Cameron’s speech might have lacked flair, but it was a brilliant rhetorical exercise. He cast himself into the distant future and reflected on his premiership. He saw a society that had paid its way back from the brink of collapse by rationing excess and embracing austerity. He saw a society that was flourishing, where the poorest attended the best schools, where people were empowered to work hard and were rewarded for doing so. Returning to the sombre present he said: “It will be a steep climb. But the view from the summit will be worth it.”
But this rhetorical tour de force was inspired by a substantial philosophical argument. Cameron’s vision saw the State diminished to subservience. Lincoln’s axiom that government should be for the people and by the people inspired each element of Cameron’s speech. Government is, was and ever shall be the root of this nation’s problems; the way ahead is to nurture the collective responsibility of individuals in communities and families. He personalised this ambition by talking of his own family. Though the State would help those who cannot help themselves, Cameron’s future talks of Society, not the State: “When we look back, we will say that it was you who made it happen”.
The claim that Cameron is bereft of substance is erroneous. He presents a clear choice between the officious State and the empowerment of the individual, with its connotations of liberty and responsibility. That principle guides Cameron’s One Nation Toryism and inflects all of his thought – on education, welfare reform, economics, reforming the political system, everything.
As he stood behind a lectern, speaking with intensity and seriousness, Cameron projected that principle to an audience beyond the hall and the Westminster Village; the contrast with the partisan insularity of Clegg and Brown was telling. There were blemishes, notably on the NHS and the lamentable appearance of Bono, but this was an audition to be Prime Minister from a man who stands for more than just himself. I would be amazed if he does not succeed.