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Kieron O'Hara: Back to Basics? David Cameron on Personal Responsibility

Kieron O'Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. This Platform piece is a version of a paper that Dr O'Hara presented at The Centre for British Politics' recent conference on Cameron's Conservatives.  It is the second of a number of papers we are publishing from the conference.

David Cameron has shown remarkable flair in driving the political agenda. As the Conservatives had little hope of making a splash in the Glasgow East by-election in July 2008, one might have thought that his speech kicking off their campaign would be an irrelevance. Far from it: Cameron’s remarks were widely reported and discussed.

Most of the speech, on ‘broken Britain’, focused on well-known aspects of Conservative family, crime and welfare policy. But the last few minutes dwelt on a new theme – personal responsibility. This passage was often misreported, sometimes for satirical effect, as an attack on fat people; actually, Cameron spelt out the connection between personal choice and risk. “We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. … Social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” Politicians, and wider society, had avoided expressing this truism for fear of causing offence.

The response was remarkable. Nick Clegg demanded an apology, while Cameron’s greatest critic Simon Heffer applauded.’s immediate reaction was extremely positive. Most of the press agreed that it was a bold new step. A YouGov poll taken a few days later showed overwhelming public support. The Conservatives themselves did not improve their share of the vote in Glasgow East, but finished a creditable third.

The speech was a departure from previous rhetoric. Cameron generally talks in social rather than personal terms, focusing on parental responsibilities and corporate social responsibility in allowing flexible family-friendly work practices. This contradicted some things in early speeches. In 2006, during the ‘brand decontamination’ phase, he had claimed that “we’re always telling people to be more responsible,” while in 2008, this had shifted to “we [refuse] to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour.” His early discussions of youth crime tried to shift the focus from the youths themselves to poor parenting. His speeches of 2007 moved back to more familiar Conservative territory, but the main themes were still social, a “social covenant” and a “framework of incentives to encourage civility.”

Personal responsibility looked like becoming an important issue, especially as Cameron was in a commanding national lead at the time of his speech. Other senior Shadow Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley, joined in. But shortly after these interventions the extent of the financial crisis became apparent, as moral and family policy disappeared from the front pages, so did the new theme vanish from the rhetoric. Even Cameron’s response to the Karen Matthews case in the Mail on Sunday, which one might have thought a good opportunity to refloat the idea, stayed on familiar territory, demanding stronger policing, tougher sentences, support for families, flexible working and education reform. Parental but not personal responsibility was mentioned, using the example of Neil Metcalfe, who reported his son’s possession of a firearm to police.

It should be emphasised that this is a shift in rhetoric, not policy substance. Nowhere in the Glasgow speech was there any positive proposal about how to affect behaviour and perceptions of causation, except via the use of the code-word ‘nudge’, alluding to Thaler and Sunstein’s proposal for promoting hands-off culture change. Cameron was careful to argue that “the causes of our broken society lie not just in government policies but in our national culture.”

In particular, it is worth drawing attention to some mysterious elisions in the text. One that hostile commentators criticised was the bracketing of poverty with obesity, alcoholism and drug addiction, whereas it seems to be orthogonal to them. Secondly, Cameron laid heavy stress on the moral aspects: “there is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society.” Yet the central issues that he addressed, of poverty and addiction, are not primarily moral ones (although there are no doubt moral repercussions at the margin). These are failures to act in one’s own long term interests, not failures to act morally.

Thirdly, Cameron, while agreeing that politicians are “human, flawed and frequently screw up” – an essential point to make, to avoid charges of ‘Back to Basics’ style hypocrisy – did not take the opportunity to admit that politicians ‘screw up’ in similar sorts of ways (addictions, or anti-social behaviour). Instead, the main examples he gave were of relationships ‘cracking up’ and marriages ‘breaking down.’ An odd non sequitur: ‘I can talk about addiction because our marriages break down too.’ A more searching examination of politicians’ problems (including well-publicised cases of addiction) might have done more to blunt the hypocrisy charge.

To conclude, the value of examining one particular speech in detail is naturally limited, yet as it is our main data point on a theme all too often ignored by politicians (as Cameron correctly pointed out), it is an important speech and worthy of respect as such.

This was a major shift in rhetoric, extending previous announcements on responsibility. There are inconsistencies with the early phase of Cameron’s leadership, but these disappear if we look at 2007. As little policy substance was attached, there was no change in concrete proposals to address the problems of ‘broken Britain,’ although it may have been intended to signal a major shift in strategy that has not now emerged.

The lack of policy substance is intriguing. Possibly Cameron was simultaneously demonising and washing his hands of the poor. However, a more upbeat interpretation emphasises the revolutionary effect of a party leader identifying a major social problem, and yet refusing to do very much about it, arguing that not only would he not be able to do much, but also it would be inappropriate for a government to legislate in this area. Salisbury once said that the hardest thing for a government to do is nothing, and in these days of a 24/7 rolling media agenda that is even more true. Yet too often the state intervenes in areas where it is powerless, exacerbating problems. Was Cameron preparing us for more hands-off government?


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