David Cameron, Leader of The Responsible Party
There is no use indicting words, they are no shoddier than what they peddle.
Samuel Beckett: Malone Dies (1958)
Yet words are a good place to start. David Cameron made a speech yesterday to the Tory – I mean “Conservative” – Spring Conference – sorry “Forum”. “Spring”, I think, is still all right.
I did some work on Cameron’s speech with the help of some cool text analysis software – what a geek! I did the same work on Cameron’s speech at the same conference two months before the general election, a year ago to the day. The results are interesting.
The two speeches are of comparable length (in 2010 total word count 2370, number of different words 991; in 2011 total word count 2145, number of different words 990). Average syllables per word has come down from 1.58 in 2010 to 1.54 now, as has average sentence length from 15.7 words in 2010 to 13.8 yesterday.
Ignoring words of less than three characters, the word that was mentioned most both years has remained the same – read into it what you will. The word is “our”. The second most mentioned word last year was “Wales” – a whopping 22 times. “Wales” is no longer in the PM’s linguistic top ten. A new entry this year with 23 mentions is “enterprise”, up from a measly two mentions pre-election. “Conservative”, “Conservatives” and “Conservatism” down from 19 times in 2010 to a paltry eight this year.
The top three-word-phrase before the election was “more for less”. It has been replaced by “in this country”. “Big” or “Bigger Society” was not mentioned once in the 2010 speech, but featured five times yesterday. “Margaret Thatcher” featured a key three times this year. She was not mentioned at all before the election.
All this means nothing, you might say. I disagree. I have Julie Andrews in my head, intoning “when you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything”. Whether a sonata is in major or minor key makes all the difference to its texture. Words do matter.
Take the choice of words in the description of the civil service, for instance, as “enemies of enterprise” and Cameron’s declaration of war on them. The political arm of the state publicly attacking the administrative arm, on which it depends for delivery of its promises and its cuts. The wisdom of this is, at the very least, questionable.
Let’s look at this move in the way Tories love to do: in business terms. What would the reaction be if, say, the president of Apple, a year into the job, made an announcement to the stock market that the company’s employees are all wankers and he plans to “take them on”? How about if he did so at an incredibly difficult financial juncture in that company’s history? How about if he had just announced unprecedented sackings and was relying on the remaining, diminished staff to deliver radical restructuring? Good Management?
Now, this is not to say that I think everything he said was nonsense. I accept fully that government departments, like any large organisation, are resistant to change. I accept fully that most are permeated by a Kafkaesque level of bureaucracy. I just think he is inexperienced and clueless as to how to manage that change. As his former politics tutor, Professor Bogdanor, remarked on young Cameron’s early forays into politics while at Oxford: “I think he is very confused. I’ve read his speech and it’s filled with contradictions. There are one or two good things in it but one glimpses them, as it were, through a mist of misunderstanding”. This is still the case. Otherwise, Cameron would know that he is ultimately responsible for these nameless departments that he points the finger at. He is at the helm.
That word again. “Responsible”. Cameron asks citizens to “take more responsibility, because responsibility is what the Big Society is all about”. How about applying this concept to government? In last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions a total of six difficult points were non-answered by reference to the situation that was inherited. A denial of responsibility for the choices this government is making in the present, by reference to the past. This latest uncoupling of government from government departments in Cameron’s speech paves the way for a denial of responsibility in the future.
It is, in fact, already happening. Departments and local authorities are being handed down severe cuts. Every time something is actually cut, the Prime Minister responds with “they didn’t have to cut that, they could cut something else”, but no indication as to what that “something else” might be. It is all about localism and devolution. You, the government departments, have the right to choose the cuts needed in order to deliver the savings. We, the government, reserve the right to disapprove of your choices. It is a puerile mantra repeated ad nauseum: Everything that is happening is down to the previous government and everything that is about to happen is down to choices made by others. But who cares? It’s only words, right?
Cameron spent a lot of yesterday’s speech focusing on another indefinable term: “enterprise”, which apparently consists of “the hunger to get on in life” and “the courage to make your dream happen”. The Charlie Sheen school of #winning. So, to all you losers who do not run your own businesses, you’re just not hungry or courageous enough. At long last, we have this Jeremy Kyle advice pez-dispenser of a Prime Minister to tell us that. Cameron took pains to point out that they are “the party of builders and businesswomen; electricians and engineers; roofers and retailers”. He took pains to explain how he – unlike his opponents – understands the passion “to build a business and see it grow”.
These are, however, just more words. David William Donald Cameron was born the son of a stock-broker and direct descendent of King William IV. His mother was the daughter of a Baronet. He was educated at Heatherdown Prep School, which counts Prince Edward and Prince Andrew among its alumni, then at Eton College where his punishment for smoking pot was to copy 500 lines of Latin text. He spent part of his gap year as a researcher for Conservative MP Tim Rathbone, who also happened to be his godfather. He went on to study Politics at Oxford’s prestigious Brasenose College, before going to work for the Conservative Party and being seconded to Downing Street, briefing John Major. My guess is that the closest David Cameron has been to a roofer was probably to say “Could you possibly keep that racket down? We’re trying to play croquet”.
“Some people think”, Cameron says, “that this is all government needs to do – cut tax and regulation and just get out the way. I don’t disagree.” And yet the collective predicament in which we find ourselves, is in large part due to doing just that with the banking industry. David Cameron stands on that stage like Pontius Pilate and washes his hands. “At its beating heart this is still a party of start-ups, go-getters, risk-takers”, he says. Go-getters and risk-takers like Bob Diamond, Jerry del Missier and Rich Ricci, Barclays CEOs who paid themselves a total of £28 million in bonuses and £40 million in shares last year.
And suddenly I don’t have Julie Andrews in my head any more. I have Lady Macbeth.
“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”