Cameron’s speech this week kept a delicate balance, delivering a blow to right-wing demons such as multiculturalism and political correctness, sugaring the pill for Lib Dems with a principled commitment to liberal values, and minimising offense to all concerned by proposing almost no actual policy. It’s hard, though, to find fault with the core of his message – the state should not support religious extremists, and should have the wit to recognise that the boundary between violent and non-violent extremism is often permeable.
And yet, the stress fell heavily on the failings of ‘multiculturalism’, rather than on the virtues of liberalism, plainly because defining liberal values is a prickly issue for a Conservative leader – his party still contains a substantial wing of MPs uneasy about ‘state promotion of homosexuality’, or the erosion of the nuclear family, sentiments held in common with many of those singled out by Cameron as ‘extreme’.
It is therefore odd that Cameron chose to single out liberal values not just as vital, but as British. ‘British values’ rarely enter public discourse, and in private allude to little more than stoic determination in the face of wet walks and Nazi bombs. There are two ways to interpret his choice of this rhetorical blank slate. Either, he is playing on its vague nationalism to gloss over the more divisive connotations of liberalism, or his speech represents a reasonably genuine attempt to shore up liberalism’s position as political orthodoxy. The effects such an effort if made by a Conservative leader, however half-hearted, should not be underestimated.
Still, it is perhaps too much to think that identifying illiberal values with implicitly backward extremists will make liberalism any more popular; the headlines kept the focus firmly on proposed measures against Muslim groups, while the EDL took it as a sign that Cameron understands what ‘everyone’ is thinking. The speech smacks of compromise, and whether it represents xenophobia dressed up as political ideology, or liberalism made palatable with a scattering of right-wing buzzwords is, given the limited actions actually proposed, and indeed Cameron’s own shifting stance on social issues, is anybody’s guess.