David Cameron’s subtle transformation of British politics. By Jake Cordell
Shortly after David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative party he published a grandiose policy statement, titled Built to Last in which he trailed the new compassionate conservatism that he hoped would define his leadership. The party’s 2010 election manifesto did indeed build upon the foundations that had been so broadly laid in Built to Last. The four year interval witnessed David Cameron rebrand the conservative party, moving it beyond the post-Thatcher slump while simultaneously attempting to appeal to a Thatcherite coalition with the rhetoric of a socially-aware Conservative party.
His success has been in transforming the political agenda from the behemoths of electoral politics – the welfare state, taxation, immigration, unemployment etc. – to a doctrinal approach based on values such as hard work, community spirit and the family structure. Of course, this is not a revolutionary idea; both Margaret Thatcher and John Major acknowledged the political currency of Victorian values. Thus far, Cameron has done a much better job of keeping the rhetoric of these values at the fore in times where the political debate could so easily have descended into a one-dimensional and predictable battle between left and right, austerity and growth, neo-Keynesianism and monetarism. In other words, the very same debate that every political generation has had since the 1930s.
Cynics may argue that the only reason Cameron has stuck to his socially liberal agenda is due to pressure from their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. This may very well be the case, but must remain a hypothetical scenario, for the consequence of a coalition founded on principles of social equality has been a marked success in bringing British politics off its pedestal and into the daily lives of the public.
Two episodes in the past week have demonstrated the coalition’s attempts to elevate and politicise basic political issues and attempt to seize the initiative on valence-issues as yet unclaimed by the major parties.
Firstly, David Cameron announced that he plans to increase availability and funding to parenting classes. Appealing to reason and common sense, Cameron claimed he wanted to make the courses as important as driving lessons. He pre-emptively struck at his critics, concluding this was not the nanny-state, but the sensible-state. It hasn’t quite got the tabloid-friendly zing, but nevertheless this is a savvy move to promote conservative values and renew the momentum behind the floundering Big Society campaign. This is simply the latest in a long line of under-the-radar initiatives that the government has triumphed in a bid to rewrite the rules of politics and prove that the big issues are not the only issues (Please see http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2012/may/08/big-society-achieved-a-lot-really-claim-ministers for a list of policies that fall under the umbrella ‘Big Society’ campaign).
Not content with changing the rhetorical agenda, the government this week announced its intentions to bring politics to the people by urging ministers and civil servants to make use of social media. Bureaucrats are being asked to engage the public in crucial debates from the comforts of their armchairs as it is believed this will reconnect the electorate with the decision-making process at the highest levels. At first inspection, the benefits of embracing new forms of social media appear debatable. Firstly, there is the obvious, albeit rather crude question over whether the public really care about the daily grind of lowly civil servants. Of course, ministers and senior departmental figures have something genuinely interesting and important to offer the general public in the form of social media. But it will be self-defeating and inefficient if this results in every Joe Bloggs from every department spending hours debating the crucial questions with all of his thirty-eight followers on Twitter until 2 a.m.
Furthermore, the process of Whitehall decision making runs contrary to the reactionary and confrontational nature that seems to be the essence of social media, Twitter especially. ‘Debate’ in 140 characters very quickly descends to unprintable insults and may only serve to further alienate the public from decision-making. To counter this, civil servants have been advised to ignore all controversial topics, and not engage in argumentative discussions with their followers. However, the potential for embarrassment remains great.
There is always a whiff of pandering and dumbing-down when politicians try to engage with the emergence of new forms of communication. Something akin to your dad signing up to Facebook, or your grandparents trying to navigate their way around the Sky+ remote – you don’t want them to learn, and they don’t want to understand. Nevertheless, the government’s acknowledgment of the importance of new media forms has been quick and is part of a broader scheme to humanise politics. In this respect, David Cameron is harnessing the power of individuality to promote his new low-brow, common-sense approach to domestic politics.