Johann Hari: Cameron is concealing his inner Bush

If he can’t keep the single best policy for reducing inequality – one that costs less than nothing – what shreds of progress can possibly survive his rule?

Friday 30 April 2010 00:00

A leader describing himself as a "compassionate Conservative" is on the brink of victory.

He has shown his party has changed. He puts his black and Asian supporters out front. He promises to "unleash" the potential "of volunteers to ... change our country". This time, he says, his party "will be different". It is the year 2000, and his name is George W Bush. It's no surprise to discover that George Osborne said in 2002 that "we have much to learn from Bush's compassionate conservatism". They are following the Bush script to the mis-spelled letter.

Most parties offer only scattered clues to the electorate about what they will do when they get power, buried in baskets filled with cotton wool and fluffy bunnies to distract us. Read Thatcher or Bush's pre-election speeches and they're pleasingly fuzzy. You have to infer the big, swooping changes they will make from the small tilts in direction offered in policy documents – and Cameron's small policies are surprisingly revealing.

Revealing Policy One: Today, 1,600 British people are killed every year just doing their job, putting us behind many poorer countries for workplace safety. They are people like Michael Adamson, a 26-year-old electrician who went to his job one day and was given a massive electric shock because his employer hadn't bought a £12 piece of safety equipment.

Yet David Cameron is promising to dismantle the very weak protections currently in place, and replace them with a system where corporations will be able to "organise their own inspections", carried out by a team of their choice. Cameron's people justify this by pointing to made-up stories in the right-wing press claiming health and safety inspectors spend their time stopping children playing conkers. UCATT, the astonished construction workers' union, has been protesting outside Tory HQ, with members dressed as the Grim Reaper. Michael Adamson's sister, Louise, who is a lawyer, says: "Cameron's proposals are outrageously dangerous. They will end with a lot more people dying. It takes the very light touch regulation that gave us Lehman Brothers and Enron, and applies it to workplace safety. This time it's not money you lose, it's lives. This isn't about conkers, it's about people like my brother, who could have been saved for £12." This policy suggests Cameron instinctively puts corporate profits ahead of the the safety of ordinary people – a dangerous habit to act out in Downing Street.

Revealing Policy Two: Today, most serious crime in Britain comes from cross-border criminal gangs – whether it's jihadism, human trafficking, or paedophile rings. Until recently, the police had to rely on a slow, confusing tangle of different agreements with each individual country in Europe when trying to track these criminals – and many hardcore criminals escaped as the police waded through bureaucratic treacle. So Europe's police forces, including Britain's, proposed a single, simple procedure called the European Arrest Warrant: one swift standard for serious crime. It has been a superb success story. It meant we busted some of the worst paedophile rings and jihadi cells in the world, and are now shutting down the Costa Del Crime, where British gangsters fled for decades to Spain beyond the reach of our extradition agreements.

But David Cameron's Conservatives oppose the warrant, calling it "over-reach by Brussels". Of course he wants to catch jihadis and paedophiles; but his hostility to European co-operation trumps that desire. He chooses dogmatic Europhobia over pragmatic British needs – and we should assume he will continue to.

Revealing Policy Three: Most British people now acknowledge that heroin addiction is an illness. Yes, it begins with a bad choice by an individual, but it can rapidly become a ravaging sickness beyond their control. Sadly, even the very best rehab in the world fails for 80 per cent of addicts, who soon relapse. So what do we do with the 250,000 people who can't stop? Over the past two decades Britain has followed Europe in giving these people steady, clean medical prescriptions of the substitute drug methadone. Wherever this policy is introduced, burglary and robbery rates fall dramatically, as addicts stop stealing to feed their addiction. As the former deputy drugs tsar Mike Trace told me: "These prescriptions are the secret reason why crime has fallen so much under the current government."

Iain Duncan Smith has been put in charge of Tory drugs policy by Cameron, and has dismissed this approach as "methadone madness". He says that addicts live an immoral "half-life" and government policy should be to force addicts off substitutes and direct them towards voluntary abstinence groups like Narcotics Anonymous. Doctors and charities who work with addicts are incredulous. Danny Kushlick, of the drug charity Transform, says: "If the Tories acted on their current rhetoric, what would actually happen is clear. If they can't get the drug from the doctor, you'll have hundreds of thousands of addicts getting it on the street. You would see a huge increase in street heroin use, and everything that goes with that – burglary, shoplifting, prostitution, homelessness, and far more HIV and Hepatitis C infections as the level of injecting went up. It would be a public health and crime disaster, in place of sensibly reducing harm." Cameron's policy suggests he prefers finger-wagging moralism to a calm study of consequences.

Revealing Policy Four: Cameron says he is demanding spending cuts not because he has a theological belief in a small state, but because they are necessary to pay off the deficit – but this claim is undermined by the fact that he wants to strip funding from state programmes that actually save us money. Look for example at SureStart, the network of 3,000 children's centres across Britain built under the current government. They are based on a fascinating series of discoveries. It has been proven that most poor children fall behind in language skills and stimulation long before they ever walk through the school gates – and they never catch up. The first few years of life are crucial for the formation of a child's mental abilities. Get them early and give them intensive encouragement, with expert advice for their parents, and you can change their life.

This isn't speculation. In 1964, they launched the first SureStart-style project in Michigan – and Dr Lawrence Schweinhart and a team of academics has been monitoring the kids ever since. Did it work? Well, they were 50 per cent less likely to become teenage mothers than their siblings who weren't put in the programme, and by the time they were 40, they were 46 per cent less likely to have been to prison and 26 per cent less likely to be on welfare. Their incomes were 42 per cent higher. So for every £1 you spend on it, you save the state £7 further down the line. Yet Cameron, on becoming Tory leader, dismissed SureStart as "a microcosm of government failure". Now he says he will keep it in some form, but already he says huge chunks of its budget will go to other things, and few expect it to survive long. If he can't keep the single best policy for reducing inequality – one that costs less than nothing in the medium term – what shreds of progress can survive his rule?

You don't have to scrape off much of the glitter and gloss to get to Cameron's less-than-fluffy Bush. Who really wants this cocktail of market fundamentalism, Europhobia, and haranguing of the vulnerable for the next five years?

You can follow Johann's updates on the election at

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