David Cameron's big idea

The Conservatives launch their vision of the "Big Society".

My colleague James Macintyre blogged last week about a piece in the current issue of Prospect by Phillip Blond, anointed by the NS in a profile last year as the Conservatives' "philosopher-king". James read Blond's piece, which urges David Cameron to reverse the rightward turn he has taken since the opinion polls began to tighten at the end of last year, as evidence that the cracks in the Tory leader's "progressive conservative" coalition are beginning to show.

James has long been sceptical about Cameron's claims to be a "moderniser" -- more sceptical, certainly, than many on the centre left, such as David Marquand, who argued recently in the NS that the left underestimates Cameron at its peril. ("There are neo-Thatcherites in his party," Marquand wrote, "but [Cameron] is not one of them.") So, for James, the misgivings of card-carrying "progressive conservatives" like Blond at Cameron's readiness to toss neo-Thatcherite "red meat" to his party are highly significant.

As was, it might be argued, Cameron's absence from the launch on Monday evening of Blond's magnum opus, Red Tory -- especially when you recall that Cameron had given his imprimatur in person, back in November, to Blond's new think tank, ResPublica. For his book party at the Carlton Club, Blond managed to muster a solitary Tory frontbencher, David Willetts, the shadow cabinet's resident intellectual, whose work on "civic conservatism" in the late 1990s is one of the antecedents of "Red Toryism".

Blond ended his cri de coeur in Prospect by arguing that it is still not too late for a progressive "rebooting" of a Tory campaign that seems to have retreated to a set of "vestigial Thatcherite instincts: an economic 'back to basics' campaign":

The fundamentalist ideologies of market and state are dead. Civil society is the future radical centre of British politics -- the "big" society Cameron rightly extols. And the poor can't be capitalists without capital. So the Tories must offer them a stake in the economy; a popular capitalism for all. And the Conservative manifesto is the place to start.

Judging by the beatific, vaguely proprietorial smile on Blond's face at a Conservative Party event I attended this morning, some of his prayers have been answered. The "big society", David Cameron's big idea, was the focus of a three-hour symposium involving most of the shadow cabinet.

The "Big Society Day" was designed, according to the bumf handed out to journalists, to "bring alive our big idea: building the big society as our positive alternative to Labour's failed big government".

Cameron had first broached this theme at length in his Hugo Young Lecture last November, in which he made two principal claims -- first, that it has been "big government", the dead hand of the central state, that has "atomise[d] our society"; second, that it doesn't follow from this "that smaller government would automatically bring us together again. A simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead, we need a thoughtful reimagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state."

He spoke in that lecture about "redistributing power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities". And that language ran through everything he and his colleagues said today about the measure the Tories propose to use to build the "big society" -- something rather like the civil society, the disappearance of which is mourned by conservative (and Conservative) thinkers such as Phillip Blond (often, it has to be said, without sufficient recognition that it was the Thatcherite economic revolution of the 1980s, together with her long march through Britain's institutions, that did much to undo the bonds of civic association the Tories now say they want to restore).

Central to this new Tory vision is the "empowerment" of neighbourhoods and local communities. Empowerment is a word that fell, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, from the lips of nearly every speaker, and which appears to go proxy in the Conservative lexicon these days for that tattered old totem of neoliberalism, "choice".

Michael Gove told us that school reform, particularly policies that will make it easier for parents (or "communities") to set up schools, "will empower neighbourhoods". Chris Grayling promised that Tory policies on policing would "empower neighbourhoods by giving them detailed street-by-street crime maps". And Caroline Spelman said the Conservatives will "empower neighbourhood groups by giving them the power to design their own local planning strategy".

All this amounted, David Cameron said in a speech that closed the event, to a "redistribution of power from the central state to local communities".

What is to be done?

Other policies announced included the creation of a "Big Society bank" that would capitalise the voluntary organisations to which responsibility for delivering services would be devolved, and the establishment of "National Centres for Community Organising", which would fund the training of 5,000 community organisers.

The model here is an American one, borrowed from Saul Alinsky, a significant influence on the most famous community organiser of all, one Barack Obama. Cameron even mentioned London Citizens, the network of community organisations, reference to which now seems to be de rigueur in speeches by policitians of all stripes. (It's also where the former cabinet minister James Purnell is retraining . . . as a community organiser.)

What should the left in general, and Labour in particular, make of all this? Well, for one thing, the problem with appealing to this model, as one questioner pointed out, is that the reason community organisers play such an important role in American inner cities, in particular, is that there is no welfare state in those areas to protect the most needy when the economic weather turns bad. And it's hard for many on the left not to suspect that all that stirring rhetoric of "empowerment" is merely Thatcherism in disguise.

For some in Cameron's shadow cabinet, that is probably true. But it would be a disaster for Labour to allow Cameron to depict it, as he did today, as the party of the clunking fist of the central state, whose "natural instinct" is always to "increase the size of the state".

For one thing, some of the Tory rhetoric around the bloated quangocracy and, yes, even the "post-bureaucratic age" does chime with the mood of a populace tired, as David Marquand puts it, "of incessant badgering by bureaucratic busybodies".

I think Marquand is right to suggest that the "big society" is a challenge to Labour, and for the centre left more generally. But it's one that it can meet head-on. Marquand ended his essay on Cameron with this call to arms:

Instead of refighting the battles of the 1980s and trundling out the mouldering corpse of statist collectivism at every opportunity, Labour would do well to battle with Cameron on the ground he hopes to make his own. As Anthony Crosland used to say, the party should never forget that anarchist blood runs in its veins.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge