Cameron Trapped in Own “Compassionate” Rhetoric

The British leader has made it nigh impossible for him to pursue more rigorous reforms.

Prime Minister David Cameron rehearses his speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, October 9, 2012
Prime Minister David Cameron rehearses his speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, October 9, 2012 (i-images/Andrew Parsons)

British prime minister David Cameron told his party’s conference in Birmingham on Wednesday that his mission was to show that Conservatives are “compassionate”. If he doesn’t, he warned, “It leaves a space for others to twist our ideas and distort who we are: the cartoon Conservatives who don’t care.”

Right-wing policies, Cameron added, “are not just good for the strong and the successful but the best way to help the poor and the weak and the vulnerable.”

The reason we want to reform schools, to cut welfare dependency, to reduce government spending is not because we’re the same old Tories who want to help the rich. It’s because we’re the Tories whose ideas help everyone, the poorest the most.

Cameron explained, “Conservative methods are not just the way we grow a strong economy but the way we build a big society.” The object is to empower individuals and lessen their dependency on the state.

But even if Cameron criticized the opposition’s willingness to rack up public spending to preserve entitlements and stimulate growth, his government has done fairly little to reduce the size of the British state.

Before the Conservatives came to power in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Britain’s budget deficit amounted to 12 percent of gross domestic product or £163 billion. The national debt had reached a record high of £857 billion.

Even if the deficit was cut, total public-sector spending, in real terms, was almost 4 percent higher last year than it was in 2009, Labour’s final full year in power, and higher again this year. The government spends £65 billion more than Labour did in 2009. Unless deeper spending reductions are enacted, the coalition may not meet its goal of ensuring that the debt-to-GDP ratio starts falling by 2015.

Health care accounts for 18 percent of public spending but has been exempt from cuts as part of Cameron’s effort to portray his party as compassionate. “This is the party of the NHS and that’s the way it’s going to stay,” he said Wednesday.

More than 20 percent of British workers is employed by the government. Almost 30 percent of public spending is devoured by an enormously complicated and complex welfare regime which still leaves many in financial despair. Nearly four out of twenty million British households have no one who earns a wage.

Cameron’s government has capped welfare benefits and is making it easier for Britons to start and run a business but it will take more to get Britain “on the rise” again, as the prime minister put it. Doing so, however, would mean further spending and tax cuts which would open the Conservative Party up to the very criticism that Cameron is to keen to avoid.

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