Over the past three weeks, the leaders of Britain's main political parties have each, in turn, delivered a dull speech. Today it was David Cameron's turn. He was less soporific than Gordon Brown - but then strolling through a poppy field in the merry old land of Oz is less soporific than listening to Gordon Brown - and (though this is a finer judgement) less anodyne than Nick Clegg, most of whose speech sounded as though it had been written by a computer. But still. Cameron said very little that was new and nothing that was stirring. Even the vision, summoned up in his peroration, of surveying the view after a steep climb up a mountain, didn't quite work, partly because the speech itself was somewhat of a trek. Unlike Tony Blair's speech in 1996, it had no sense of an inevitable ascent to power.
On the other hand, Cameron said many of the right things. There was a particularly strong passage about education, for example, in which he displayed what seemed like genuine anger at Ed Balls' wasteful agenda of target-setting and quangos (although there was a touch of unreality when the old Etonian claimed that Conservative Britain will be "country where the poorest children go to the best schools"). Above all, he offered a consistent message - about how many of today's problems can be traced back to Labour's love of big government solutions, and about how people should as far as possible be trusted to run their own lives and have a say in their own communities. The speech was full of old-style One Nation Conservatism, above all in its invocation of family and country - although there was nothing as memorable as John Major's vision of warm beer and cricket pitches.
Gordon Brown has been droning on about "British values" for years. Today David Cameron offered an effective riposte:
Britishness is not mechanical, it’s organic. It’s an emotional connection to a way of life, an attitude, a set of institutions. Make these stronger and our national identity becomes stronger.
New Labour's belief that it can reduce "Britishness" to a list of nebulous leftish platitudes has been deeply damaging because it has undermined and in some cases destroyed the institutions that give the country its historic character. These include traditional civil liberties - trial by jury, habeas corpus, privacy, the presumption of innocence, the principle that all are equal before the law - which Labour tends to regard as an inconvenience. So I was especially pleased to hear Cameron's very clear commitment to "sweep away the whole rotten edifice" of the surveillance state.
That's easier said than done, of course, and Cameron didn't explain how he would achieve this laudable aim. As he must know, the civil service loves Big Brother just as much as Gordon Brown does, and any serious attempt to disassemble the surveillance architecture and the habits of mind that go with it. Dr Madsen Pirie had an excellent suggestion in the Telegraph: the incoming government should set up a judicial inquiry which "would hear evidence in public concerning the degree to which traditional liberties have been eroded" and then come up with concrete proposals.
While the Conservative Government would not be compelled to implement its findings, there would be a moral pressure on it to do so. Through its year-long inquiry, the review body would raise awareness of liberty issues, and publicize the degree to which it has been lost or threatened. A culture of liberty would gradually supplant the illiberal culture that currently prevails.
But what is really needed to supplant the culture of surveillance is one of individual self-government. People have come to expect the government to tell them what to do and protect them against any possible harm; there may be a growing sense that the nanny state has gone too far, but that coexists with interminable campaigns for "something to be done" whenever a high-profile accident or horrendous crime occurs. Cameron understands the problem. "The more that we as a society do, the less we will need government to do." But it would take a brave politician to refuse to intervene when the Mail demands action.
The peroration was interesting. After summoning up his rosy vision of happy families empowered, active citizens and "a great handing back of power to people", he added,
And when we look back we will say not that the government made it happen, not that the minister made it happen, but the businesswoman made it happen, the police officer made it happen, the father made it happen, the teacher made it happen. You made it happen.
This is clearly pinched from a quote attributed to Lao Tzu: "When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'we did it ourselves!'" The line happens to be a particular favourite of Tony Benn's.