In his widely-trailed Hugo Young lecture on Tuesday (available here), David Cameron discussed at some length the Conservative’s vision for welfare, a more active role for civil society and what the state should do to help build that sort of civil society. For the most part he was wearing his best liberal-conservative clothes, though he revealed the iron fist cached in his glove at times. The speech will surely be widely discussed, and debate will no doubt focus on such issues as whether these ambitions are achievable, and whether this is an attempt to disguise a Thatcherite retrenchment of the welfare state or marks a genuinely new approach from the Conservatives. It’s an impressively argued, wide-ranging speech, and deserves careful consideration.
One striking feature of the speech, though, was what it didn’t consider. Cameron talked of ‘the state’; he had concrete suggestions about how volunteering and social entrepreneurs should become more prominent, and supported; he wants to reshape how welfare benefits are paid and to whom, and the role of education and social services. But, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, many (though not all) of these are devolved matters. So what are the Tories saying about that? Are these firm policy commitments, reflecting what will happen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too? Are they willing to try to set aside devolution to do so? Or was this just a statement of aspiration for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a declaration of intent of what the Tories plan to do in England only? It was far from clear. Cameron’s language doesn’t clarify matters; he used ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Briton’ five times in the speech, but never mentioned ‘England’ at all.
This shows two things. One is that the tendency to confuse ‘Britain’, ‘UK’ and ‘England’ is alive and well in the Conservative Party, even in very thoughtful and carefully-crafted speeches. (They’re no exception in this, and the London-based media don’t help, but they are probably worse at it than the other British parties.) The other is that this failure to think in constitutional terms creates, and reinforces, a belief that devolution doesn’t matter. Increasingly it does, in ways that all politicians will have to take into account. If they want to make their government a success, the Tories will need to start thinking constitutionally and making sure it shapes both the substance and the presentation of their policy ideas.