Matthew Norman: Cameron tackles the great unmentionable

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In the coming days, our leader and our leader-in-waiting will be packing the buckets and spades, so unremittingly malevolent souls like me will rejoice that according to the weather forecasts they will have a perfectly appalling time.

Gordon Brown has eschewed his preference for chic, coastal New England in favour of earthy, coastal old England, and the Suffolk town of Southwold should give every chance to borrow from his compatriot Fran Healey out of Travis by asking why it is always raining on him. For David Cameron, it might be wetter still in the Cornish seaside town of Padstow, or Trestein as it's informally known in homage to Rick Stein, the fish-besotted chef who has colonised the place with his various businesses.

Assuming the weather is as lousy as expected, you have to assume their respective wives will spend the time wondering why they couldn't have had a fortnight in Martha's Vineyard or on Italy's Ligurian coast, and so surely will their children. But then being reared by a male role model to whose political ambitions decent summer hols must be sacrificed is one of the problems of having a non-absentee father.

Leaving Gordon to himself, for fear of intruding into private grief once too often, let us turn to Mr Cameron, who this week shared some thoughts on the greater problems posed, specifically to black boys, by not having dads around at all.

Even if these remarks don't constitute a crucial turning point on his journey to Downing Street (and given his current direction, all one of those would do is take him further away from power anyway), Mr Cameron's musings on absentee black fathers may be a significant staging post, not just for what he actually said but because he had the confidence to say it at all.

Twelve months ago, he wouldn't have dreamt of addressing this present obsession with teenage knife crime by speaking about the widespread syndrome of absent fathers who desert their infants. With Gordon's popularity at its zenith and another Tory election catastrophe imminently expected, the only relevant knife crime under discussion then was whether his party would stab Mr Cameron in the front or the back.

So it's a blatant sign of his burgeoning self-belief a year later that he was eager to pick up on a recent speech by Barack Obama – the one that enticed Jesse Jackson to whisper his ambition to castrate him – and raise what was previously far too hot an issue for any senior Conservative to handle.

An even more telling indicator of Mr Cameron's success in what cliché holds to be decontaminating the Tory brand is the reaction to his words, or rather the lack of it. Not a soul within or without the black community, so far as I can tell, has accused him of racism, and while some found his words patronising, in that they did what Rev Jackson called "talking down to black folks", the response has by and large been positive.

And so it should be, because the one guaranteed way to ensure that this distressing problem is perpetuated down the generations is allowing a culture of browbeaten silence to visit the sins of the absentee fathers upon their sons. For too long the liberal centre and centre left have ignored this social ill in a terribly British way, by letting embarrassment stifle debate. From the lack of hysteria that greeted Mr Cameron's remarks, it appears that we are finally growing up a little.

"What Obama is doing is brave," Mr Cameron told another newspaper. "He is saying, yes, of course black people in America have had appalling discrimination, economic disadvantage, and deprivation and all that follows from that. And that needs to change. But at the same time we will never solve the long-term problems unless people also take responsibility for their own lives. That is right."

Of course it is. There is no question that males reared without positive male role models are more likely to become violent criminals in adolescence, and none either that more than half of all new born black babies will grow up without fathers living with them.

These facts are not disputed, least of all by important spokes-persons for the black community, and they are as evident from the anecdotal evidence of urban eyes as through the hard statistics. By adopting the ostrich position for so long, and burying heads in the sand to avoid the scattergun charge of racism, we have betrayed those who look to gangs for the paternalistic reassurance they miss at home almost as grievously as we betrayed their grandfathers by tolerating a society that ghettoised, marginalised and denied them equal opportunities educationally and in the workplace.

Even if it seems rather braver for a Bullingdonian member of the gentry to address the matter than for Mr Obama, abandoned by his own black father at the age of two, stating the obvious is the easy bit. Mr Cameron, acknowledged this himself, referring to "the patient long-term hard work of taking steps that will help to strengthen society".

This is desperately vague, of course, as is his talk of finding "bottom up" answers to tackling these issues rather than the "top down" approach favoured by Gordon via tax credits and the like. As ever with Mr Cameron, that nasty, retrograde, dog-whistling manifesto he wrote for Michael Howard three years ago is the mischievous imp on his shoulder, winking and smirking derisively at his noble words.

He has much work to do yet to persuade us that, if his political instincts are immutably rooted on the right, they are at least subjugated by a pragmatic approach to solving such challenges as absentee fatherhood and the crime it induces. He needs to flesh out these promising but nebulous "bottom up" bones with a few "top down" specifics – cultural, educational and financial – and he should do so soon.

For now, though, he is entitled to his gruesome holiday in the Cornish drizzle. And if the horrors of scarpering for cover on the beach and avoiding the jeers of Pastow's "snob yobs" get too much, he could take Samantha and the kids on a trip to Tintagel castle, which has stronger claims to be the true Camelot than most of its 729 rivals.

Where better to reflect on the story of a son abandoned by one of mythology's earliest babyfathers, a certain Uther Pendragon, who duly turned to a blade for affirmation and respect in his teenage years. He turned out all right in the end, as it happened, but then Arthur had help on the way from a positive male role model. David Cameron as the black community's Merlin remains unlikely casting, and needless to say there are no magic wands. But at least his public acknowledgment of this blight on the land is a tentative first step on the path to finding a cure.

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