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Q & A with David Cameron: Why Britain Needs a ‘Compassionate Conservative’

26 minute read
Catherine Mayer/London

During the course of a day spent campaigning in Scotland, Conservative Party leader David Cameron explains his political philosophy, while ducking comparisons with Margaret Thatcher and JFK.

TIME: Since the Conservative Party last held power in 1997, three men have led the party before you. A year into the job, the polls suggest you are enjoying more success than your predecessors. Why?

David Cameron: I think I’ve had the advantage of being able to spend time learning the lessons of the last 10 years. We’ve got a long way still to go but the progress over the last year has been based on the fact that we had a clear understanding of what was wrong and what needed to be put right and I sought a mandate from the Conservative Party to put it right and said there was going to be a lot of change: party modernization in terms of candidates, changing some of the positions of the party and ditching some of the baggage of the past, changing the approach of the party. The way we’ve been doing politics has been a bit more positive. We’re been working with the government when we agree with them, all those things that I talked about in the leadership election which we’ve done. All of them have made a bit of a difference, so I had the advantage of time but it was a clear plan and a new approach — and one that I feel personally very strongly about — and fits with my view of the world so it’s been easier to carry it through.

TIME: A key element of your strategy appears to have been to rebrand the Conservative Party as a party that cares. You’ve used the phrase “compassionate conservative,” which has a different resonance in the U.S.

David Cameron: Yes, labels are often misleading or unfortunate, but I always thought the label “modern, compassionate Conservative” was a good mantra. Modern, because I think the Conservative Party has always been a party about the future and the changes necessary to take advantage of current circumstances, and the party needed to modernize. Compassionate, because conservatism does have a lot to say to me about helping those people who can get left behind. But Conservative, because we believe that if you trust people and give them more power and responsibility over their lives, you get a stronger society. So that’s why I use the mantra “modern, compassionate Conservative,” but it can mean different things to different people and in different countries, so I know it may not translate very well.

TIME: In the U.S., the term is associated with a president whose popularity has taken a big hit in large part because of the Iraq war. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has also suffered badly from an Iraq backlash. What would you have done differently?

David Cameron: I supported the decision to go to war, and most of the Conservative Party voted with the government at the time. There were serious mistakes made subsequent to that — disbanding the Iraqi army and the police force, allowing a situation of anarchy to develop, the lack of proper post-war planning in terms of how Iraq was going to run — and I think there are some different decisions that could have been taken that would have led to very different consequences. Even now, I would be more comfortable with something that was closer to the Baker-Hamilton plan than what would seem to be being put in place. I went to Iraq last year and met with the Iraqi vice president last week and take a very close interest in trying to make sure we make the right decisions. There are differences in the approach to this issue with the government, but we don’t try to play politics with this issue. I don’t stand at Prime Minister’s Questions and try to catch the Prime Minister out on Iraq. I genuinely want Britain to make the right decisions so we can have a more stable Iraq and can bring our troops home.

TIME: Have you been developing contacts in Washington?

David Cameron: We have. [Senator] John McCain came to our conference and I admire him a great deal. Lots of things we won’t agree about on every dot and comma — our approach to Iraq is probably quite different. The Conservative Party has also always had a number of good contacts with the Democrats, and we should have contacts with both sides but obviously the Republicans are our sister party. We’re together in the International Democratic Union and other bodies and there are good and strong ties there.

TIME: Foreign affairs closer to home must be causing you concern: Your party tore itself apart over the European Union, and now the nightmare is returning, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel trying to revive the EU constitution.David Cameron: It shouldn’t be a difficult issue for our party because it’s an issue on which the Conservative Party now has a settled view, which is that we want to be in the European Union, but we want a flexible, open, trading union and we are opposed to further integration of the European Union. And it’s a position that the vast mass of the British public agrees with us about. Ten years ago, [former Conservative Party leader] William Hague was a lone voice against the single currency. The Confederation of British Industry and the Labour Party and lots of others were saying Britain wouldn’t have a future outside the single currency. Now, you can hardly find a politician who wants to join the single currency, so I think the Conservative Party is in the right position. The idea of bringing back a constitution with lots of transfer of power from the nation states to the center is complete head-in-the-sand. The French and the Dutch voted no. This constitution is dead. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — to mix my metaphors — this bird is not going to fly. So the Conservative Party is in a rather strong position. I was just reading the papers this morning — the government is in rather an awkward position because Blair said a number of things, and [his presumed successor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon] Brown. They said Europe can’t work without this new constitution. They said we needed a great battle in the United Kingdom — “Let battle be joined” was Blair’s remark — and we’re going to have a referendum. It’s intensely embarrassing for them now. The last thing they want is for this constitution to come back and for there to be a referendum. But they’re having to eat all their words, and it’s the Conservative Party that’s been proved right. So, if we’re sensible and stick to our principles and set out why Europe can work better as it is now without a constitution, then there’s every reason why we can win this issue.

