Cameron signals left, but turns right. Can he please now choose a direction?

It's time for the Prime Minister to make up his mind. Will he seize the chance to reshape British politics?

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

It is not mere hyperbole to say that the period between the Conservative party conference and the general election will be momentous. The next election will decide whether we have a chance to vote on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Both Labour and the Conservative party will try to tackle ‘the English question’ — together with other great issues raised by the Scottish referendum. It is vital that the right David Cameron turns up to these debates.

Even more than most politicians, Cameron is a man of two halves: steady-as-she-goes pragmatist and radical reformer. On the face of it, he fits firmly into the tradition of squirearchical managerialism. No modern Tory leader has been so good at looking calm under fire, so keen on work-life balance, so skilful at surrounding himself with friends, as if government was a boring village fête that you simply have to attend, so you might as well have some chums around while you are at it. There is something of Arthur Balfour, who never woke up before 11 a.m., perfected his swing on a private golf course, and said ‘nothing matters very much and few things matter at all’.

At times this insouciance can be effective — most notably after his election near-victory in 2010, when Cameron cut the deal that got him into No. 10. At times it is lazy. Over Scotland, Cameron lurched from complacency to panic without finding time for reflection. Cameron, the quintessential bright PPE undergraduate, who puts off doing his essay to the last moment and then stuffs in anything that he thinks will keep his tutor happy. Government by essay crisis has replaced government by sofa.

Yet there is a more radical Cameron. The insouciance is partly an act. He is a political professional who can hold his own with mandarins or Eurocrats. The chum-ocracy includes some serious thinkers such as George Osborne, in the cabinet, and Christopher Lockwood, in the policy unit. Remember how Cameron forced his way to the leadership: the no-notes speeches, the green agenda and his support for gay marriage. All were huge gambles at the time.

A few months ago it looked as if Cameron had decided to fight the election by presenting himself as a safe pair of hands. He sidelined the most energetic reformer in his cabinet, his old friend Michael Gove, and replaced him with the eminently forgettable Nicky Morgan. This strategy was as simple as it was unexciting: bet on a recovering economy and an unappealing opposition leader to bring home the votes.

But the Scottish referendum has made steady-as-she-goes more difficult, placing Britain in the grip of a fiery debate about the constitution. Should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on purely English affairs when English MPs cannot vote on purely Scottish ones? Why don’t Northumberland and Cornwall deserve the same rights as Wales and Scotland? Cameron cleverly presented the ‘no’ campaign’s victory as a vote to renew the Union. But the fact that 45 per cent of Scotland’s population voted to abandon one of the world’s oldest and most successful countries has sent an electric shock through the establishment.

Cameron may try to wait out the storm — most people’s desire to answer the West Lothian question fades with time. But the problem with default passivity is that it just delays the inevitable: even if these issues fade from the news in coming weeks, they will be back again, probably with a vengeance.

In fact, Cameron now faces a glorious opportunity, if only he’d seize it. He has a chance to reshape British politics just as fundamentally as Mrs Thatcher did — but only if he thinks and acts like a statesman rather than a panicked undergraduate. He needs to take the inchoate anger at the political system and turn it into a movement to reinvent Britain’s bloated political regime.

The problem which haunts Britain is not a problem of representation. It is the problem of the size and scope and sheer outdatedness of the state. Transferring power from London to the regions — omni devo — is not much of an answer. As long as the state takes such a big chunk of our income, it will always transfer too much power to bureaucrats. Whether you put those bureaucrats in London, Edinburgh or Newcastle is of secondary importance. As long as the state continues to overpromise, overcharge and underdeliver, it will continue to provoke mass fury.

Cameron is in a surprisingly good position to make this argument. For all his insouciance, the great chillaxer has already presided over the biggest reduction in the size of the state since the second world war. This has required a steady nerve — defying great global institutions such as the IMF and big economic beasts such as Larry Summers. The state now takes 42.5 per cent of GDP, compared with 46.3 per cent four years ago, and the government plans to reduce that figure to 37.8 per cent in five years’ time. There are 79,000 fewer civil servants than when he came to power.

