Thankfully, rumours Dave's Tory conference speech would be performed in the style of a rap with a dubstep accompaniment proved unfounded. But the cod philosophy delivered in its stead was equally embarrassing. Dave's hour in the spotlight was all about his Idea, the Tories' "vision thing", the warm huggery of liberal conservatism: BigSoc.
Dave has wisely turned his back on the uncaring individualism of the Thatcher years. But he has preserved its philosophical core of individual responsibility and freedom and simultaneously locating it in an updated version of One Nation conservatism. This is more in tune with the trajectory of British society over the last 20 years than John Major's sad attempts to rebrand Toryism in terms of afternoon cricket, warm beer, and Spitfires. But that is the limit of BigSoc's originality. During his speech, Dave singled out 96 year old Tory activist Harry Beckhough, a man who's been batting for the class enemy since 1929. One can't help wondering if he'd heard Harold Macmillan uttering similar platitudes over 50 years ago.
The thing is it's difficult to disagree with Dave's big wheeze. Just like Andy Burnham's foray into pop political theory, on paper there is nothing objectionable about BigSoc. A redistribution and decentralisation of power, the phasing in of limited democratic checks on the police, more accountable and less bureaucratic public services, a voluntary citizens' service, more social activism, a balance of rights and responsibilities - if one ignores the waffle about the 'entrepreneurial economy' you might have found this sort of rhetoric in social democratic manifestoes of years past. And even shades of it in the odd list of Trotskyist transitional demands too.
Of course, BigSoc's deliberately designed to be all things to all people. Dave might genuinely believe in the list of nice feel good things he and his advisors have thrown together, but it's hard to see it as anything other than ideological cotton wool wrapped around the axe the Tories are currently sharpening. For example, in the name of choice and accountability public services are to be "broken open": this is Dave giving capital the green light to percolate even further into the fabric of public services, albeit with cooperatives, voluntary organisations and social enterprises acting as its Trojan Horses. Time and again they will be wheeled out as the success stories while private welfare and healthcare providers gorge on profits away from the media spotlight. Nice.
BigSoc needs to be placed in context. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the 'end of history', the crashing and burning of the metanarratives, mainstream politics have sought to define itself in terms of post-ideological pragmatism around unassailable neoliberal nostrums. BigSoc marks an evolution in this condition: we're not so much as experiencing a return of ideology (in the sense of the open espousal of big ideas) but the appearance of its return. BigSoc is an empty signifier marking the absence of anything beyond the latest iteration of neoliberal managerialism.
Dave can talk about responsibility, activism, aspiration, values, citizenship or whatever BigSoc buzzword suits the occasion, but all the while his party is the instrument of forcing the working class to pay for capital's crisis.