TIME: You’ve lost a couple of people in your parliamentary party recently because they felt you were insufficiently Euroskeptic…

David Cameron: I didn’t really lose them. There were two peers [members of the House of Lords] who had advised people to vote for another party, who we’d suspended from the Conservative Party, who then eventually defected. So it was very much of the Dog Bites Man news story.

TIME: But a trigger issue was the question of which grouping the Tories sit with in the European parliament…

David Cameron: Yes, that’s an important issue. I said the Conservative Party shouldn’t sit with the European People’s Party in the European Parliament after 2009, after the next elections, because at the end of the day, although there are many things we agree with the EEP about in terms of economy and immigration, we don’t agree about the fundamental issue about the future direction of Europe, and I think we’d be better, as I’ve always said, as friendly neighbors rather than reluctant tenants. That’s why we’re going to establish a new group in the European Parliament with likeminded Conservative parties after 2009. This issue of the constitution rather proves my point that it’s going to be promoted by a number of people who sit in the European People’s Party, and we will be staunchly against it.

TIME: The polls currently show you firmly ahead of Labour, but not by a large enough margin to avoid a hung parliament, which means that every vote will count. The British press, particularly its tabloid newspapers and especially the Sun, are credited with influencing the outcome of previous elections. How important is it to you to win their endorsements?

David Cameron: If you’re trying to win an election, you want endorsements from everybody. We live in a different environment to a decade ago. People’s consumption of media is completely different. I was doing an interview last night on BBC Online, which now has 4 million daily users. The Internet, television, the proliferation of news and other channels on the TV, changes in the way people read newspapers and online, I think, have weakened the importance of any one specific endorsement. But of course I’d like everyone to endorse the Conservative Party — but I believe you’ve got to do what you think is right and explain to people what you’re going to stand for, and then let people make up their own minds. I didn’t win the leadership of the Conservative Party because I was backed by lots of newspapers. I won the leadership of the Conservative Party because I had the right ideas about changing the party. And I think it’s the same when it comes to changing the country.

TIME: You’re putting some faith in the power of new media, with your Webcameron web site. You’ve described Gordon Brown [who is expected to lead the Labour Party in the next election] as an “analog politician in a digital age.”

David Cameron: Yes. He’s a politician whose approach I just find very stuck in the past. It’s all about top-down big government solutions, and if you look at the tax credit system, the NHS computer, the national ID card scheme, this belief in big government solutions solving the problems of the world. I just take a totally different view. Compared with Labour’s state control, what we need is what I call social responsibility, which is trusting professionals to run our public services more, trusting parents to bring up their children more, trusting business to tackle some of the big issues of environmental and social problems more, and a greater trust in local government and civic leaders — so the four pillars of social responsibility being civic responsibility, corporate responsibility, personal responsibility and professional responsibility. It’s a different approach to this belief in top-down solutions.

TIME: That sounds very much in tune with the [more left-leaning] Guardian readership. You’re occupying much of the ground that has been occupied by Labour.

David Cameron: I think it cuts across. It’s not a leftwing thing or a rightwing thing. I think it’s quite a Conservative idea because it’s about trusting people and saying that if you trust people with more decisions over their lives and greater responsibility, they will be stronger and society will be stronger. That’s quite a Conservative idea. But this also does resonate with people on other parts of the political spectrum who don’t believe in big government and who want a richer civic society. If you look at the role of voluntary bodies and social enterprises, they’ve got a huge contribution to make in tackling some of the most entrenched social problems, whether it’s drug abuse or family breakdown or poor housing or lack of educational attainment. And I think that does resonate with people right across the political spectrum because they see that themselves.