There has been a quiet revolution, with the Prime Minister signalling left while turning right. Cameron made a big fuss about ringfencing overseas aid and the National Health Service. But at the same time he has sold off government buildings, trimmed departments and forced councils to share facilities. He has at least one big reform to his credit, the spread of free schools, and the beginnings of another, in welfare. This is a sphinx with a secret.

In his quiet way, Cameron has been reviving a great British tradition. For half a millennium our rain-sodden island has been the West’s laboratory of government. Britain has led the way in each of the three revolutions that redefined the western state.

The first revolution was the rise of the nation-state in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who most clearly argued that the central role of the state is to provide law and order. And after the Civil War (the backdrop to Hobbes’s Leviathan) it was the British state that most successfully provided this security without smothering private economy.

The second revolution — and the most relevant to the Conservatives today — was the liberal one of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Britain succeeded in reducing the tax burden from £80 million in 1816 to £60 million in 1846, while providing better public services (from Sir Robert Peel’s policemen to Sir Edwin Chadwick’s sewers). They performed this miracle in part by waging a constant war on waste — William Gladstone boasted about ‘saving candle ends and cheese parings for the good of the country’ — but more importantly by replacing appointments by patronage and connections with appointment by merit.

The third revolution was the rise of the welfare state. British socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb created one of the world’s bossiest, most centralised welfare states.

Thatcher had mixed success in dismantling the Fabian state: she did sterling work in privatising utilities and taming the unions, but failed to reform the core of the public sector and centralised power even further. Government continued to grow under Tony Blair — and especially Gordon Brown.

The great untold story of Cameron’s premiership is that he has embarked on a grand project to complete Thatcher’s unfinished revolution. Thatcher frequently promised more than she delivered. Cameron has done the opposite. In Whitehall, many insiders are stunned by the extent of the change. In the wider world, Britain is now mentioned alongside other countries that have introduced radical overhauls of the state, such as Sweden, Singapore and Estonia.

Many of Cameron’s closest advisers see no reason to interfere with this formula — why shine a light on his murky magic? But that attitude was misguided even before the Scottish referendum. The great reformers of the past succeeded because they had big ideas that held their programmes together: liberty in the case of the Victorian liberals and efficiency in the case of the Fabians. Without a guiding principle, Cameron’s reforms risk collapsing into a meaningless hodgepodge. His attempted NHS reforms have been a disaster. By contrast, voters accepted austerity because he had explained it to them.

Cameron needs to put two big ideas at the heart of his re-election campaign: modern-isation and localism. Much of what needs to be done to the British state is pragmatic modernisation. Cameron’s central pitch can be that the British public sector needs to be brought up to date with the world of electronic communications and performance-related rewards in exactly the same way in which the 18th-century state — or ‘Old Corruption’ as it was known — was brought up to date with the world of railways and open competition. The great managerial and technological changes that have swept through the private sector in recent years have left the public sector behind — and everybody knows it. The productivity of Britain’s private sector has more than doubled since the 1990s, while the productivity of the public sector has declined.

Such pragmatic modernisation plays to Cameron’s strengths — and will help to reassure Middle England, while forcing Labour to defend today’s equivalent of  ‘Old Corruption’ in the form of public-sector unions.

But that hardly quells people’s fury with the status quo. Cameron needs to link the big idea of modernisation with the big idea of decentralisation. His government has made a start — sometimes in the form of political localism (elected mayors and police commissioners) and sometimes in the form of institutional empowerment (free schools and GP fund-holders). George Osborne has floated the idea of creating a northern super-city linked by a fast rail network. Cameron needs to take this further by devolving tax-raising powers and creating more mayors. Crucially, he needs to argue the case for devolving power not just from central politicians to local ones, but from the state to parents, voluntary organisations and start-ups.

Just as crucially, he needs to point out that modernisation and decentralisation go hand in hand. Modernisation without decentralisation results in technocracy. Decentralisation should not be about moving antiquated institutions from London to the -provinces. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are only offering decentralisation. Only the Tory party can yoke the two together to create a leaner state. The sphinx has everything to gain from revealing his secret: Margaret Thatcher was given a state funeral, while Arthur Balfour is best remembered by historians of golf. The stars are aligned for a great reforming administration to reinvent the state for the age of internet, consumer choice, exasperated citizens and cash-strapped governments. Cameron needs to decide in favour of radicalism.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Adrian Wooldridge is the author, with John Micklethwait, of The Fourth Revolution: the Global Race to Reinvent the State (Allen Lane).

