David Cameron at the RSA – some more thoughts

January 19, 2011 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

A couple of snippets following on from the lively debate about politicians and about David Cameron.

On the former, I still hold to the idea in my post last week of doing more to celebrate those times when politicians are inspirational and demonstrably public spirited.

But my bigger concern is that we try to understand the limitations of the view that power simply resides with those in government – politicians whose only motivation is to screw everyone else by lying and conniving. The fundamental problem with this view is that it allows us as citizens to avoid facing up to the fact that progress requires that we think and behave differently. That we can’t have what we tell pollsters we want – Nordic welfare but American tax rates or action on climate change but cheap energy – is not because we have evil or stupid politicians but because the conversation between us and those we elected is immature and inauthentic.

In search of a more interesting and nuanced view of the world I can strongly commend a wonderful piece in this month’s LRB by Slavoj Zizek.

A number of people accused me of being superficial by praising David Cameron’s communication style. But a Fellow who was at yesterday’s event stopped me in the corridor to make what I thought was an interesting observation. The Fellow felt that, for all his polish, the Prime Minister didn’t really grab the audience in the way that a great political orator –like for example Obama on a good day – might. We chatted and came to the conclusion that Cameron’s style is more about making his own case clearly understood and less about trying to win over the room by connecting with his audience.

If this is right, it may be simply the way Cameron is and, let’s face it, some people would prefer a more conversational style to attempts at emotional bonding. Or is it that our Prime Minister knows what is coming and has reconciled himself to unpopularity over the next two or three years?  Rather than try – and fail –  to win people over he sees his task as explaining what he is doing so at least people understand it even if they don’t agree with it. And this – as I was saying on the Today Programme this morning – is my main concern with the way the NHS reforms are being presented.

Taken together I believe the reforms shift us from a National Health Service to a National Health Franchise. I am not saying whether this is a good or a bad thing – there are arguments on both sides and shades of grey between. But it feels less than direct for the Prime Minister to present reform – as he did here at the RSA – as a pragmatic response to aspects of performance and budget pressures when it is in fact underpinned by a much bolder and more radical reconceptualising of health care.    

Anyway, it was an honour to host the Prime Minister making such a big speech and let’s hope the RSA can start to establish itself not just as a venue for great lectures and events but a place people choose when they have something important to announce



  • http://charlottealldritt.wordpress.com/ Charlotte Alldritt

    A great venue for lectures, events and important announcements, yes. But is there something in the RSA becoming a thriving place for more ‘mature’ and ‘authentic’ conversations between us and our elected representatives? E.g. an offline version of your ‘ilovepoliticians.com’, toned down by a healthy dose of realism and mutually respectful challenge…?

    Get Lansley, Gove, Cameron and others in a room where the public are able to converse without the crowdpleasing soundbites of BBC Questiontime or PMQs headbashing.

    A case of ’21st Enlightenment = (empowerment + engagement) – (the hype, the anti-(anti)-anti-reform movements and cheap talk rhetoric)’?

  • http://ziobastone.wordpress.com/ Zio Bastone

    Your Žižek citation leaves me a little bemused. Isn’t it really a plea for subversion, rather as Mario Tronti’s conception (half a century ago) of subversion and innovation in the workplace as the obverse of one another was also a plea for subversion? It’s certainly not, I think, a defence of either the behaviour of Straussians such as Paul Wolfowitz with respect to Iraq or of the ‘shameless cynicism’ of (say) Nick Clegg on the one hand and Ed Miliband & Andy Burnham on the other over tuition fees.

    I also think there’s a useful difference between identifying instances of dishonesty and the straw man position that politicians’ ‘only motivation is to screw everyone else by lying and conniving’. Even Berlusconi’s motivations are (slightly) more complex than that.

    As to ‘immature and inauthentic’ conversations (there was a Big One back in 2003, as I recall), the difficulty we face (it’s not unique to Britain) is that politicians increasingly act as customer facing executives (brand managers, advertisers, sales staff, customer services) for some prevailing trend (Žižek’s ‘hegemonic discourse’) whilst the electorate increasingly sees politics solely as a matter of consumables, many of which are defective or mis-sold. Few of us question the model, which is of course what Žižek argues we should do. As indeed do I.

