David Cameron is a Prime Minister in search of a legacy. He knows he has no more than three years in the job (having pledged to stand down before the 2020 election) and he senses that time is running out to make his mark in history. More urgently, come the middle of this month, he knows he will plunge below the murky and dangerous waters of the European referendum campaign, from which he might never emerge if the Outers triumph.
The country and the media may be fixated on the migrant crisis and Cameron’s wrangling with EU leaders over the fine print of Britain’s benefits system. Leave aside the fact that tinkering with the rules covering payments to EU migrants is a cleverly contrived distraction from the fundamental questions posed by the referendum; Cameron knows that his chances of leaving a lasting impression on the social fabric of the nation are fast disappearing.
Hence, the flurry of announcements in the past couple of weeks from No 10. First, the PM was going to bulldoze sink estates and replace them with houses on a human scale that would not become a playground for drug dealers, criminals and neighbours from hell. Yesterday, the universities were facing demolition, accused along with the armed forces and big business of being the repository of wrong attitudes holding back racial and other minorities.
All this, of course, harks back to Cameron’s speech to the Tory conference last October when, five months after an election campaign dominated by a Gradgrind adherence to his party’s “long term economic plan”, he extolled the virtues of “Compassionate Conservatism”, the slogan that marked the early modernising days of his leadership before the financial crash of 2008 blew the icing off the cake. Fluffy 2005-2007 promises about sharing the proceeds of growth were swiftly replaced by a unbending commitment to austerity, morphing into the “Plan” by the time of Lynton Crosby’s grimly effective 2015 campaign.
The speech last October was positively Blairite in tone and content, with its pledges to mount an all-out assault on poverty, boost social mobility, end racial and other forms of discrimination and reform prisons. Cameron said he wanted to use his second term to secure a “Great British take-off that leaves no-one behind”. Above all he lauded “equality”, To an ecstatic response from the liberal media (which is almost all of them), he declared:
“You can’t have true opportunity without real equality. And I want our party to get this right. Yes us, the party of the fair chance; the party of the equal shot.”
Yesterday’s article in The Sunday Times and the accompanying news headline “A young black man is more likely to be in prison than at a top university” is all part of this agenda. Of course, it is hard to be against “equality”. Only a monster would argue against equality in today’s world: equality for women, ethnic minorities, gays, the disabled and just about any other put-upon group you might think of. But what kind of equality is he seeking? Equality of opportunity, the traditional Tory mantra, championed by Margaret Thatcher with her practical reforms, much vilified by the Left, such as selling off council houses to their tenants, making union bosses subservient to their members, and widening share ownership and the chance to set up and run your own firm free from restrictive practices? Or is Cameron veering closer to the Left’s dream of equality of outcome?
In his quest for a legacy, the Prime Minister seems to have broken free of his moorings. Doesn’t he see that inequality is the inevitable result of a free society? Some people are just more talented and energetic than others. Some will achieve more worldly success than others. They will do better at school and university, land better jobs, earn more money and invest it more wisely. And yes, some people, like Cameron himself, start life with far greater advantages than others. They go to Eton and Oxford and land a plum job in party headquarters when they are scarcely out of short trousers. Of course, they will ultimately need talent and energy to make it to 10 Downing Street, but they sure have a head start over a black kid born on a sink estate to a single mother.
If it is equality of outcome that you want, then you will have to institute a police state to get it, interfering in every nook and cranny of the nation’s life to ensure no one has a head start and no one can rise too high.
And nor, at a more mundane level, is the PM’s j’accuse born out by the facts. There is masses of research evidence suggesting that black and minority ethnic (BME) pupils have made great strides in recent years. Among the poorest in society, the group that does worst at school are white working class boys and they are the ones left behind by BME groups in the race for university places.
No wonder that university chiefs hit back at Cameron’s figures and assertions, with Oxford saying that 13 per cent of all UK undergraduates at the university were non-white in 2014, compared with 18 per cent at other Russell Group universities. Cameron said that in 2014 Oxford admitted only 27 black men and women out of more 2,500 entrants – about one per cent. The university said that 367 students from ethnic minority backgrounds were admitted last year – 15 per cent up on five years ago.
The Government even has a quango – the Office for Fair Access (Offa) – to ensure that no one now gets into the university because he is good at rugby or because his daddy went to school with the dean.
Also, is it really believable that in this day and age, the kind of left-leaning, relentlessly PC academics who control university entrance are turning away bright, dedicated students because of the colour of their skin? Are these dons riddled with “ingrained, institutional and insidious” attitudes, as a Downing Street aide put it?
But politics is not the only legacy troubling the PM. Yesterday, The Mail on Sunday reported that he was considering sending his eldest son to a private prep school – having previously declared that “I would like my children to go to state school. It’s crazy that we should have to pay lots of money for private schools. We all pay our taxes. You should have really good state schools available for all.”
The timings all fit with Cameron stepping down in 2019 and escaping the media spotlight on sensitive matters such as his children’s education. One doubts his son will ever fall foul of the equality police.