TIME: You’ve said you intend to move towards a more consensual style of politics. That would be unfamiliar in this country.

David Cameron: It has been unfamiliar for the last few decades because there was a great division between the parties. When I grew up in the 1980s, there was this great division between the center right and the left. We wanted to be part of NATO and to deploy cruise missiles. They wanted to leave NATO and unilaterally disarm. We wanted to privatize state-run industries. They wanted to nationalize the top 100 companies. We wanted to reform the trade unions. They wanted to give more power to the trade unions. There were huge, ideological divisions. That has changed. With Blair, the left has accepted much of the settlement that we’re a free market economy with good public services but an enterprise culture and all of that, and part of NATO and believe in strong defense. He’s bought all of that, so it is a different world we’re in. People want their politicians to live in the real world and not pretend there are divisions where there aren’t any and so to operate in a more reasonable and sensible way. Now there are plenty of things we don’t agree about. Between me and Gordon Brown, as I’ve said, there’s a big division between his belief in state control and my belief in social responsibility, but in terms of facing Blair there have been times when I’ve helped him to get legislation through the House of Commons, like the schools bill. It was a good bill, gave schools some extra independence and I was happy to get it through the House of Commons — and without my help, it wouldn’t have got through because his left wing wanted to stop it.

TIME: You won’t have minded that your help served to highlight Blair’s difficulties with members of his own party. Did it cause problems in your own ranks?

David Cameron: It was one of the first big things that happened last year that established a slightly new approach for the Conservative Party that initially some people were uneasy about — but then they saw the sense. This is positive politics, you’re getting something done, you’re sticking to your principles. It ended up actually being intensely embarrassing for the government because they were relying on us to pass their legislation. So, in the end the message came out: if you want a united party that knows about public service reform, that’s the Conservative Party. Alternatively there’s the Labour Party, deeply divided, it can’t deliver public service reform. So it was an interesting moment in British politics.

TIME: People are anticipating a much bigger division in style, if not in substance, when you’re facing Gordon Brown.

David Cameron: I don’t really know him very well, and I don’t know what his approach will be like. He seems more …there’s less light and shade than with Blair. So I think probably there will be a bit of a contrast, but we’ll see.

TIME: In the past few days, Brown has several times quoted John F. Kennedy. But you’re the one who attracts the comparisons with JFK and predictions of a new Camelot.

David Cameron: The person whose speeches I love reading and think was a wonderful orator is Bobby Kennedy, actually. They’re just amazing. Some of his speeches were incredibly powerful. But no, I’m interested in American politics but I’m not — some people are obsessed, some people are obsessive about American politics. I follow with some interest but I don’t sit around dreaming of Camelot.

TIME: It’s supposedly the other way around: I’m told you’re Britain’s most sought-after dinner guest. People say you’re recreating Camelot.

David Cameron: I read these things and they don’t quite seem to reflect my life, which is three children under 5. Most of my home life is spent knee-deep in nappies and wailing children, so I don’t quite recognize the portraits that are sometimes painted.

[The conversation continues later, in a cafe at Aberdeen station waiting for the train to Edinburgh. Cameron is offered a muffin, and worries aloud that he’s fat.]

TIME: You’re not. That’s funny. Men don’t normally say they’re fat when they’re not.

DAVID CAMERON: You should see the Guardian cartoon of me this week. It’s actually very funny. It’s a picture of me saying “I’m the heir to Thatcher. I’ve the neck for it and the tits for it.”

TIME: You mention the cartoon of Margaret Thatcher. You’ve deliberately avoided claiming you’re her heir or recalling that era. Then, this week, you invoked her name.

David Cameron: I wrote an article in The Telegraph to answer some of my critics, take them on, correct some of their impressions. I was finding it rather infuriating some of the things people were saying and getting wrong. To me, Mrs Thatcher, it’s all a long time in the past. People are voting at the next election who were born after Mrs. Thatcher left office. It’s an important thought. So I’m not trying to be the heir to anybody in particular. I’m just trying to do the job. But there are some important things to learn from Margaret Thatcher’s success.

TIME: But this is a completely new era?