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Show comments
  • ohforheavensake

    ….Shame he’ll be in opposition in 2015.

  • Ali

    Good analysis of what needs doing, but you don’t go far enough and I don’t think Cameron has it in him to convince us he is capable of it though, even if he is.
    Nigel Farage is much more visionary and appeals to those who see what a thorough spring cleaning there needs to be, even though his agenda is for spring cleaning in different areas, it is his expression over the last few years of his determination to do it which is winning him the interest of those who had lost interest in the political debate.

  • commenteer

    Can we please have an end to the lie that 45% of Scots voted for independence, as you say in this article? They did not.
    Forty-five per cent of the people who voted did indeed vote to leave, and 55% voted to maintain the status quo. But only 87% of the electorate voted.
    That means that 32% of the Scottish electorate voted to leave the UK, not 45%.
    As I understand it, 30% of Scots have favoured independence for many years, a figure which remains unchanged.

    • extoryagent2

      87 x 0.45 = 39%

      • commenteer

        I put my hand up to sloppy maths, but it isn’t 39% either. There were 4,416,288 Scots eligible to vote in the referendum (BBC, 11th September 2014), of whom 1,617,989 voted ‘yes’.
        So 36.7% of Scots voted for independence.

        • Malus Pudor

          Who gives a toss on all these semantics… let’s just be shot of you Scotch parasites….

  • RavenRandom

    There’s no big idea there. You need to grab the electorate.
    Three positive ideas:
    1. Lower tax.
    2. English votes for English laws (this time the constitutional question won’t fade, England knows it is being shafted by the current, and getting more unfair, arrangement.)
    3. European referendum.

    Three anti-Labour ideas in shorthand:
    1. Vote Labour get Rotherham. The Labour party do not care about the English working class, they’re just fodder.
    2. Labour is about state sponsored theft. If you have assets be scared, be very scared.
    3. Labour are anti-democratic, no rights for the English, no rights for the British in Europe.

    Three neutralising ideas:
    1 . Match Labour’s NHS spending commitment.
    2. Build more houses.
    3. Stop low rent immigration of the uneducated third worlders.

    Appeal to populism but populism with sensible ideas. These are a selection. I’m sure Spectator reading commentators can better.

    • Ali

      There are still massive inefficiencies in the NHS and Miliband’s pledge to get more nurses and doctors spending time actually caring for patients is his best idea. Does it require more health professionals though and consequently more money? My mother was a nurse before the NHS and caring was what nurses did, it is an attitude, not an economic problem. Nurses like to say they haven’t got time for it, but when my father was in hospital a couple of years ago, there was a demented old thing in the bed opposite yanking his catheter out and really hurting himself. I went to the nurses station twice to ask them to come and see to him but they were looking at something on ebay and said they would be there in a minute, then said there was nothing much they could do, because he wasn’t able to understand. More nurses would just have meant a larger group watching the end of the auction.

      • Livia

        My partner was a nurse for almost ten years and there were always problems with not enough staff to maintain proper levels of care. The head of our local hospital made very serious mistakes, there was a borderline scandal, and she left with a million pound pay off. Seems like the same amount of funding could provide more doctors and nurses, and that can only be a good thing.

        • Ali

          Yes, a million pounds to pay anyone off is stupid. The sense of entitlement for public sector workers is an attitude problem aswell.

          I think the staffing thing is difficult because my daughters have friends, and I had a violin pupil, all pretty bright, who had wanted to go into nursing and failed their interviews for one silly reason or another. In the case of the girl I used to teach she said the woman snapped ‘Do you really think we have time for all that?’ at her when she mentioned ‘holistic care’. Though of couse I don’t know what other reasons they may have had for rejecting her.

          Perhaps there ought to be a specific A level eqiuivalent course or year for nurses as all children have to stay in education up to 18.

    • Godfrey Paul

      Replace “3. European referendum.”

      with 3. EU exit. And I’d vote Tory again.

