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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Cameron would like to combine the social stability of the 1950s with the economic dynamism of the 1980s

It is strange. David Cameron has a stong, confident, open personality. There is no resemblance to Tony Blair's chameleon blend of insecurity and vaulting ambition, let alone to Gordon Brown's groaning nightmare of rage and inspissated gloom. Mr Cameron is what you see and hear. Yet a lot of voters, and many of his own supporters, are still unsure what to make of him. It was not so long ago that he was widely dismissed as an amiable wimp (tell that to Colonel Gaddafi).

There are two explanations for this. The first is a four-letter word: Eton. For many on the Left, Eton is the ultimate obscenity. They believe that after 13 years of Labour government, it ought not to have been possible for an Old Etonian to become Prime Minister. Until a very late stage, many Lefties thought that it would not happen. That it did occur only redoubles their sense of strategic failure. Tertullian said that the torments of the damned would bring pleasure to the blessed. Without going that far, the rest of us can enjoy the Leftists' torments at the spectacle of David Cameron in No.10.

Anyone who would rather have had Gordon Brown as PM is obviously in need of political psychotherapy, and the cure is bound to take time. In the interim, we must allow the afflicted to indulge in their Eton-induced miseries. But the problem goes well beyond the Left. Mr Cameron awakens social chips on the shoulders of a lot of people who should be far too grown-up to have any. Although cartoonists can be forgiven - they need their stock-in-trades - a number of journalists who ought to know better are still obsessed by David Cameron's schooldays and sometimes write as if Etonians were a separate species. In reality, everything in Mr Cameron's background - and foreground - is meritocratic. David Cameron will happily acknowledge that Eton gave him a good education, outside the classroom as well as in it. Yet it would be absurd to explain him solely in terms of schooling and class.

The absurdity is likely to persist, because it is easier to turn on the automatic pilot than to navigate a course through complexities. But that is what is needed. Although David Cameron is not a complex character, he does subscribe to a complex political creed: the second reason why many voters are uncertain. He is a Tory.

That does not sound like a difficult doctrine. 'Toryism' evokes an image of beef-fed squires: of comfort and complacency. But its roots are much deeper than the punch bowl and the log fire. Toryism is founded on pessimism, scarcity, allegiance and religion. The pessimism arose from the human condition, which until recently was cruelly circumscribed by scarcity and hardship. So meaning had to found, and mere brute endurance palliated, not in materialism but in transcendence. There was the secular transcendence of King and Country: the ultimate transcendence of faith, Church and religion. Until recent decades, the great majority of serious Tories took it for granted that man was not viable without God.

This has all changed. Scarcity has receded; the possibilities of materialism have greatly increased; life has lengthened. Death seems to have disappeared over the horizon and with it, religion. The tolling bell no longer casts a pall over our cities and the other bells' messages have lost their meaning. Church bells used to be part of the music of the public square. But today, campanology has become a superior version of Morris-dancing.

Many of these changes have been emancipating. But out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made. New opportunities have brought fresh problems. Far from being grateful because of their freedom from some constraints, there are many who wish to abolish all constraint. It sometimes seems as if rising prosperity has led to growing discontent. Then there is the family. Salisbury said that anyone who thought that the Christian ethic could survive without Christian theology for more than two or three generations was deluding himself. The fate of the family does not refute the great Prime Minister. As a result of the family's decline, the police siren has become the music of the public square. If he had ever been persuaded to consider such a bizarre notion as post-religious Toryism, Salisbury might well have said that it put the 'moron' into oxymoron. He regarded religion as the basis of his society and his politics. David Cameron has to find new foundations.

He himself is not post-religious. He subscribes to that broad middle section of the Church of England, the Church reticent. But he does not base his hopes for the future on a religious revival. By temperament, he is neither a pessimist nor a philosopher. Although he read a fair amount of philosophy at Oxford in pursuit of his First, he could have echoed Dr Johnson's friend: 'I tried to be a philosopher, Sir, but happiness kept breaking through'. When there were complaints that the Tories' 2005 manifesto, which he largely wrote, lacked intellectual weight, David Cameron retorted: 'If people want philosophy, let them read Descartes'.

Back then, that was all very well. But these are no  longer happy times. The pressure of events will force Mr Cameron in the direction of philosophy and indeed pessimism. David Cameron knows what he would like to achieve. They are similar goals to John Major's: to combine the social stability of the 1950s with the economic dynamism of the 1980s; to encourage people to live as they choose, but to hope that they will bring up their children in families. Mr Cameron also believes - his deepest political conviction - that left to itself, British civil society has enormous powers of regeneration. He would emphatically agree with one of the few happy lines which poor Gerard Manley Hopkins ever wrote: 'There lies the dearest freshness deep down things'. So roll back the state and roll on the Big Society.

Those are notes towards a second reading speech. After the generalities, David Cameron still faces two related challenges: detail and rhetoric. How do you actually turn the Big Society into a practical programme? For a start, you might want to make maximum use of localism. In much of the South of England, however, the locals now have less time for forming little platoons. They are too busy mobilising their neighbours to resist the planners and the developers. That is a piquant paradox, which illustrates some of the difficulties, though not the more important ones. The real challenge to the Big Society will not come in leafy suburbs or pretty villages. It will come in the areas where all moral underpinnings have disintegrated: where the only little platoons are rival gangs. In time, Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms will help. He is right; welfare ought to be more than a subsidy for ill-fare. The same is true of Michael Gove's education reforms. Eleven years of compulsory education ought to mean what it says. But this will all take years to work through. When David Cameron first referred to the broken society, he was accused of exaggeration. As regards some inner-city areas, he was guilty - of gross understatement. We need to hear a lot more about the practical steps to mend the breakeages.

We also need a deeper, more sombre rhetoric. David Cameron would be much happier talking about renewed hope and future prospects. At the moment, however, that would jar. Roll up that map of the sunlit uplands. It will not be needed these next few years. Mr Cameron cannot be expected to produce an immediate blue-print for Toryism in an era of religious decline. So as a palliative, he will have to draw on another Tory intellectual trait, which persists in good times and bad: realism. At the moment, many people are anxious because they are not sure where the country is heading. David Cameron is undaunted, and does have a strong sense of national purpose. It is time to convey that to the nation.


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