When I saw David Cameron defending his ‘passionate’ belief in the Big Society, I found myself giving him credit for his sincerity. My opinion of the policy, idea, concept, or whatever you want to call it, was damning—the Tories just stealing for themselves something which people and groups up and down the country have been doing and developing for decades—but there was something almost touching in Cameron’s apparent naïve faith in this as the guiding light of his government’s overall programme. It looked to me as if the hard-faced ideologues in his party were simply using this, and the budget deficit ‘crisis’, as a cover for shrinking the role of the state, strengthening the role of elites and the ‘deserving’ middle classes, privatising practically everything they could lay their hands on—yet Cameron maintained a seemingly genuine air of innocence, partly reinforced or engendered by what we know of his and his wife’s heart-rending experience with their late son. So, a good man—yes, immensely privileged, but aware of the responsibility he now carries as a result of the luck of his birth—struggling to keep a bunch of right-wing ideologues in their place.
I had become increasingly aware of the stupidity of this view and its glaring contradictions when that awareness was suddenly reinforced as I read a column by Mary Dejevsky in today’s Independent in which she slammed the prime minister for ‘quite breathtaking misjudgement’ in undertaking a Middle East tour, the obvious aim of which was to boost arms sales to dodgy regimes just as pro-democracy activists across the region were laying down their lives in the cause of the principles and values of the kind of free, caring, open society Cameron claims to be championing at home. I couldn’t agree more and had found images of him defending his tour on the grounds that the newly emerging democratic regimes will also need arms to defend their freedom utterly sickening. But much of Dejevsky’s article was a paean of praise to Cameron for his ‘boldness’ in launching the coalition and implementing policies of which she approved. And on his belief in the Big Society she wrote: ‘I have never really got to grips with the “Big Society”, largely because I do not think Mr Cameron realises how many people are ‘time-poor’, as well as lacking his family’s means, but for me his sincerity was never in doubt’ (my italics).
It was at that point that I realised that both she and I had been committing the ‘Blair fallacy’: wanting to excuse the mistakes, and possibly even crimes, of a politician on the grounds that, ‘aw shucks’, he or she is absolutely, completely and swooningly sincere. For a long while, this worked for Tony Blair—and for some people I think his ‘sincerity’, his ‘I did what I believed to be right’ mantra, still works. The sheer bankruptcy of this self-serving philosophy became crystal clear as the Iraq crisis developed and Britain was taken into a war on the grounds of a dodgy manifesto and hundreds of thousands of people died as a result. I feel foolish for once thinking myself into a mindset that seemed to support the notion that such self-belief counted for more than acts of justice and policies of principle. Looking back now on his period in government, while many good things were done, it’s now clear to me that there was very little in the way of principle backing it all up and very much in the way of a public relations-driven pragmatism carried forward on a wave of Blairite self-belief. There were many good men and women in his government, but ultimately, with Blair in charge, there was a values-shaped hole at its heart.
And this is close to what we have now under Cameron, a man who consciously modelled himself on Blair, and probably still does. After all, there is no doubt that Blair was a consummate tactical politician, streets ahead of anyone else in his generation and still able to make the current crop of leaders look cack-handed. But Cameron’s ‘sincerity’ will not wash for long. I’m sure people will see it as Blairism Mark II and realise they are being sold a pup. The con of noblesse oblige, the ability to appear to be floating above and disconnected from the ideological sharks he himself has brought into government and allowed to gobble up whatever they wish (save for a few small u-turns), the display of boyish charm—these are some of the elements that constitute his sincerity package. He doesn’t need to be the confrontational ideological politician because he was born to the views he holds. They’re part of his character. They come so easily to him that his store of simple words and phrases are enough to justify his views and sell them to the public. He seems to have come equipped with a built-in sanitiser. But how much longer will it work? As Dejevsky writes, the Middle East trip may be ‘a crass, clodhopping and potentially career-breaking mistake’.