David Cameron: Blending modern conservatism with 1960s US Liberalism?

On a day when much will be said of David Cameron’s use of language and tone following his speech on radicalism and Islamic-extremism at the Munich Security Conference, it is perhaps worth considering the repeated use that the British Prime Minister makes of lines and ideas that originated in the United States of the 1960s.

Cameron is hardly the first politician to attempt to emulate a Kennedyesque picture postcard family, but he has been unusually brazen in his use of language and phrases that have their origins in the time period. Lest anyone wonder quite what I mean consider the following examples:

Long before he became Prime minister, David Cameron was referencing JFK in a speech that called for cleaner cars and lower fuel emissions. Speaking to environment leaders in June 2008, Cameron deliberately called for a Kennedy style focus on a new mission. “As John F Kennedy said of his vision of an American on the moon by 1970, a goal that at the time seemed impossible to achieve: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.’ We need a JFK vision for clean cars today.”

Cameron’s speech of March 31, 2010 revealed the central philosophy of his public policy; the Big Society. Cameron referred to Kennedy as having asked ‘the noble question’ as posed in his inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Quoting liberal Democrats is hardly a thing that British conservative Prime Ministers have made a habit of, but David Cameron would buck that trend . His speech also lauded the work of Barack Obama, the former community organiser turned Commander-in-Chief.

At the April 13, 2010 launch of his election manifesto, Cameron referred to Kennedy as “a great American president” and proceeded to repeat the fabled words, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” as a preface to his concept of getting people to aid their families and their community too. So, two things here; firstly the reference to JFK, a liberal Democrat as being “great,” and secondly the direct quote from Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 1961. When I was involved with the Tories in the late 1990s my efforts to consort with Democrats Abroad were forbidden. Now we have a conservative Prime Minister heaping praise on a Democrat President. I’d call that progress. This was too much to go un-noticed, of course, with the Telegraph referring to it as ‘Cameron’s Kennedy Moment.’ Missed, however, was Cameron’s distinctly American reference to “we, the people.”

The Conservative campaign manifesto document made reference to ‘the brightest and the best,’ a phrase that was identified with Kennedy’s cabinet before it was ironically inverted by David Halberstam in his Pulitzer Prize winning book on the drift to war in Vietnam. Cameron was not only paraphrasing JFK, but also being compared to him in political circles, to the detriment of Gordon Brown, of course, whose similarity to Richard Nixon could be the subject of a whole other posting!

At his first Party Conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, Cameron deliberate made an effort to paraphrase JFK’s inaugural address, something the Observer picked upon immediately. 

Now, one need not be a particularly avid reader of American politics or history to notice that Cameron’s Big Society concept bears more than a passing resemblance to President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Designed by LBJ to complete the work of FDR’s New Deal, the Great society would ultimately come undone due toe the small but competing issue of the Vietnam War and the realisation that it really wasn’t wise to attempt to have guns and butter. At its core, however, the Great society was Johnson’s dream of reducing poverty and racial divisions. Worryingly, the American link was spotted, but incorrectly attributed. The Daily Mail was quick to suggest that Cameron was once more emulating not LBJ, but his predecessor, President Kennedy. James Chapman suggested that ‘David Cameron echoes Kennedy in crusade to empower communities.’ Nice try, but wide of the mark. I’ve always found that it helps to attribute the right polices to the right presidents. 

Lest anyone think that Cameron is ignoring his Republican cousins across the Atlantic, he is not about a Nixon reference when the occasion serves. As the general election was launched Cameron declared he was fighting for “the great ignored,” a phrase that immediately brought to mind Nixon’s Silent Majority. It will be intriguing to see which American president Cameron quotes next. I wouldn’t expect to hear many Bushism thrown in for good measure!

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