The phrase David Cameron launched yesterday – ‘muscular liberalism’ – makes my mind (generally undisturbed by thoughts of any kind) boggle with possibilities. I begin to wonder what he and Nick Clegg talk about in the gym while pumping iron (‘Spot me, Nicko, how’s this for liberal muscle?’) or pumping funding out of the NHS (‘No pain no gain, Nicko’).
I also wonder at the wisdom of Cameron choosing to air his perceptions of the shortcomings of ‘state multiculturalism’, on the very day when members of the ultra-right wing English Defence League have been causing a policing bill for £800,000 in Luton.
I suppose the timing meant Cameron got more time on the news bulletins and space in the Sunday papers on the backs of a bunch of right wing extremists parading around polluting the St George’s flag. But in doing so he gave a form of legitimacy to the EDL marchers by singling out the very people they hold up for hatred – Muslims.
Listening to what Cameron actually said, e.g. that Britain needs ‘a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism’, it sounded at first like a combination of Big Society hot air as well as another attempt to dress the ‘respectable’ right (Tories, Lib Dems) in the clothes of the progressive left, whilst justifying cutting government funding to community cohesion projects. A way of looking progressive without doing anything progressive – in fact doing the opposite.
His stance on Islam and Islamism is clumsy and shows a politician out of touch. Stating the blindingly obvious, he said ‘someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist’. Yes. Just as someone can be a Tory and not be a complete idiot. The fact he feels the need to state the obvious seems to imply he doesn’t really know the distinction, or is uneasy in his argument.
He also said ‘we need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing’. Thanks, Mr Cameron.
He went on to state his list of British values. ‘Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights, regardless of race, sex or sexuality’. Nothing to argue with there.
Or is there? The speech has prompted a deal of criticism: in the context of a speech about the failure of state multiculturalism Cameron implies certain communities are not subscribing to his list of values. He offers the list during a speech in which he seems to be pondering in his own mind the difference between Islam and Islamist extremism.
I think there is of course a debate to had about community, race and religious relations in this country. But in the context of Luton, and the content of his speech, David Cameron has today shown, for all his talk of muscular liberalism, that he does not possess the strengths, instincts or judgement to lead it.