David Cameron’s speech today at the launch of Demos’s Character Inquiry was both brave and significant. His message was that it is parenting, not material wealth, that plays the most important role in determining a child’s prospects in life. As Cameron put it, ‘What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting.’
This message is easily caricatured — ‘Millionaire Cameron says poverty doesn’t matter’ — but it is important and, as recent academic research shows, true. (This is not to say, that poverty doesn’t matter, it clearly does, but that material poverty is not the sole determinant).
Cameron’s other message this morning was the importance of a culture that doesn’t destroy children’s innocence. Many people on the right think that talking about this stuff is nannying. But, to borrow a phrase from Peggy Noonan, our culture is ‘the ocean in which our children swim.’ Attempting to clean it up is a laudable aim. One way, short of regulation, for Cameron to do this if he wins the election is to use the Prime Ministerial bully pulpit to call out companies that put profits before principles.
There were a few interesting political points from the event today. Cameron once more used the marriage between a ‘man and woman, a man and a man and a woman and a woman’ line when defending his plan to offer support for marriage through the tax system, a clear sign that the Conservatives remain concerned about their policy been attacked as backward-looking. He also coined a rather neat new sound-bite, calling the policy his party’s ‘commitment to commitment.’ Frank Field made the point that seeing that the Labour government has spent £75 billion on tax credits and making work pay and that the economic expansion produced three million new jobs but the welfare rolls failed to reduce by anything like that amount shows that the current approach is not enough. As Field put it, ‘You shouldn’t be standing for public office if you think more of the same will do.’ This is a point the Conservatives should make more often and more publicly than they do.
The one moment at today’s event when Cameron looked uncomfortable was when Polly Toynbee asked him if he thought The Sun contributed to the premature sexualisation of children. Cameron blushed before saying that his children don’t read The Sun — and then, just in time, adding the word ‘yet’.
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