A Review of David Cameron’s Speech at the Conservative Party Conference

There is a belief at the very heart of Tory policy which the faithful fear to call by its name… “It is wrong for a superior,” says Tory thinking, “to retain the right of making decisions which inferiors are already qualified to do for themselves.”  That belief was the bedrock of David Cameron’s speech in Manchester when he attacked Labour and its commitment to big government.

Although Cameron didn’t say as much he was actually talking about Subsidiarity – the belief that in a free society, decisions are best taken by those persons most qualified to do so as close to the point where the results of their decisions will be felt by them and other people.  So many of England’s problems, Cameron rightly explained, have resulted from large sections of society feeling themselves totally powerless to shape their own futures.

Cameron feared to call Subsidiarity by its name because, by the crazy operation of myth-creation that permeates political life, Tories have long persuaded themselves that it was the European Parliament that had drawn a smokescreen across their centralist policies by pretending that this was Subsidiarity in action.  Given the proportion of Tory Euro sceptics that was more than enough to give the idea a bad name.  It was no more Brussels that invented Subsidiarity, than it was Pope Pius XI in 1931 when he issued “Quadragessima Anno” to rebuff the claims of communism for unified materialistic thinking.  Nor was it Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who, according to Dr Jonathan Sacks the Chief Rabbi, first made the vital distinction between delegation (holding someone responsible for a sub-portion of a task that somebody else has already defined) and Subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity is when you trust somebody to make an appropriate decision because the quality of education it had earlier received meant that they could be trusted to get it right.

Subsidiarity was the obvious way of doing things to our forbearers who, having mastered all the sub-skills needed to perfect a craft that gave them a market advantage, realised that they had to train their successors to be even better at working out new solutions to problems, rather than simply repeating the processes known to their parents.  Good teachers, be they at Eton, Mossbourne Academy near Hackney (so obviously admired by Michael Gove), or Lower Bog Street Comprehensive, know that this also applies to schooling – the quicker you can get a child to see how to work out a problem for itself, rather than waiting for the answer, the better.  “It’s a bad teacher”, said Nietzsche, “whose pupils remain dependent upon him.”

Good teachers know that an education worthy of its name involves the development of intellectual and vocational skills, as well as those emotional and interpersonal skills that will one day enable them to contribute to the well-being of society.  A balanced education is like a stool with three legs that can balance on any surface, however rough, providing the legs are all of the same length.  Such equal-length legs represent the home, the community and the school – the home for emotional growth, the community for inspiration and social development, and the school for the development of academic rigour.  Balance is achieved because the legs are interdependent – the home cannot also undertake the task of the community and the school, neither can the school do the job of home and community, nor can the community do what is rightly the responsibility of the home or the school.

David Cameron earned the rightful applause of the conference when he said, “We are not going to solve our problems with big government.  We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society.  Stronger families.  Stronger communities.  A stronger country.  All by rebuilding responsibility.”

Praise be, I wanted to say, for that is oh so true.  I certainly do not believe in big government – indeed I have feared it for a long time.  But I do believe in responsible government – and that means properly defining the relationship between local and national government, which has become extraordinarily confused.  We are a complex society and, because we can’t do everything on our own, we have to know how to collaborate.  We need to know that at each level people are competent enough to be trusted – without that, Subsidiarity is a dream that dies with the dawn.

It was at this point that Cameron terrified me.  Looking to consolidate what already looked to be a pretty impregnable position he reverted to the old political trick and started to lash out at what he saw as the enemy within – in his book the local authority, the educational specialist, and the bureaucrats who had once decided that, to be fair to all the children in that constituency, some of the money which father Cameron said should follow his daughter around her playground, should instead have gone to a less privileged child in a less attractive playground.  Such despised bureaucrats have to do what every politician has to do – balance resources to best satisfy the public interest.  If David Cameron the parent, does not understand that he will make a bad Prime Minister.  Furthermore, to imply that parents in private schools always get what they want, and that it is only those in state schools who don’t, is very obviously absurd – as any independent school head would explain.  However rich is a school or country there will always be a conflict between public good, and private gain.

At a time when the status of parliamentarians has never been lower, rather than looking for partners with whom to share the struggle of rebuilding English education, Cameron turned his wrath on the already demoralised Members of local government who, historically, once acted as the local delivery mechanisms to implement national policy making.  Such people are an unfortunately easy target.  Worn down by Margaret Thatcher’s attacks of the early 1980s, and compromised by the way they have accepted multiple limitations on their decision making, they have little energy left to demonstrate that, in terms of what is best for Middlesbrough-on-Tees, Morton-in-the-Marsh, Sidmouth or the villages of Dartmoor, local communities should know better than anonymous officials in Whitehall what is best for their community.

If Cameron really believes in reducing big government – and I am sure he does – he will deal democracy a shattering blow if he shores up Westminster at the cost of finally selling off the town halls for, to most people, that is the place where they should be seeing democracy in operation. And at the heart of local government has to be the country’s commitment to its children.  Two hundred years after the churches had struggled to build elementary schools across the country; one hundred years after providing education for all to the age of thirteen, and sixty years after providing secondary education for everybody, is it really the case that Mr Cameron’s belief in democracy is so weak that he is now prepared to give away this country’s hard-won scholastic silverware to commercial companies that will – so he believes – improve the quality of education because they are motivated by the profit motive, not by an idealistic wish to create in every child an acceptance that we all have to depend upon each other?

History has proved, time and again, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. David Cameron and Michael Gove have less than six months left to show how they would draw the country together by creating a people who genuinely understand that, by investing in each other, they are creating the conditions that would help the nation heal its social and economic ills.