Johann Hari: Is that the echo of Bush? No, it's Cameron

Voters may not know every policy detail, but they can smell that the Tory transformation is fake
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A new kind of conservative leader has arisen from the right-wing undergrowth. He doesn't look like his predecessors. He doesn't talk like his predecessors. He seems warm, kind, caring. He describes poverty as "a disgrace", and says: "If a single poor child believes he is trapped and hopeless, we are all diminished." He promises to make poor children "my priority". He denounces those who attack immigrants, and promises to "welcome people to our country".

His name is George W Bush. The year is 2000. Near the end of Bush's first term - long after it became clear these pledges were honeyed lies - George Osborne wrote: "We have a lot to learn from George Bush's compassionate conservatism." He is David Cameron's best friend and shadow chancellor.

After a year in charge of the Conservative Party, it's time to ask: how much of Cameron's radical remaking of Tory rhetoric over the past year has been Bush-speak? Given that there are so few policies to assess, it's tempting to rely on anecdotes to assess Cameron's true nature.

I have spoken to two of the most famous left-liberals who were invited to speak at Cameron's first Tory Party conference. One of them says, "I think he's a very good PR man, but on the basis of what I saw, I don't think he means a word of it. He didn't know what he was talking about when he was trying to praise my work. He kept making pretty basic mistakes. He didn't even seem particularly intelligent."

Another - brought in to speak on one of Cameron's headline rebranding issues - says: "To be fair, they didn't even really pretend to be interested. There were no questions, no intellectual curiosity. And as for the members in the hall ... at several points I was worried they had actually died."

This fits with the gut instinct of most liberals. Why would a gaggle of fox-hunting Old Etonians who joined the Tory Party at the height of On Yer Bike Tebbitry suddenly become hoodie-hugging greens, except for electoral gain?

But a close study of Cameron's speeches reveals that the similarities to Bush go beyond these sense-impressions. When Bush was being pressured as a Presidential candidate to come up with "the vision thing", he famously pointed to the Christian sociologist Marvin Olasky and his book Compassionate Conservatism. Its argument was simple, and startlingly familiar to anyone who has actually read Cameron's speeches, rather than the misleading "We Love Polly Toynbee" press leaks that accompany them.

Olasky says the "dead hand of the state" is not good at delivering social services or helping the poor. Instead, money should be funneled through "social entrepreneurs", local charities on the ground, who are responding to the needs of the poor in original and creative ways. When Cameron articulated this, he was lauded as "compassionate" and "wise".

It indeed sounds attractive. And under Bush, it has been thoroughly road-tested. The results are in. Every year George Bush has been President and enacting this philosophy, poverty has risen, on average, by 4.4 percent. There are more than five million more children in poverty as a result. It turns out that without those "bureaucratic" state guarantees and without hard, direct redistribution of cash, poverty climbs.

Yes, it's true Bush has cut taxes for the rich at the same time as transferring cash to the voluntary sector, thus aggravating these poverty statistics. But - according to his own shadow chancellor - so would Cameron.

George Osborne has indicated he would like to "move" on inheritance tax, which he says - with compassionate fawn-eyes - is "putting pressure on the middle class". In reality, only the richest 6 per cent pay inheritance tax. These are people such as Osborne himself, who inherited millions from his family, and virtually everybody else David Cameron knows. His "move" would be simply an Old Tory massive tax cut for the wealthy.

Yet Cameron has been given a ludicrously soft ride, with every piece of spin taken at face value by an awe-swept media. As Marcia Williams - Harold Wilson's political secretary - once said, "The left-leaning press leans over backwards to be fair to the Conservative Party, and so does the right-wing press."

When one of Cameron's policy researchers declared his opposition to relative poverty and his love for Polly Toynbee, it made front-page news. Hardly anybody bothered to read Cameron's big poverty speech that followed, which explicitly stated that Cameron would do nothing about incomes soaring into the stratosphere at the top. By definition, then, he will not do anything about relative poverty. He directly contradicted himself, but nobody called him on it. Where Cameron's thinking is not filled with holes in this way, it amounts merely to a rebranding of old Tory nostrums. Small-state conservatives have always said cutting taxes will stimulate private charity. Without the Big Daddy of the state there to take charge, we will start to look out for each other, they argue, and poverty will fall. Cameron calls it "rolling forward the frontiers of society".

Danny Kruger, one of Cam-eron's advisers, calls this stress on fraternité (rather than égalité) "Cameron's big idea". But it is very old, and it has been tested a thousand times. In the years Margaret Thatcher was in power and sawing into state expenditure, the number of children living in poverty trebled, and - according to the definitive London School of Economics study - their chances of ever making themselves rich collapsed. Fraternité didn't grow; it haemorrhaged away. Once again, the evidence shows that without explicit redistribution, the poorest become trapped.

Yet the few symbols of redistribution introduced by the present government are explicitly opposed by Cameron. He talks ominously of "moving beyond tax credits" and he is committed to abolishing SureStart, the programme that supports the poorest parents in Britain and helps make sure their kids keep up developmentally with their middle- class cousins. Cameron calls it "a model of state failure"; easy to say when you can afford two full-time nannies, I suppose.

The brilliant British people are too smart to fall for it. The latest polls put Cameron only a few points ahead of Hague, IDS and Howard at similar points in their leaderships, which, given how rapidly public approval of the Government has dropped, amounts to standing still.

The public may not know every policy detail, but they can smell that the Tory transformation is fake. They knew Labour had changed because they saw Neil Kinnock lead the party through wrenching, violent spasms. The Tories are expecting us to believe they strolled from Michael Foot to Tony Blair with one wave of a wind turbine.

One year into Cameron's leadership, the whiff of Bush is too strong to ignore.