to govern but “may be more ideological than he thinks he is”. Katwala thinks Cameron has a creed which embraces “sound finances”, which is a more ideological stance than those who hold it suppose.

In the same conversation, Ian Birrell, a Tory speechwriter, seemed to agree with Katwala’s analysis, but added that Cameron does definitely believe in the Big Society.

Steve Richard didn’t press the point, but wondered if the Tories were just scared of saying what they want. Catching the presenter’s drift, Katwala noted (crucially I think) that if Cameron is “successful as presenting himself as a pragmatist he may get to be a revolutionary”.

I think this is the point of the Good Society mantra and that it has to be infuriatingly vague because it is cover for some as yet undefined post-state activity which horrifies many of the public. That’s to say that the state may use redistributional taxation to fund access to welfare services for some citizens, but it will own none of them. The guilty secret is that commerce of many different sorts will be doing a high percentage of the work we now think of as the province of the state. “Big Society” is designed to cover that.

“Big Society” is obviously also cover and code for progress toward more people paying for more welfare by direct payment and insurance, some of the latter perhaps compulsory. “Sound finance” is code for that too: what can’t be paid for by state borrowing will more likely come from citizen’s own spending. 

I am tolerably sure that Cameron and Osborne are determined not to “waste the crisis” of the fiscal deficit but are absolutely sure that almost nothing can be said directly. “Sound finance” is for some reason the sort of tough talk the British like. Out of it will flow the beginnings of reform to the welfare system which are a far harder sell. 

Cameron and Oborne have had to design a language which works electorally but which disguises their real goal without being egregiously dishonest with the public. They have just about pulled it off. I think it is fair to say, as I have elsewhere, that this is a “Tory Coup” and that the strategy is an affront to the Tory leaders’ declared intention to govern openly and steadily.  But at least we are nearer to having a decent theory as what they’re up to.

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Publication date

24 October 2010