David Cameron: A new era, with new challenges. Margaret Thatcher was facing a Britain that was economically bankrupt and going down the pan, and she had to give Britain back a successful economy, which she did. But today, we face very different challenges. It’s much more about social breakdown, the new environmental challenges, the security challenges. It’s a different environment.

TIME: Many people would say that Blair couldn’t have done what he’s done without Thatcher having done what she did.

David Cameron: That’s true. TIME: Is Blair’s legacy going to be having made possible the more consensual kind of politics that you’re aiming towards?

David Cameron: I’m not sure Blair is going to have that strong a legacy. He had an amazing opportunity. He inherited a growing economy, he had three large majorities. He had everything going for him. His problem is he didn’t know enough what he wanted to do. All politicians since Margaret Thatcher have been struggling to define themselves, and I think Blair has been struggling to. Looking at it from the Conservatives’ point of view, it’s very clear now what our mission, what our role is, and how we achieve it. As I said, Margaret Thatcher’s role was to give Britain back a successful economy and the chance to succeed in the world. Our role today as Conservatives is about quality of life. It’s about trying to find that combination of a growing economy and a better society and a quality environment and freedom from crime. That’s the “what” that we’re trying to achieve. And the “how” we’re going to achieve it is social responsibility, not state control, but giving more power to individuals and families and to professionals in the health service and in education and to local government — so what’s exciting for the Conservative Party right now is that we’re very clear about the what it’s all about, which is quality of life, and the how we’re going to achieve it, which is social responsibility. When you’ve got the what and the how and you have a clear view, everything else will fall into place. Does that make sense? It makes lots of sense to me.

TIME: Why are you up here [in Scotland]?

Because I want the Conservative Party to recover in every part of the United Kingdom and in Scotland we’ve been stuck in forth place and there’s one reason why. Here we are in a prosperous city in Scotland, Aberdeen, with its amazing connections to the oil industry, a great boom down, yet the Conservative Party is still suffering from the pre-1997 trauma. My point is that every country in Europe has a sensible, moderate center-right party that stands for that mixture of enterprise and compassion and the Conservative Party should be that party in Scotland. And we haven’t been but we’ve ought to be. So we’re in Aberdeen and going to Edinburgh. I’m bringing the whole shadow cabinet to Edinburgh – no party leader of any party has ever done that as far as I can see. [Gestures at David Mundell, sitting at the next table.] I mean David is my shadow Secretary of state for Scotland, so he’s focused on Scotland, but it means all of the others have got to spend some time thinking right how are we going to help deliver this Conservative recovery in Scotland.

TIME: Scotland is becoming a problem for the Labour government and possibly one you may inherit if the Scottish nationalists do as well as predicted in the next election.

David Cameron: Yes. If you look at the opinion polls there is concern that the Scots might be moving to a position where they want independence. I hope that doesn’t happen, I believe in the Union and when you really ask people in Scotland what it is they want, they want a successful Scotland within the United Kingdom. I don’t think they do want to break away. But the Conservative Party has quite a big part to play in making sure Scotland does stay in the Union…

[The interview is interrupted again. A final, truncated portion is conducted on a brief car journey to the shadow cabinet meeting in Edinburgh.]

TIME: In America, people may have difficulty understanding why your relatively privileged background could be seen as a problem here. In America, bit might be seen as an advantage…

David Cameron: Britain is a much less class-ridden society than it used to be, and these things matter less and less and we’re becoming a more meritocratic society and that’s a thoroughly good thing. The sad thing, though, is that mobility has declined and we have to do something about that, people from less well off homes should be able to go the very top and there’s less of that happening at the moment, which is a worry. But people are less worried about class and background and where you went to school, and that’s a good thing.

What about the idea that you might not be able to empathize with the common man?

David Cameron: I don’t think that’s true. You’ve been following me around all day so you have to make your own mind up. I don’t think that should be a barrier in getting on with people. I don’t find it a barrier.

TIME: You’re certainly facing a prejudice in the press here — one columnist from the [pro-Labour tabloid Daily] Mirror often refers to you as “The Toff” [a British pejorative term for the elite social class]

David Cameron: Even if I were a cross between Einstein, Wittgenstein and Mother Theresa, they’d probably still have a go at me.

TIME: And although you’d say the Tories have seized the initiative on the environment…

David Cameron:I think we have…

TIME: The papers gleefully reported that when you were photographed riding your bicycle, you were being followed by your official car.

