“I stretched back and I hiccoughed And looked back on another busy day Eleven hours in the tinpan God, there’s got to be another way”
I’m not sure either the Who or David Cameron would thank me for this, but whenever David Cameron speaks, well the chorus from this choon invariably chirrups across my thoughts.
“Who are you?…cause I really wanna know”.
During the General Election campaign, we were encouraged to get to know “Dave”. Those awful kitchen sink youtube moments, the hugging of huskies and hoodies, the cycling and recycling politician. All of it metaphors for the kind of cuddly conservatism we could expect under his watch in Number 10. But if there is a defining ideology or narrative to Dave it has been pretty difficult to pinpoint.
Most of the big policy platforms of the Conservative arm of the coalition government don’t belong to Cameron. The Big Society is essentially Oliver Letwin’s baby. The dismantling of the public sector is driven by Osborne’s zeal. Iain Duncan Smith is the architect of the well intentioned but ultimately flawed attempts to reform the welfare state. Frank Field is leading the debate on addressing poverty. Cameron adopts it all but somehow, falls just short of embracing it.
If not these, then what drives Dave? The muscular liberalism speech on identity may at last provide clues.
Would Cameron the contender have made such a speech? Of course not. Far too risky and potentially divisive.
Has it been clumsily executed? Undoubtedly but the timing, in international and domestic terms, was deliberate. He needs to develop a profile abroad, so no point in saying something safe. And he has used the opportunity to position Britain firmly with German thinking on such matters, rejecting the French approach in the process. This matters, and will no doubt matter more as his government’s relationship with Europe and the EU develops.
His speech coincided with the biggest show of strength to date by the English Defence League (EDL). This drew Labour and the left into the discourse on his terms. They have jerked their knee and referenced his speech in the context of racism. They (he will claim) have ensured that this debate about identity and “British values” is now about white vs black. The fact that it has already deteriorated into a Westminster spat probably also serves his purpose: he can talk over all their heads to “the people”.
Does he understand what he is doing? The content of his speech, and particularly the misinterpretation of the concept of multi-culturalism, suggests not. But he’s not the first and won’t be the last leading British politician to meld multi-culturalism and its perceived failings and weaknesses for his own purpose.
Reading the speech brings to mind Dr Strangelove. Cameron has pressed a button and can now sit back and watch the j0urney this most potent of missiles might take. All around him, folk are scrambling to divert or guide, depending on their motivation, the missile from or to its target.
Does he believe any of it? There are so many contradictions in this speech it’s incredibly hard to tell. At the heart of it is his espousal of supposedly “British values”. Yet, the values he describes are universal and Britain, and especially white, Christian Britian, cannot claim a monopoly on their adoption or implementation.
The values themselves are deliberately loose enough to include everyone, but broad enough to be appropriated for particular purposes. Again, not for the first time, we have a UK Prime Minister engaging in the politics of identity on the verge of devolved elections. I, and many Scots, as has already been made clear by some commentators, do not share Cameron’s analysis of the issue. At best, I’m unsure of his prescribed solution. I would never consider myself passively tolerant and definitely not muscularly liberal. Are we part of the problem or the solution?
However, it would be wrong to presume that Cameron’s comments and approach will not chime with a considerable segment of Scottish society. I never cease to be amazed at how quickly concerns about immigration enter the conversation. Nor at how immigrants have taken away all our jobs, even in rural communities where there is nary a variation on the normal peely wally complexion to be found. Lazy economic assumptions often metamorphose into ill-informed and intolerant cultural and religious denigration.
And our own political discourse, focused as it is on big concepts of constitutional powers, frequently strays into unhelpful territory about identity. It feeds into and off latent concerns and ignorance: Cameron’s speech will do likewise, in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.
So, are we any closer to understanding what political philosophy rests at the core of Cameron?
A little perhaps. It may be as simple as the wish for there to be another way. If it is, then he is hopelessly misguided to believe that speeches like these will help foster it. When politicians focus on identity and difference, it can only ever lead to division and acrimony. Far better to adopt the much missed Bashir Ahmad’s philosophy.
The founder of Scots Asians for Independence, the first Asian and Muslim MSP, who died suddenly two years ago this weekend, was guided less by who he was or where he came from, but where he was going to and wanted his country to be.
It’s a creed that I’d commend to Mr Cameron.