A blog standard leader
Cameron's 'webcameron' stunt suggests he can only engage with the electorate as atomised teens behind a computer screen.
On the eve of the Conservative Party’s conference this week, leader David Cameron has been busy generating headlines. He was fancifully pitched alongside John F Kennedy for making similar ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ comments in the broadsheets. Most of all he made the front pages as a result of a new initiative called ‘webcameron’, which apparently will assist the Tories in ‘reaching out to a blogging generation that is disaffected and disconnected from mainstream politics’ (1).
Webcameron will provide a kind of vid-blog of Cameron’s political and private life. He will provide regular clips in which he will speak directly to camera, as well as written blogs and podcasts. Already, Cameron has provided such insightful political viewing as battling with his noisy kids and scraping dirty plates into the bin. It seems ‘webcameron’ is an awful pun masquerading as a hi-tech salvation. ‘Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4, we’re the new competition’, said Cameron, with all the delusion of a L!VE TV producer.
The idea behind webcameron has been pilfered from the video and images sites YouTube and flickr, and social networking site MySpace. It suggests that Cameron can only relate to us as atomised teenagers; it probably won’t be long before he is giving us his opinions on the new Killers album. Monitoring blogs might fill up some column inches for news-starved broadsheets, but it is hardly the basis for rejuvenating a declining party’s fortunes. Far from engaging a potential active audience, webcameron will reinforce the idea that politics, alongside clicking on Amazon and downloading from iTunes, is just another form of passive consumption. Behind all the techno-babble of Cameron’s team, there’s a strong whiff of defeatism here rather than political daring. So much so that the website is said ‘consciously [to] play down the party message’ (2). All of which beg the questions: what’s the point of the web launch then, and what message is this anyway?
Reports in some Sunday broadsheets indicated that Cameron wants to show that the Conservatives have always believed that individuals have a responsibility to others. ‘When we see challenges to overcome’, said Cameron, ‘we do not just ask what governments can do. We ask what people can do, what society can do. That is what we mean by social responsibility.’ (3) The mantra of ‘individual responsibility’ was a watchword of former Tory PM Margaret Thatcher, as social and welfare services were downscaled or dismantled altogether. Saying ‘we don’t ask what governments can do’ has always been an attempt to offload responsibility for the action and consequences of governance.
For some, however, the phrasing is ‘far removed from Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that there is “no such thing as society”’ (4). Indeed, Cameron is keen to emphasise social responsibility. But this doesn’t mean social organisation. When Cameron says ‘we ask what people can do, what society can do’, his interpretation of ‘the social’ seems to be borrowed from the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who theorised that ‘society’ is simply the aggregate of individual ‘inter-subjectivity’ or communication; no wonder Cameron is so keen on webcams. From this perspective, Cameron’s idea of ‘social responsibility’ simply means that daisy chains of individuals, rather than collective organisations, are responsible for each other’s welfare. Cameron’s ‘big idea’ for contemporary Conservatism sounds remarkably similar to Conservatism from the end of the last century, albeit wrapped up in ‘communicative action’-speak.
In many ways, the Tories are victims of their own success. Having obliterated any basic challenge to capital from organised labour, the Conservative Party’s work has long been done. Although it has lost three elections in a row, there isn’t the same bitter recrimination and despair as there was when the Labour Party was in a similar position back in the Eighties. Sunday’s interview with former Tory leader William Hague, for instance, revealed a true blue Conservative barely agitated about his electoral misfortunes while singing the praises of Tony Blair (5).
The Conservative Party has always been a different political organisation to any other because it has always put the legitimacy of the entire British system before anything else. So in different historical periods, it has accepted and adopted non-‘conservative’ beliefs, such as a mixed economy and welfarism, because it fitted the requirements of British society at that time. It’s worth recalling that in the 1970s and 80s the Conservative Party was already laying the basis for New Labour, such as by promoting multiculturalism and anti-harassment regulative measures at work. But the party had too much ‘old elite’ baggage to see such initiatives through.
This is why the likes of Thatcher and Hague can endorse Blair. As a result, there is no wider dynamic from the political elite pushing Cameron into power. He’s in a similar position to Gordon Brown – a wannabe leader for the sake of being a leader, rather than someone on a mission to represent ideas and a constituency. Still, if all else fails, perhaps Cameron can get a job advertising broadband?
Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.
(1) Guardian, 30 September 2006
(2) Guardian, 30 September 2006
(3) Observer, 1 October 2006
(4) Observer, 1 October 2006
(5) Observer, 1 October 2006