    • Rik

      Actually no not for me,what you describe is a manifesto i could finally get behind and covers the basics very well. Thank you

  • black11hawk

    You speak about radicalism but the whole agenda you propose comes across as so very ‘blah’. When people on the Tory right look at Cameron they do not see a Thatcherite radical, they see Ted Heath and whilst I acknowledge that the popularity of right of centre radicalism is at a pretty low ebb in Britain this article seems specifically targeted at the likes of UKIP and the Tory right. At best this article will remind all those people of the plethora of things Cameron has done which irk them and at worst it will act as a recruiting sergeant for UKIP.

  • jeffersonian

    “In fact, Cameron now faces a glorious opportunity, if only he’d seize it. He has a chance to reshape British politics just as fundamentally as Mrs Thatcher did…”

    Let’s not all hold our collective breaths shall we? Cameron is the man who decided to turn the Conservative Party around, *by mimicking Tony Blair’s New Labour*; a man for whom ‘long term’ is a perspective just a little too far; a man who wouldn’t recognise a political principle if it had fur, ran around on all fours and barked at him. The chance of such a man taking us successfully through our current crises is vanishingly small.

  • Livia

    “The next election will decide whether we have a chance to vote on Britain’s relationship with the European Union”

    Cameron will only give a referendum on renegotiation/no renegotiation, and renegotiation will bring only as much change as the heavy hitters of the EU would allow. The next election will see one party worm their way into the head of a coalition that tinkers with percentages here and there, with the occasional photo-op thrown in for good measure. It’ll be as momentous as a fart in hurricane.

    • well you can make this claim but what is your evidence? DC’s position the whole time has been that he will attempt a renegotiation and put the result to an in/out referendum.

  • beenzrgud

    He’ll struggle to be radical enough for me. The idea of a super city sounds great, but why not a country of super cities, all linked by super efficient infrastructure. I think the main challenges lie in education. We need to seriously consider the type of industry and jobs that we want in the coming decades, and we need to make sure our kids are properly trained to fill those positions. You can only be the best if you have the best people, and there is no reason why our own education system can’t supply them. Continually importing millions of workers whilst we pay millions to sit on their backsides is clearly insane.

  • Ngaire Lowndes

    Root and branch reform of Parliament is needed before this sclerotic, anti-democratic, insanely tribal form of government can be considered fit for use.
    David Davis has the right idea; replace the House of Lords with a United Kingdom elected Senate, and use the House of Commons as the parliament for England. That would give the English their own parliament, and remove that festering canker of cash-for-peerages at one fell swoop.

    • stag

      Interesting idea.

  • mixodorians

    Conservatism can be summed up in 2014 as essentially smearing the living crap out of the poor, sick and unemployed in the hope of a tax cut.
    Most conservatives would let all the poor die on the weekend if they thought tney could have a tax break on Monday.
    It is thoroughly disgraceful.

    Aneurin Bevan was actually being complimentary when he said conservatives are lower than vermin.

    They are far far lower than that.

    • robertsonjames

      Given that many Socialists in Britain spent the 20th century as apologists and fellow-travellers for red regimes around the world that exterminated tens of millions of innocent people, how much lower does that make them?

  • Mynydd

    “skilful at surrounding himself with friends” and take them into the heart of government, only to see them going to jail.

  • robertsonjames

    I’d avoid making constitutional reform a centre-piece of the electoral pitch. That’s not to say not to have policies, even ideally radical ones, in that area. Just don’t make too much of a song and dance about it between now and next summer, as though it’s the deal-clincher with the electorate.

    The Liberals, after all, have tested to destruction over many decades the proposition that re-designing electoral mechanisms and systems of government is the key battleground that will enthuse and mobilise the voters. It ain’t. In fact, worse than that, it risks making you sound out of touch and slightly weird, preoccupied with navel-gazing about political technicalities rather than with the everyday issues and anxieties of the rest of the population.

    Consider this. If the Tories say “Vote Tory and we’ll introduce a parliamentary mechanism to restrict the voting rights of Scottish-based MPs in the Commons that the dastardly Socialists want to keep for their own benefit” and Labour says simply “Vote Labour to stop the evil, vicious right-wing Tory toffs privatising your NHS”, which do you think will move more votes?

