I listened to Gordon Brown’s first Prime Minister’s Questions as actual Prime Minister yesterday. If you put the substance of the “debate” aside (as the laws of contemporary British journalism require all commentators to do) then David Cameron made Gordon Brown sound a bit rickety. The good thing for our democracy is that, before most people made this judgment, they had to put rather more substance aside than is usually the case with PMQs.
But the challenge for a Conservative Party wanting to win the next election is much bigger than helping Cameron to claim Oxford Union-style debating victories. Many Conservatives are prepared to discard some of their beliefs if Cameron can lead them to victory. But Cameron doesn’t believe in anything. Despite our slightly different backgrounds, I can sympathize with Cameron on this. “Political science” is an oxymoron so I’ve acquired my views in this area by a process of elimination, starting with the things that are superficially appealing, but provably and obviously wrong—like Marxism or Objectivism—and moving onto subtler kinds of wrongness like multiculturalism and more elegant kinds of wrongness like monetarism. I’m not left with much, but I’m happy to fight for it.
Cameron is however handicapped beyond lacking philosophical commitment or philosophies to commit to: despite his debating tricks, he can’t even make a convincing case in the abstract, because he’s neither a swot nor a thinker. He can’t be bothered with the boring factual details and he can’t be bothered with that difficult argumentation stuff. Tim Worstall outlines a neat example today as reported in The Times:
David Cameron yesterday offered the music industry a unique deal—cut the glorification of materialism, misogyny and guns in hits and the next Conservative government would back an extension of the copyright on sound recordings from the current 50-year period to 70 years.
What’s happened here is embarrassingly obvious: Cameron has started with two lobbies: the music industry, which wants more money for old rope—and would be an excellent source of rich, glamorous, and stupid party donors; and the Mary Whitehouse brigade, which wants to stop people swearing and singing about sex, drugs, and violence on gramophone records—and would be an excellent source of votes. His way of reconciling their apparently conflicting demands—PARENTAL ADVISORY stickers are outdone only by charity record status as in-store sales boosters—is to trade one for the other.
As Tim points out, Cameron seems to have reached his policy conclusion without attempting to accumulate any relevant data or use them to draw logical conclusions. It is a triumph of political matter over mind. It’s the only kind of triumph he’ll be able to claim between now and the ever-faster approaching day when the Tories ditch him. And they’ll ditch him because he has strained so hard to be electable that he has become unelectable. Trying to sell the (wo)man in the street such simple old-fashioned bargains when the world has become rather more sophisticated will only keep you in business for so long. Just ask Fopp.