Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, October 19, 2015

Interpretation, interpretation

Rafael Behr, journalist at The Guardian offers his "translations" of David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party's annual conference. (Remember, this is partisan politics.)

David Cameron speech at Tory conference: what he said – and what he meant
Cameron: “I am so proud to be standing here in front of you today – back in government. And not just any government – a majority Conservative government. To the people in this hall, I want to say thank you. You are the greatest team a prime minister could ever have. And to the British people: when you put your cross in the Conservative box, you were putting your faith in us. To finish the job we started. To back working people. To deliver security for you and your family."

Rafael Behr says: "This is the core message, introduced nice and high up. Working people. Security. Conservatives on the side of decent, modern Britain, Labour away with the fairies. The rest of the speech will be reinforcing that essential dividing line."

Cameron: "But just for a moment, think back to May 7th… Ed Balls had gone. And when I woke up and I switched on the radio, Nigel Farage had gone too. There was a brief moment when I thought it was all a dream. But there’s a serious point. Why did all the pollsters and the pundits get it so wrong? Because, fundamentally, they didn’t understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren’t obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing.

Rafael Behr says: "Shameless pitch here to the many people who think Twitter is a waste of time and a mild rebuke to the journalists who spend all of their spare hours on it."

Cameron: "The British people are decent, sensible, reasonable, and they just want a government that supports the vulnerable, backs those who do the right thing and helps them get on in life. Good jobs; a decent home; better childcare; controlled immigration; lower taxes so there’s more money at the end of the month; an NHS that’s there for them, seven days a week; great schools; dignity in retirement. That is what people want and that is what we will deliver. The party of working people, the party for working people – today, tomorrow, always. Ten years ago, I stood on a stage just like this one and said if we changed our party we could change our country. We’ve done that – together."

Behr: "Cameron is thinking about his legacy here – and the succession. The fact is, the Tory leader has always out-polled his party. Even in May many people were persuaded to back the Conservatives because they trusted Cameron as PM (and didn't want Miliband). So in this section, he is trying to make the point that the “modernisation” of the party has succeeded; that the brand has been decontaminated. In essence he is saying to the soft supporters out in the country: you may have come for Cameron, but stick around for the rest of the Tories, you'll be pleasantly surprised."

Cameron: "I can say something today that perhaps no prime minister has ever really been able to say before. I’m starting the second half of my time in this job. As you know, I am not going to fight another election as your leader. So I don’t have the luxury of unlimited time. Let me tell you: I am in just as much of a hurry as five years ago. Securing our country, growing our economy; jobs, exports, growth, infrastructure … these are the stepping stones on the path to greatness for our country – and we’ve been laying them every day since we came to office. We will continue to do so. But to make Britain greater, we need to tackle some deep social problems - problems we only just made a start on, as we focused on the economic emergency that faced us. The scourge of poverty. The brick wall of blocked opportunity. The shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us. A Greater Britain doesn’t just need a stronger economy – it needs a stronger society."

Behr: "It has always annoyed Cameron that his “big society” theme never really got off the ground. He knows that lingering suspicion about Tory attitudes towards the poor remains a significant drag on the party's popularity – the most stubborn residue of brand contaminant. So he is trying to leverage public confidence (misplaced or not) in his capacity to fix the economy to bid for the contract to fix society too."

Cameron: "And delivering this social reform is entirely fitting with the great history of the Conservative party who have always been the optimists, the agents of hope and the leaders of change. That’s why I joined it. That’s why I wanted to lead it. And now, in my final term as prime minister, I say: let’s live up to the greatest traditions of Conservative social reform. In all the challenges we face, we will be guided by our Conservative values.Our belief in strong defence and sound money. Our belief in an enterprise economy, that if you set free the ambition that burns so deeply within the British people, they will strike out on their own, take on new workers, take on the world. Our belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome. Not everyone ending up with the same exam results, the same salary, the same house – but everyone having the same shot at them."

Behr: "This is a caveat dressed up as a bold assertion. Cameron wants to be in favour of equality – who doesn't – but he won't go as far as some of his more liberal, one-nation colleagues go in suggesting that there is something ultimately unfair about a massive gap between the top and the bottom; that society becomes less cohesive and less pleasant when the spread of wealth and incomes gets too vast. In this respect, the prime minister is more orthodox Thatcherite conservative. By all means let's level the playing field, he says, but don't expect me to start knocking the rich for being rich. "

Cameron: "Another big judgment call to make is when a refugee crisis confronts our world. Like most people, I found it impossible to get the image of that poor Syrian boy Aylan [sic] Kurdi out of my mind. We know in our hearts our responsibilities to help those fleeing for their lives. But we know, too, that we must keep our heads. Let’s start with a simple fact. Twelve million people have been made homeless by the conflict in Syria. And so far only 4% of them have come to Europe. If we opened the door to every refugee, our country would be overwhelmed. The best thing Britain can do is help neighbouring countries, the Syrian people and the refugees in the camps and when we do take refugees, to take them from the region, rather than acting in a way that encourages more to make that dangerous journey. As we do this, let’s remember: we haven’t only just started caring about Syrians."

Behr: "Here Cameron deftly segues from refugees to foreign aid to national security and the army. He starts talking about an issue that makes Tory members uncomfortable – and on which many resent him; then steers through one that makes them irritable to one that makes them rise to their feet and cheer our heroic armed forces. Only later will they realise the sleight of hand. Was that really the only thing he had to say about immigration? Clever. "

Cameron: "This is Britain. We don’t duck fights. We get stuck in. We fix problems. That’s how we kept our border checkpoints when others decided to take theirs down. It’s how we kept the pound when others went head first into the Euro. Because we do things our way. We get rebates. We get out of bailouts. But do you know what? It’s not just what we get out of, it’s what we get Europe into. Who do you think got Europe to open trade talks with America, which would be the biggest trade deal in our history? Who do you think got Europe to agree to sanctions on Iran, which brought that country to the negotiating table? Us. Britain. We did. Believe me, I have no romantic attachment to the European Union and its institutions. I’m only interested in two things: Britain’s prosperity and Britain’s influence. That’s why I’m going to fight hard in this renegotiation – so we can get a better deal and the best of both worlds."

Behr: "This is about as strong a defence of Britain's EU membership as Cameron has dared make directly at a Tory conference. He realises he has to rise above the details of the renegotiation at some point and make his case to the country based on the broader national interest. So he is starting now. Note also that “best of both worlds” was the strategic pitch that the no camp in the Scottish referendum were aiming for – distinct national identity plus all the economic benefits of the union; have your cake and eat it. Cameron will be aiming for something like that in his EU referendum campaign."

Cameron: "And if we’re to be the global success story of the 21st century, we need to write millions of individual success stories. A Greater Britain – made of greater expectations …

"Where renters become homeowners, employees become employer, a small island becomes an even bigger economy and where extremism is defeated once and for all. A Greater Britain, no more, its people dragged down or held back, no more, some children with their noses pressed to the window as they watch the world moving ahead without them. No – a country raising its sights, its people reaching new heights. A Great British take-off – that leaves no one behind.

"That’s our dream – to help you realise your dreams. A Greater Britain – made of greater hope, greater chances, greater security. So let’s get out there – all of us – and let’s make it happen."

Behr: "Hear now the strains of patriotic tunes – Land of Hope and Glory maybe, or better still, God Save the Queen, and then ponder how lustily Cameron would sing it while a sullen and tight-lipped Jeremy Corbyn stands next to him. That is the image the prime minister wants you to have in mind as you consider which of the two major parties really has Britain's best interests at heart. "

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