David Cameron: But that happened, like, twice. Because I have a huge amount of work to do there were a couple of occasions when a car had to drop off some work at my home. That now has never happened again.

TIME: Your environmentalism is real and heartfelt?

David Cameron: Absolutely. Don’t look at just my own views. Look at what the party is doing. The party is now committed to annual limits on carbon emissions, which is a huge step forward. And also it is our campaigning on the environment which has encouraged the government to bring forward a climate change bill and to take this issue more seriously. So, I think we can really say we’ve achieved something here.

TIME: And it’s something that will have resonance with the core Conservative voters?

David Cameron: It has resonance will all sorts of people. Everyone recognizes the challenge of climate change and the growing importance of a range of environmental issues. When I launched our campaign for the local elections on the slogan of Vote Blue, Go Green, I’m sure some people thought this was completely mad, but the fact is that the environment does matter to people and they do recognize its importance and they respond to the arguments we’re putting out about it.

TIME: Not everyone recognizes the challenge of climate change — the U.S. has never ratified Kyoto.

David Cameron: There are some signs of change. Arnold Schwarzenegger has shown… I mean, look, I profoundly believe the environment should be an issue the center-right grabs hold of. We believe that you care about what you pass on to your children. What’s more important a part of inheritance than the planet? And the center-right recognize that there are lots of market-based solutions to environmental problems that we should be championing, so I think that on every grounds it’s sensible for the center-right to be campaigning on these issues.

TIME: Prime Minister Blair recently said that because of the extraordinary growth of China and India, there was a limit to what we could do unilaterally.

David Cameron: Of course we need a climate-change deal that incorporates India and China and America to make real progress, but we shouldn’t just wait for that and stop doing anything else and throw our hands up in despair. That is a defeatist argument. We should be setting an example to the rest of the world. We should be providing some leadership on this issue and that will make it more likely that we can encourage the Americans, Indians and Chinese and others to come in and make an agreement about this.

TIME: In the U.K., as elsewhere, there’s a debate over how politics should be funded.

David Cameron: We need reform of party funding and I’m the only leader of a major political party that has set out a clear and coherent way that we do it. We should have limits on donations that should apply to individuals, businesses and trade unions. I’ve suggested £50,000 a year as the limit, and in response to that some modest state funding of political parties which you could offset by cutting the cost of politics, reducing the size of the House of Commons and cutting the amount that’s spent during a general election. That is a sensible package and I hope others will take it up.

TIME: One reason it’s such a critical issue is there’s a lack of engagement in politics. Party membership numbers are declining.

David Cameron: Part of the package I suggested was some modest tax relief on smaller donations. And when we do reform party funding, it’s very important we encourage small donations and parties to have strong grassroots and to have a strong and growing membership. But reforming party finance is one of the things we need to do to stop the cynicism about politics. People think that parties are somehow open to be bought by rich individuals or rich businesses or rich trade unions. We’ve got to get rid of that impression and so party finance reform is part of the necessary change to make politics more clean and wholesome.

TIME: That’s a phrase that photos of your family recall. But how are you going to balance your family life — and their privacy — with your work?

David Cameron: It must be possible to be a good leader of a party and a good father, or a good prime minister and a good father. It must be possible and I’m determined to try and do both jobs. The key is trying to keep control of your diary and make sure you have time at home and time with your children and I make sure that happens. Today is going to be a failure. Because of the high winds I don’t think I’m going to get home tonight. But last night I was home, and I gave the children a bath, which was great. It’s important. You just have to make time.

TIME: So, a new style of politics also involves a new set of priorities?

David Cameron: I don’t know whether it’s a new style. To me it’s just obvious. If you’ve got three children under 5 and you want to be a good father and be there when they’re growing up, you’ve got to make time. So that means you need strict rules about when politics stops and family starts. I try to do that.

TIME: Where does your public life end and your private life begin?

David Cameron: It’s a permanent matter that you have to make a judgement about and be reasonable about. Obviously in politics people want to have a look at you and understand who you are and what makes you tick and what sort of person you are. That’s natural and important but you should also be entitled to some privacy. You’re trying to set a reasonable set of boundaries that the press can respect and that’s something you have to learn as you go along.

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