Friday, October 03, 2008

Yeah but no but yeah but

Two final thoughts on the contradictions quietly writhing between the lines of Cameron’s speech.

First, when two of his key themes are that the “massive increase in debt” – public and private – went “far too high”, and that his approach to solving problems is to promote “social responsibility, not state control”, why did he not allot any blame to the consumers who irresponsibly borrowed too much? He was more than happy to chastise the Government and to fire a rhetorical shot at “bankers in the City [who] were quite simply irresponsible”. But not a word about the many ordinary people who borrowed more than they could really afford.

He said that “we will rein in private borrowing by… restoring the Bank of England's power to limit debt in the economy. That will help give our economy the financial responsibility it needs.”

This isn’t responsibility – being responsible is freely choosing to do the right thing. This is regulatory control over ordinary people as much as it is over financial institutions. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s a bad policy, but it suggest that his talk of “social responsibility” takes us through the looking-glass: “'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'”

Second, as Hopi Sen notes, there’s a growing tension between Cameron’s general position of decentralising the state’s power and his habit of demanding particular outcomes:

In one paragraph Cameron demanded freedom for teachers to teach and heads to lead. In the next he said that he would declare war on the educational establishment. So you’re free to teach, just as long as you teach in a way in which the Secretary of State wishes.
I think this strange duality hung over the whole speech.
I want to set you free to do what I say.

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