‘It is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around,’ the words of a senior British politician. Reading this you might imagine an Asian MP perhaps? Or maybe a highly progressive Labour candidate campaigning in a predominantly Asian area? Well no, amazingly these were the words of David Cameron in 2007.
We are now almost seven years on from Cameron’s election to the Leadership of the Conservative party in 2005 and the political scene in Britain has altered considerably since then. The economy has tumbled, banks have been bailed out, a Labour government has fallen to be replaced with the first coalition of modern times and the Conservative party has risen from the depths of hated obscurity to renewed popularity – and half-way back again.
How should we assess our Prime Minister? For most people, the mention of Cameron or the Conservatives conjures some comment about harsh public spending cuts, youth unemployment or the Bullingdon Club. If you find yourself in such a conversation with more political students, a general allusion to the 1980s is always vaguely appropriate but feel free to insert your own verdict; we’re all in this together after all.
Yet five years ago, these comments might have been ignored, as David Cameron appeared to be one of the most promisingly progressive Conservative leaders ever. It may seem hard to believe now, but the austerity Prime Minister had urged people to accept ‘hoodies’ as victims, promoted counselling for young criminals, advocated drug rehabilitation and was in favour of legalising gay marriage – albeit having infamously voted to uphold the shamefully anti-gay ‘Section 28′ in the past.
Many of these might well have been ‘token’ gestures; an attempt by the ‘heir to Blair’ to re-brand the Tories as a more acceptable, modern and ‘centre-right’ party in the run up to New Labour’s demise. There were of course positions of disappointingly little change: Cameron’s continuing opposition to the fox hunting ban, Euroscepticism, strong rhetoric on immigration, the shortening of abortion time limits and of course tuition fees; all remained staunchly fixed on the Conservative agenda.
Nevertheless, it did once appear as if Cameron might slay the back-bench blue dinosaurs that make the party largely unelectable to our generation. Yet two years into an unpopular government the image of the ‘nasty party’ remains stronger than ever and the government – with the Liberal Democrats very much included – are expected to suffer accordingly in 2012′s round of local elections. The party reputation is not helped by Cameron’s personal wealth and background but, more fundamentally, it is a question of expense: government cuts are set to bite hardest mid-term, whilst offering a glimmer of hope on the horizon when public spending is due for a raise in 2015, prior to the general election.
Perhaps still clinging to a modicum of pride, the Prime Minister does not acknowledge the issue quite so readily as Nick Clegg, who on Radio 4 last week admitted that ‘if you have no money, you are faced with difficult choices.’ The difficult choice the coalition pays for having ‘no money’ is to push modern reform and remain penniless or to act prudently and be hated. If there genuinely was a vision for dragging the Conservative party left, towards more generous and populist politics, it is far from practicable.
Ironically, David Cameron could well have been one of the most ‘progressive’ – in a broad sense – Conservative leaders so far, instead he now presides over a traditionally ‘nasty’ government of austerity, sober belt-tightening and uninspiring initiatives. Poor man.