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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Unless Cameron controls the narrative his Government's radical reforms will be swamped

Wherever I find myself, there is a recurrent conversational theme. "You're supposed to know about David Cameron. So tell us; who is he? What, if anything, does he believe in? Is he a proper Tory?". Of late, however, there has been a new preoccupation. I find this useful, because it helps me to answer the first question. There is a growing awareness of Michael Gove's education reforms. This has practical aspects. The young, planning for matrimony and family life, are especially interested. Perhaps they will be able to educate their kids without 15 austere years of managing their household economy in the way that Greece ought to run its public finances. They may be able to find a good school without having to give up ski-ing.

There could even be an impact on family planning. Swift said that a man who could make two ears of corn grow where one grew before was worth more than any politician. But what about the politician who enables the aspirant middle-classes to contemplate larger families? Mr Gove's new schools are still in their infancy. Although much hard work will be necessary if the expectations are to be realised, there is increasing enthusiasm, as I point out to those who have doubts about Mr Cameron.

Education and welfare were two great areas requiring urgent remedial measures, and in both cases, Margaret Thatcher dodged the column. There is no reason to believe that the average child in a state school received a better education in 1990 than in 1979. There was concern about educational standards. How did Mrs Thatcher respond? She abolished O-levels. That was a defeat for all those who believed in decent education; a victory for the Leftists on their Gramscian long march through the institutions - and it was Margaret Thatcher who ran up the white flag.

For three decades, educational Lefties have conspired to undermine education. Dumb down teaching methods. Dumb down examinations. Dumb down university entrance: try to prevent universities from selecting on merit. For decades, there was no serious resistance, until Michael Gove. Over several decades, the Welfare State had degenerated. The original, admirable, intention was to help those who could not help themselves. It rapidly became a means of propagating subsidised idleness. Tony Blair felt that something was wrong. Frank Field knew that a lot was wrong. Yet there was no systematic attempt to correct the evils of the Ill-fare State, until Iain Duncan Smith.

To that daunting task, IDS brings a formidable combination: preparation, determination and moral courage. Again, there will be hard months and hard pounding before legislation turns into implementation. But the foundations are in place. So is the will. The government's education and welfare bills are historic reforms. If they work, they will dominate public policy in those areas for the next fifty years. Although the government may have been unwise to take on health at the same time, it cannot be accused of lacking courage. Then there are the cuts. This government's social agenda is more far-reaching than anything which Mrs Thatcher attempted. Attlee could stand comparison, but much of his programme turned out to resemble most architecture of the immediate post-war years. It might have looked all right on the night, but not for long. It often developed concrete pox and then started falling down.

So: given David Cameron's self-evident radical zeal, why the doubts? There are two explanations. The first, inevitably, is Europe. A lot of Tories are obsessed with Europe, and one can understand why. If anyone who cares about this country should wish to make himself angry, there is a guaranteed method: spend five minutes thinking about the EU. But Prime Ministers cannot afford such self-indulgence, especially when they are in a coalition. There is a further point. The UK is no longer under threat from federalism. Our currency is safe. We now have to worry about the Eurozone's weakness, not the EU's strength. This is a time for Fabian tactics, not cavalry charges. That said, it is not easy to persuade Eurosceptics that we should be cautious: hence their concerns about Mr Cameron.

But there are other areas where any unease should be much easier to overcome, which leads us to the second explanation. The government is not doing nearly enough to present its case. One can understand why. There is an expressive Scots word, "scunnered", which means "fed up" redoubled in spades. After the Blair era, a lot of voters were scunnered with spin. In response, the Government appears to have decided to let events speak for themselves and to give up on attempts to control the narrative - the terms in which public debate takes place. That is a foolish mistake.

On education, wefare, the economy and - let us pray - health, this government has a story to tell. If it fails to do so, others will give their version. There will also be difficulties: none of these changes will settle down smoothly. The problems will have to be explained and if the Government does not make its pitch, its opponents will make theirs, with the enthusiastic support of the BBC. If I went on to argue that Mr Cameron should do far more to explain himself and his philosophy, there would be a danger of boring my readers, for this column has made that point, repeatedly. To summarise: it is all very well banging on about the price of drink, or whatever, but people really want to know his views on the big questions. Early in the last Century, our thoughtful forbears addressed themselves to the condition of Britain. So should he, especially as he is doing so much to improve it.


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