Interesting, isn’t it, the way David Cameron dodges – or perhaps more accurately, pre-empts – criticism of his policies by portraying those same critics as being not only opposed to the particular policy, but somehow against the very notion of change and reform? He has done it to explain any number of spending cuts and did it today with his NHS plans. His team are always up to the same game – Michael Gove uses this tactic to counter questions about free schools, Eric Pickles deploys it to swat away worries about funding for local authorities…
It’s both devious and effective, immediately casting Cameron (or Gove or Pickles) in the role of radical and impatient reformer, making difficult choices to preserve our public services – while manoeuvring anyone who has anything approaching doubt into the position of unambitious, nay-saying ostrich. Even worse, if even the faintest clearing of the throat is mustered, to ask if they’ve really thought through the x, the y or the z, then you are damned as, wait for it, a ‘deficit denier’.
One can begin to imagine, in the very vaguest sense, how a 17th century witch (alleged, of course) may have felt; agree with what we say and you are sane, but doomed; disagree and you are clearly mad and don’t deserve a hearing (I know, the witches had it much tougher, but at least they didn’t have our Education Secretary to contend with. If the choice was between an hour with the unctuous smarm-machine that is Michael Gove and decision-making Salem-style, I’d take a kangaroo court and a head-first dunking every single time).
Strange in many ways, that those who want to preserve and defend (and, note the word choice: conserve) certain aspects of our public sphere are being rubbished by a Conservative Party which was founded on opposition to radical reform. Thatcher was a break from this tradition, and no surprises that Cameron is seeking to emulate the big-haired one.
The challenge now though, in this clever-clever debate where only the posh boys win, is for opponents to reclaim some of this ground as advocates of reform and change. Difficult, I’m sure, when all the troops are being marshalled to defend sacred turf, but essential if the coming months aren’t going to be presented in simplistic terms with the Government as change-bringers and just about everyone who questions them as head-scratching buffoons who just don’t get it.
Cameron has one thing right; the world isn’t perfect and change is necessary yet that needn’t mean that all that we have is flawed, damaged or worthless. In fact, nine times out of ten – the community school, the local library, the hospital – is well worth looking after and protecting. Opponents of the coalition do need to do just that, but in order to win the arguments, they are going to need to fight back with the fiercest weapon there is: ideas.