Looking at the Tory conference my first thought was, what a mess. There are policies but the philosophical framework isn’t there. Cameron and his allies have a trust-the-people vision, a notion of from the bottom-up accountability, which they think will work better than top-down regulation, and it has merit as an hypothesis, but as a philosophy of government it’s dubious. Maybe all they are expecting is a re-balancing, and they don’t deep down see it as a solution, but either way it doesn’t add up.
My second thought, well, it is a philosophy of sorts, passionately promoted by Cameron in his conference speech. If you’re going to trust the people, then they need to take responsibility for their lives. Is it really the Blair/Brown approach that’s reduced the sense of responsibility at all levels of society, or has it more to do other long-term factors, not least the impact of affluence? Maybe Cameron thinks that the more he focuses on crisis and the broken society, the more he’ll shake us out of our torpor, but the likely result will be more heckling from the comfort of our TV chairs, and very little action.
The Cameron approach looks especially pernicious in healthcare, where devolving control down to the front line, and expecting the frontline to operate on minimum bureaucracy (for which read management), seems to be the main policy.
In education, devolving budgets down to schools, and allowing schools to rebuild and refurbish as they need, rather than rebuilding whole schools using money that comes from winning bids under the Building for the Future programme, makes a lot of sense. So too does giving power back to schools and teachers to run their schools in the best interest of their pupils. If that means excluding more children to ensure that the great majority have the best possible conditions for learning, then so be it. But we also get talk of devolving down to parents, which is puzzling. It will be interest groups not parents who want to start new schools, and there will be huge disruption.
Trust the people … on Europe, the leaving of which or partial separation from would cause massive disruption (do we want to be an island that much, cut off in every sense?), on security, building more jails, when they are so clearly dysfunctional, on defence, when Hague wants quarterly reviews which will run up against the importance of the long-term view in military strategy.
In all these areas there’s a middle common-sense ground, which is open for the Tories to grab, but in their enthusiasm to set themselves apart they are in danger of over-positioning, over-defining, and leaving themselves too many hostages to fortune.