    Things like tax and immigration and the NHS are what exercise many more people. Cameron, whatever else he’s plotting about devolution and so forth to please the political anoraks who obsess about such things, needs to remember that it won’t win an election anything like as effectively as a series of credible and attractive offers on the key issues that actually bother most ordinary folk.

  • Malus Pudor

    Cameron shames his origins, his education and his (LibDem assisted) mandate to govern us… and his pursuit to stamp his grotesque logo on English history.

    He is a pariah who, like Blair, will retire to write his memoirs and cash in on his misgovernance… another self-serving parasite who patronises modest Cornish resorts, while wishing he was in Cap Ferrat or Juan les Pins…

    This is the wretch who enlisted the vile and discredited Cyclops, Gordon Brown, to rescue the Union… who proceeded to gloat how he had elicited a ‘purr’ from HMQ … and is probably the most incompetent and odious oaf to lead this country since Lord North managed to lose our American colonies on behalf of George III… albeit a mad German whose progeny continue to taint this country in espousing wind turbines and other lunacies as the only outlet for any influence that they might seek to exert…

    It’s time we English were free of the Scotch, the Old Etonian & Bullingdon arrivistes, the EU and… most importantly… the irrelevant LibDems and were allowed to vote people into Westminster who might represent our true interests…

    It’s time for a Messiah… and it sure ain’t ‘Call Me Dave’…

    You can all draw whatever conclusions you might want…

  • davidofkent

    David Cameron has shown that he will give too much away (just like Blair) whenever he thinks he can get some political advantage out of the situation. This may be something as trivial as keeping his backbenchers quiet. He thinks a nice little war will make him appear to be a strong leader instead of a perpetual ‘trimmer’. Obviously, there is no point in even talking about the idiot Miliband, but Cameron is not the man to save England. The hard lifting has been done by Osborne, not Cameron. If Cameron has to have another coalition, I hope that it will be UKIP that is able to come to his rescue, rather than the dimwit LibDems.

  • global city

    If Labour manage to win the election then it is the responsibility of the MSM to investigate every step that Labour take in the EU, unlike the free ride you all gave Blair

  • global city

    Spot on……you make a huge mistake in thinking that Cameron is a radial…..every second of his premiership has proven this beyond all doubt.

  • Great article.

  • callingallcomets

    I want an introduction to this chap’s dealer…….he’s obviously as high as a kite

  • NickG

    the fact that 45 per cent of Scotland’s population voted to abandon one of the world’s oldest and most successful countries

    They didn’t, not even close. less than 31% ‘of Scotland’s population’ voted Yes.

    Let me explain….

    Not even 45% of the registered voters voted Yes. The turnout was 84.6% of the registered vote.

    3.6 million voted or 44.8% of the population in Scotland of a total of about 5.3 million.

    So about 1.62 million voted yes out of ‘Scotland’s population’ of 5.3 million. That’s 30.56%

  • Terry Field

    “Cameron is, deep down, a Tory radical cutting back the state. It’s time he admitted it”
    How does he know???
    There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this assertion; he seems a big-state, status-quo, don’t-frighten-the-children sort of mini-autocrat.
    NO difference between him and the Corporate State New Old Labour Party. (ecept for the ‘agency’ protection of nationwide kufar child rape by non-kufar interloper-abusers, of course)
    I am not a IKIP supporter, but by comparison I see a bright light of honest presentation by IKIP when compared to the marketing-based focus-group controlled bloody rotten old parties.

  • grutchyngfysch

    I think The Spectator is going to have to come to terms with the simple, but increasingly apparent, truth that Cameron is now done for. He is not coming back to rude political health, in part because he has never enjoyed it.

    I know it will be painful to have Prime Minister Milliband – but let’s be frank, the right needs to be thinking strategically and towards the election after this one. Cameron cannot save the Tories, and it is too late to find a replacement. This is the cost of hiring a PR man to manage the media cycle. There is a cost to everything, as Mr Milliband will soon discover to his dismay.

    The next government will be a shabby, grey fudge of Brownite proportions. That much has been obvious in the last couple of weeks. The one after that has the potential to put the left back into the wilderness for a generation – if the right can get its act together.

