In the trailed extracts of his speech, Cameron doesn’t seem to have understood the very philosophy behind free-market economics. Is he a committed capitalist, or is he just an old-fashioned elitist Tory
Today David Cameron is to pick up and lead the campaign to persuade us that our unhappiness at the the dismantling of our society by business elites is a profound mistake. And so we get one more step in the choreographed attempt to tell us that not only should businessmen be allowed to trash our lives, we must remember to be grateful.
It’s just that David Cameron doesn’t seem to know how to do it. Just as Iain Duncan Smith isn’t really able to communicate to poor people about shit jobs because it is outside his realm of understanding (great Suzanne Moore piece in the Guardian about this today) so David Cameron does’t really understand the anger he is trying to dissipate. Irrespective of all the attempts to make Cameron seem ‘like us’, he isn’t. He is the very definition of ‘elite’ from education to income to career to social network. Every element of Cameron’s personal development was informed by the values of the elite. He’s like the mythical ‘eskimo’ as landed in a snowy Downing Street and he can’t work out why the rest of us can’t see the 30 different kinds of snow.
This can be the only explanation for the sketch show which was his media briefing. He complains about the belief that “people in business are out for themselves” as “dangerous rhetoric”. I’m confused. The whole essence of the ideology of which Cameron is the current custodian is that the best outcomes for society emerge if large numbers of selfish actors create a self-regulating system of progress which benefits all. It is nonsense, but the concept of ‘benign selfishness’ is the driving theory of his political stance. Does he know this?
Then he attacks “the snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth”. Set aside the new Tory tactic that if they say ‘snob’ enough times no-one will notice their educational backgrounds; this claim is equality puzzling. Is it not the Tory Party which is first in line to make clear that expecting a moral stance from the private sector is ‘social engineering’? Yet again, he seems to misunderstand his own philosophy. Benign selfishness is supposed to self-regulate, but it has never been proposed as a moral stance. Morality comes after the system of wealth is created in neoliberal doctrine.
Finally, he strays into a world of apparent complete confusion: “put a child into a great school run by a local authority – cause for celebration. Put them into a great school backed by a bank and that is a cause for suspicion.” Does he understand the problems of profit motive? The local authority has no financial interest in selling the children to a Chinese sweatshop; the bank would. Now the bank wouldn’t do it for legal and PR reasons, but if those reasons changed then the bank might be tempted. ‘That’s ridiculous’ screams an outraged Cameron – ‘banks just don’t do things like mis-sell useless payment protection plans to poor people who can’t afford it but can be scared into believing they need it’. Oh, hold on…
The reason that Tony Blair was so effective is that he could take a grain of truth and stretch it out until a lie could fit inside. Cameron doesn’t seem able to find the grain of truth. The reality is that predatory business has had a free run for 30 years and now ordinary people are paying the price. They are not happy. The Oxbridge Tories say they sympathise but because of who they are and how they were trained they can’t empathise. And without empathy they can’t really understand it. It is telling that non-Oxbridge Tory David Davis does seem to get it and doesn’t back his leader’s rant.
It seems to me an emerging truth about Cameron – he doesn’t really seem very bright, he doesn’t seem particularly nimble on his feet and he doesn’t really seem to ‘get’ ordinary people (or women – the two major groups not represented in the Bullingdon Club). But oddest of all, he seems to have chosen to lead a movement and has adopted the words without actually understanding the intellectual case behind them. I am beginning to wonder if Cameron is really signed up to free-market economics or whether he is simply an old-style Tory defending privilege, wealth and power for its own sake.
So what is Cameron’s real heartland – capitalists or aristocrats? It doesn’t seem obvious to me.