  • http://practicaltrust.com Theodore Taptiklis

    Zio Bastone (and Žižek) make a strong point here…that the ‘authentic’ discourse for which we are all yearning is set within deeply layered assumptions about personal, political and institutional conduct…so deeply layered, in fact, that we don’t recognise them as assumptions. For example, the way that our prevailing view about the appropriate public presentation of the self (…the “be your own brand” ethos) sets us up to compete for conversational shelf space, rather than to make sense together. Don’t we have to start by trying to understand and agree what is authentic conversation, and what are the circumstances for creating and maintaining it?

  • http://www.soundminds.co.uk Paul

    Firstly, on Cameron’s style at the RSA – he knows that his audience is not in the room but on the 10.00 oclock news – via the box in the corner to our own front rooms. No point in being a big orator for TV unless it’s in the context of a big public event as it could be misconstrued as overly brassy and preachy – not the way to persuade.

    Politicians know we view their broadcasts in the same light as ads for breakfast cereal. It’s this commodification that leads us to demand a sound bite rather than a full meal and leads us to view their utterances with the same skepticism we do product advertising. We don’t expect them to live up to their promises and they duly oblige by breaking them.

    I don’t belive every politician is a lying b**d, but the past 25 years or so has certainly been characterised by a heck of a lot of it from the political classes.

  • mas

    Where I’m from they call it straight talking except where it’s BS and then it’s called BS [insert obvious pun about Govt. commitment to BS]. Politics aside I’d describe Cameron’s ‘style’ as smug b@5t@rD! The over sincerity of desperately attempting to come across as sincere is unbearable. As for Clegg I think he comes across very well, except of course for the small issue of how exactly does he manage to look anybody straight in the eye anymore?!

    If there’s an issue of understanding I’d argue that it’s most strongly to do with how out of touch politicians are with most people. Life is very different outside of the London bubble – most people call it ‘normal’.

  • ESP

    Matthew is trying very hard to be constructive given his political past and to some extent I admire that effort. I have no doubt that he is trying to be decent and reasonable.
    However, I applaud Zio Bastone’s comments. It is morally unacceptable to engage constructively with some things and it is a moral imperative to challenge and subvert or oppose some things. I still have no idea of what Cameron’s deep competences are supposed to be. I see no reason to lower my assessment standards to accept smooth presentation without content as a positive. It isn’t good enough for me and I think we all have a duty to make sure that it isn’t accepted as good enough by anyone. The current distaste for genuine deep expertise in British society is unacceptable. There is nothing admirable about dilettantism. What is suggested for the NHS is reprehensible. We should listen to real experts (try Allyson Pollock for a start – she can see through all of this BS) and make sure we are educated enough ourselves to critically evaluate rubbish presented plausibly. .

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  • lilly

    “is not because we have evil or stupid politicians but because the conversation between us and those we elected is immature and inauthentic.”

    So why do the people we elect to be leaders feel the need to maintain and peddle such immature and inauthentic conversations?? (we could include some of the RSA conversations in this couldn’t we?)

    They promise they won’t and then they lie, pretend to listen but don’t. Still we have immature and inauthentic conversations despite various ‘engagement’ initiatives greeted with a greater distrust by an increasingly apathetic public.

    I agree fundamentally it is the citizens responsibility, we shouldn’t vote for what isn’t a democracy (3 main parties and their cronies) then we may have a mature and more authentic leadership emerge.

    Until that time Labour will soon be the voice of the people again after showing they clearly weren’t, then back to tories, then back to labour, then tories with some lib garnish, then labour. Until the public stop listening to the spin and PR and completely disengage i suspect these immature and inauthentic men and women will stay in power and maintain their conversations in kind- evil and stupid :)

  • http://www.soundminds.co.uk Paul

    For many years in my youth I was an active member of the Labour Party. I can’t see myself joining Labour again because the grassroots no longer has any impact on the leadership. In my old age I find myself further and further to the left of parliamentary politics.

    I’m more and more convinced that the only way out of the mess and inauthenticity is revolution. Call me old fashioned….

  • carl allen

    The vital difference between announcing something important and doing something useful has forever been lost at Oxford University and hence the deep pain of good English citizens on attempting to engage with the Oxford taught politician.

    Let us hope that RSA does not emulate Oxford in that aspect.