It may well turn out to be premature, but with the prospect of a Conservative Government for the next five or ten years, David Cameron’s legacy has become a topic for debate.
Will he change Britain? Janan Ganesh asked last Sunday and if he does will it be by accident or design?
It is certainly the right moment to be asking what sort of country he will leave behind. Will he leave behind a country able to cope with future economic trauma or the ability to adapt to the challenges of the second machine age that Andrew Cadman describes here yesterday?
Will British citizens be more or less resilient, more or less independent and responsible, more or less cohesive?
It has become pretty clear is that Cameron is not exactly a Conservative with a mission. He does not wake up every morning with a burning zeal to transform Britain – whether into a more compassionate, competitive or independent society. He is no Thatcher. Nor, as Professor King commented on the Ganesh programme, does he seem interested in continuity with the past.
To the contrary, he and George Osborne seem to be driven by a shared determination to break with the past. They are casual of past values that saw the country through its major crises in the last century when the word “chillax” had passed no one’s lips. This is exemplified by Cameron’s greatest spurt of enthusiasm – the thing he is proudest of – gay marriage, the ultimate proof that he is modern and progressive.
What of the reduction in the size of the State that appears to going on under their governance? You cannot dismiss that. I don’t. But whatever it has been I suspect it has been borne of necessity – the need to reduce public expenditure – rather than out of design. Whether the scope of government has actually been reduced or simply put at a second remove is the question. Downloading its responsibilities and reducing its accountability, by outsourcing and creating faux markets in public services, does not necessarily reduce demands on the taxpayer. It does not necessarily make the ‘client state’ any smaller or mean that fewer people are living off or making money out of government contracts or presiding over State quangos, committees and regulatory authorities.
It’s hard not to see the Government’s activities as a game of smoke and mirrors, about politics rather than principle, George Osborne giving with the right hand and taking with the left. What else are we meant to make of his proposed tax credits cuts, while promising a ‘living’ wage?
No concrete action has been taken or promised that I have seen that would give families greater financial independence and more freedom of choice over their futures. Hand outs have gone to individuals at the expense of families.
Where for example are the education vouchers? Where the incentives for independent school expansion? A third of children in Australia attend private and independent schools and the proportion in this sector is increasing – so real choice cannot be impossible.
Defenders of Mr Cameron’s reputation will say that his name will be attached to the free schools project. Indeed it will. But these schools are not independent – they are not subject to the financial discipline of the parent market place – not when there is such a shortage of places. They still paid for with taxpayers’ money, they are not free to select. They are still state schools.
Defenders of George Osborne will tell of his radical decision’s to trust people with their finances and take cash from their pension pots. And he has capped the corrupted benefits system. Both are true but they do not add up to reducing the role of the State in people’s lives.
Universal Credit does not change this either. It does not get rid of means-tested benefits. It is not a tough welfare to work or soup kitchens system. It simply streamlines them all into one programme – an administrative not a structural reform.
George Osborne is playing with the idea of shifting the burden of government onto business (his latest grand maternity leave wheeze is one example of this) . But business cannot and should not take over as the people’s nanny from the government, beyond correct concern for their employees’ welfare at work.
The truth that he and Mr Cameron remain stubbornly blind to is that tilting power from the government to the individual requires trust. Trust in the citizen and his ability to make rational choices and be responsible for himself with one important proviso. No man is an island. You cannot reduce the State if society is atomised and fragmented. You cannot reduce the state without first strengthening the family.
Cameron’s legacy, sadly, will be one where Britain won the unwanted accolade of having one of the highest rates of family breakdown in the Western world. Under his time in office historians will note that marriage became the prerogative of the rich, that family breakdown was affecting over 36 per cent of families – a number that had risen during his time in office and is accounted for in the main by unmarried families.
He will go down as the Prime Minister who came into office knowing that such broken families are inevitably more State dependent, less resilient and less able to support their members, but who refused to do anything to save marriage – so as not to offend liberal left progressive sentiments.
Historians will note too the irony that the public perceive him personally as a family man and liked him for it. They will look back at polling and focus group evidence that underpinned his benign reputation in the country.
The actual legacy, I fear, will be less benign. A country ill-suited to change, indulged and over entitled – shocked by the realities of global competition and people movement – without the backbone of family that will be the source of strength in other less affluent societies.
Family man Cameron will go down as a man who didn’t preach what he practised.