  • R Fairless

    Cameron is a closet socialist – a Tony Blair clone if ever there was one! What is worse, he is lacking in integrity resorting to PR tricks instead of finding honest practical solutions. Bear in mind he was not really elected with universal support even against the worst Prime Minister ever with his predecessor totally discredited. If he had been a conviction Conservative he would never have have joined with the LibDems whose weird and destructive policies have been so detrimental to real progress. More and more he has been forced to reveal himself and many people do not like what they now see. Cameron was lucky to become Prime Minister but it will be unlucky for the country if he remains so.

  • greggf

    “For half a millennium our rain-sodden island has been the West’s laboratory of government.”

    What pompous claptrap!
    Human rights, welfare and secular government were all invented outside these shores and we still await the latter!

    Britain among other Europeans, however, does have some good ideas but is notoriously bad at managing them, often allowing other nations to copy and improve on them. Railways, Steel and Manufacturing are some and Welfare another – for example the French system of welfare is run by actuaries and insurance companies whereas Britain’s is run by politicians …..

    Cameron has and continues to mistakenly pander to a overtly socially leftist agenda whilst he may be trimming the State in a covert manner, despite a public mood which may be the reverse!

    There seems to be a flaw at the heart of our governance which cannot delegate and entangles all good ideas in red tape. Perhaps it’s FPTP or our Civil Service or our education system or culture or all of them and more – we can’t even re-invent the Victorian spirit of enterprise and industry without evoking feelings of guilt !

  • ManOfKent

    Cameron is, deep down, a Tory radical cutting back the state. It’s time he admitted it

    I couldn’t read the article for the hysterical tears of laughter in my eyes having read the utterly absurd title.

    David Cameron has added more to the public debt in five years than the previous 12 Prime Ministers did between 1945 and 2009. Arguably Cameron is the most statist Prime Minister of all time!

  • Retired Nurse

    He would have done less damage if he’d auctioned us off on E-bay.

  • Roy

    Unsurprisingly no mention of David Cameron’s continuation of the Labour Party’s affliction to bring things to a multicultural climax. To continue on the road to a purposefully engineered immigration policy to bring in voters of whatever description that will vote Labour or an equivalent favourable party. Cameron has never mentioned Andrew Neather and neither do Labour wish to bring up this discussion.

    When the above writer does a swift draw down of historical figures he seems to have a huge hole in his perspective to the Tony Blair period. A period that will go down in British infamy to what took place in the eyes of native British. As reported at the time 24th October 2009 “This government has admitted three million immigrants for cynical political reasons concealed by dodgy economical camouflage”.

  • Bonkim

    Small Government is good Government.

  • DaHitman

    Yes he’s cutting back here but not the EU and foreign aid, he’s a (censored) traitor

  • pobinr

    Cutting back the state?
    Vote Tory get Communist > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNr3fXXK92s

  • pobinr

    Why EUrophile politicians should be tried for treason.
    The real face of the EU
    22 minutes in
    In 2001 a market trader was convicted for selling a pound of bananas weighed with British imperial measures rather than metric ones.
    In passing judgment Judge Morgan said – ‘We are now living under a new legal order. The 1972 European Communities act was a one off, not an ordinary treaty, but a new way of life. These are new constitutional powers. The British Parliament surrendered its sovereignty in 1972. European laws have overriding force with priority over our own laws… The articles on the supremacy of the British parliament are now only of historical perspective – They are non binding.’

    Question – Were our politicians entitled to abandon our rule of law by handing over the powers of British governments to a foreign power?
    Answer is a simple NO – We have much written constitution which is not really fully appreciated in this country. These documents our bill of rights & declaration of rights along with Magna Carta & many other legal instruments make it quite plain
    that allegiance is owed to the queen & that allegiance is returned by her through the contract of her coronation oath to the people & that is not something which may be broken & our politicans are not entiled to break their oaths of office.

    The question you can ask our ministers is – How is it they have sworn oaths of office that say they will defend all jurisdictions & authorities belonging to her majesty against all foreign powers & then they give away those powers of governance or are purporting to give away those powers of governance to those that owe no allegiance to this crown?’

    John Bingley – consitutional expert