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May 30, 2006

Mr Cameron's "Happiness Politics": Mr Blair's "Messiah Politics" all over again?

Posted by Richard D. North

David Cameron has been bashing the unacceptable face of capitalism, schmoozing the greens and denouncing materialism - but is this a rerun of Mr Blair's blend of loftiness and manipulation? Richard D. North - the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - thinks, with luck, Cameron's ploy is a lot more spin than substance. The views expressed here are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes, said Mark Twain. So it is with politics: David Cameron is chasing a Blairite agenda, just as Tony Blair chased the Thatcherite one. But is Cameron also copying Mr Blair's Messiah Politics?

Messiah Politics was invented by our Prime Minister when he was young and dazzling. It was all about a deeply personal mission, message and method. It has flourished until very recent in his premiership. As we learn from his biographers, he had a powerful sense of a personal mission to make a difference to the world. He wanted to be a transformational individual. However, he also wanted to be sure that he was seen to be the font of all that good. Even beyond the demands of the media age, he wanted to be and was the superstar of his own show. The third great tendency has gone almost unnoticed by the electorate. In 1997, Mr Blair's team was inexperienced and insecure, and therefore gathered all the reins of power in Number 10. Resisting the temptation to keep them there will be perhaps the severest test of Blair's successors.

Let's assume that David Cameron does not share Mr Blair's Flower Power belief in a personal mission. As he told Sue Lawley on her Desert Island Discs in late May, politicians should have the right mix of egotism and altruism, and with luck he has. He does, however, share several of Mr Blair's objectives. He seeks to modernise and control his party. And he is investing a good deal of rhetoric, as Mr Blair did between 2004 and 2005, in saving the planet and making poverty history.

But there are great differences. Mr Cameron shows none of Mr Blair's uneasiness with his own class. He doesn't share Mr Blair's geo-political ambitions. That is almost certainly politically wise, even if it is neither brave nor (I would say) noble. What's more, he paints his conservatism as "compassionate" and green in such a way as to make one believe that he sees that these are plays which are painless and necessary to persuade the vast modern middle class that one is in tune with the times. He doesn't parade his conscience or bare his soul, for all his choice of Dylan as his favourite track.

The clue here seems to be that Mr Cameron's big story is dictated by Steve Hilton, who has made a profession of selling Corporate Social Responsibility to the world's largest firms. Interestingly, Cameron is behaving as though he thinks that the Tory party is itself a candidate for the CSR approach, and - differently - that by using a CSR rhetoric to bash firms he can distance his party from the supposed nastiness of the Thatcher legacy.

As a PR specialist himself, David Cameron knows that CSR is a doctrine which has been designed by consultants so that firms hit by controversies can regain an image of all-round pleasantness. Roughly speaking, soft-left liberal and green campaigners have been able to steal the reputations of firms, and CSR consultants sell it back to them. The trick is to get firms to "admit" that they have been anti-social in various ways, and then to apologise for their "wrong-doing", and lastly to implement initiatives which demonstrate a desire to go straight (preferably cheap ones involving solar power and community involvement).

Mr Cameron has been counselled to reclaim his party's reputation for decency in just the way a firm might, and then to bang on about how firms ought to do more of this stuff.

Mr Cameron's current language about "capitalism with commitment" suggests that he has accepted that the Tories face the same sort of reputational issues as forced Shell, BP and the rest, to kowtow to CSR. To become New Labour, Labour had to slough off socialism. To become New Tory, the Tories are sloughing off capitalism. Mr Cameron has flirted with criticising big business in CSR language, but weakened his case by citing an antique "crime" by Bhs which was never very bad, and had been long-abandoned anyway. Besides, he is too sensible to suppose that firms should push CSR further than a vague "good neighbour" policy, achieved by "exhortation", not regulation. That translates as: "I don't intend to do more than waffle".

Mr Cameron's contribution to the "Happiness Debate" is a little, but not very, different. It is of course fashionable to argue quite wrongly that modern people are unhappy, and that they are so because they are over-worked, are too well-off and are overwhelmed by choice. Mr Cameron is doing well both because he attends Beckhamite parties and surfs this trendy nonsense, even though it is mostly espoused by people touting ordinarily leftish "solutions" which have been rejected at the British ballot box. Indeed, Blair built his success by rejecting them. Cameron knows perfectly well that the state can only redress the "work-life" balance or aim to make life less brutal by interfering in the workplace or raising taxes, neither of which really is his cup of tea. Instead he speaks in Blairite riddles such as:

It's vital to create a space in the national conversation which stands firmly between regulation and indifference.
That would be more waffle, then.

Still, for as long as he is very modest in his policies on global warming, Africa, the workplace, egalitarianism or consumerism, his worrying about them may well make him popular and for now that is very nearly all that matters. Indeed, the windier the utterance he makes now the better: anything of this kind which had substance would be dangerous.

It will be interesting to see whether David Cameron will adopt the second two elements of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics. Will he make brutally sure that he controls every utterance by his party and - eventually - his Government? Will he make Mr Blair's mistake of being knocked off balance by the sheer magic of media power? Here, one suspects the signs are rather good: Cameron seems to understand the strengths of surrounding himself with talented people. That alone could lead the Tories toward a richer, more complex, set of messages, rather than one absurd "narrative". Indeed, he seems at times (say during his Desert Island Discs outing) to understand the value of the straightforward. He manages to seem, as Mr Blair never has, to be a "pretty straight sort of guy". If it can overcome any latent prejudice against his noblesse oblige, the country may yet warm to an old-fashioned, even aristocratic, leader.

The third and most damaging part of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics ensured that, actually, he couldn't govern. This flowed from his distrust of his ministers and - yet more important - their ministries. Mr Blair ran a court, not a Government. If David Cameron builds a ministerial team - a Cabinet - that alone will lead to a revival of the usefulness of Whitehall. The notion that government is a continuum - a steady evolution - of ideas, election manifesto, and the development and execution of Government policy, may yet come back into style.

The New Tories could yet revitalise the profession of government. If they do, that will be worth the nonsense of some rhetorical flourishes, at once aspirational and vacuous, in opposition. Here Mr Cameron faces a thoroughly Blairite problem: he will lead an inexperienced government. Let's hope his response is to seek a modern approach to the professionalism, the institutions and the elitism which the civil service needs so it can serve young ministers running an old country.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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