David Cameron: My values are yours

By David Rowan, March 27, 2007

David Cameron, he would like it known, is an enthusiastic friend of the Jewish people.

"I have great admiration and respect for what the community's achieved," he begins in the back seat of his official Opposition car - the "greener" hybrid petrol-electric Lexus that he requested, albeit with no bicycle in sight - en route this Friday-morning rush hour from his Ladbroke Grove house to King's Cross.

"If you look at educational achievement, contribution to the community, to business, sense of public service, duty, [being] good at integrating into Britain - you tick every box three times over."

Cameron has not until now made himself available for interview to a Jewish publication. After a difficult summer, when his party faced criticism for appearing unsupportive of Israel in its hour of need, there was speculation that Cameron, perhaps, saw fewer advantages in engaging with this community than predecessors such as Michael Howard or, notably, Margaret Thatcher.

His gilded rise via Eton and Brasenose, Oxford - with all the advantages of Bullingdon drinking-club connections, three forebears who were Conservative MPs, and latterly marriage into the Astor dynasty - have not, after all, suggested much empathy for Jewish concerns. He has certainly shown none of Labour's enthusiasm for bringing into his inner circle this community's Michael Levys or Ronald Cohens.

So what does the Tory leader know about Britain's Jewish community? As Terry the driver negotiates a congested A40, Cameron moves his gaze between the road and the tape recorder as he unflinchingly establishes his credentials. "I know quite a lot about the community, I'd say," he fires back, his tone confident, almost slick, more businesslike than warm. "Andrew Feldman, one of my oldest and best friends, helped run my leadership campaign; I've been to the Community Safety Trust [sic] dinner; I'm one of the few politicians who's actually been round Jewish Care before speaking at their breakfast; I was recently at a synagogue in Leeds; I worked for a prominent Jewish business leader for seven-and-a-half years, Michael Green... and in my downstairs loo, you'd see the proud gift I received after speaking at the
350th anniversary dinner, [a print] of Benjamin Disraeli's house."

But what matters more, he says, is his belief that Jewish teaching encapsulates the vision of British society that his Conservative Party seeks to fulfil. "The essence of what I'm saying about the future of the country,  how we should run our government, I think is something that Jewish people will profoundly understand, which is that we need a sense of social responsibility," he says. "That if we're going to solve the problems we have as a country - poor education, bad public health, poor housing, problems with drug addiction, family breakdown - we've got to recognise that we're all in it together. It's not just government that has the answers, it's stronger families, stronger communities, trusting professionals in the health service... We all have an individual and social responsibility. And to me, that is at the heart of Jewish teaching."

It is this emphasis on social responsibility that he says defines his more "mainstream" Conservative Party. "I hope that people in Britain's Jewish community, who are the very essence of social responsibility, in  terms of what they do in terms of charity, social enterprise, individual action, strong families - I hope they will respond to this. And so far they seem to be." It is an attractively vague soundbite, but what does this mean in specific terms? More help for faith schools, for instance? "Yes, I support faith schools, they're very important," he says. (He revealed last month that he intends to send his three-year-old daughter to a local Church of England primary.)

"It also means trusting charities and voluntary bodies more, giving them longer-term funding, respecting that often they've got the answers rather than government, trusting them to run larger programmes. It's a big cultural change in terms of the way the government interacts with the social and voluntary sectors.

"What will I be talking about today in Cambridge? Public health. Look at what's happening in terms of obesity, diabetes, sexual health. Cases of syphilis have gone up ten times in the past decade. We've got a real public-health crisis. Of course the government has a role, funding advertising campaigns, but there's an enormous social responsibility.

"We need families to do more, we need businesses to do more, we need to trust the brilliant voluntary and community groups in this area. Social responsibility gives you the framework to answer all of these questions. And I think it's a framework that's very much in tune with the way that British Jews live their lives."

What of Cameron's own faith? "To me it's a very private thing," he replies cautiously. "I'm a participating member of the Church of England, I'll put it that way. I have a faith, it's important, but not something I wear on my sleeve." He smiles. "I've always said I believe in God, but I don't think I have a direct line."

He had not, he acknowledges, met many Jews before Oxford. At Eton "there were lots of Montefiores and Rothschilds", he says, "but I was very unconscious, growing up, of the issue of anti- Semitism, that's true". At Oxford, he met Andrew Feldman, now 41, his first strong Jewish friend, who fundraised for Cameron's leadership campaign in between running the family ladieswear firm, Jayroma. Other friends include Howard Leigh, a corporate financier active in Jewish charities who is a senior Conservative Party treasurer.

Cameron does not have a rabbinic adviser - "though I've met the Chief Rabbi several times, and very much admire what he's done" - although he hopes that he is broadening his Jewish understanding through his personal circle. "I'm a good learner."

Still... his political acumen must make him see the advantage in playing more to Britain's two million Muslims than to 300,000 or so Jews, no? "I believe you've got to treat people equally," he replies.
"I've been very outspoken about Ken Livingstone and his very poor record on this front - by moments he's shown borderline anti-Semitism, with his treatment of that journalist [Oliver Finegold], and the repeated invitations to [controversial Egyptian scholar Yusuf] al-Qaradawi.

"My whole argument about multiculturalism is we've got to get away from this idea that you treat people as members of a community. You should treat people as British citizens. We need less of these silos; Britain isn't a community of communities, but a country with citizens. We should  integrate more. And the Jewish community has been fantastic at that."

Yet during last summer's Lebanon war, critics  suggested that Cameron was actively positioning his party as hostile to Israel, perhaps in part to attract Muslim support. Most explosive was the verbal missile launched by his Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who declared that "elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate, risking unnecessary loss of civilian life and an increase in popular support for Hizbollah".

Some prominent Jewish Tories, notably Lord Kalms, were furious. Hague, Kalms wrote in the Spectator, was an "ignorant armchair critic" whose views were not merely unhelpful but "downright dangerous". Cameron, meanwhile, was accused of staying conveniently silent.

"I think Stanley Kalms's piece was wrong," he says now. "I see Stanley from time to time, but he was wrong about this. We have a very sensible foreign policy. I've not been silent about this, I set it out on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. It's a policy about liberal conservatism. Liberal because we should be in favour of humanitarian intervention and the spread of democracy and freedom, but conservative because we should be practical and sceptical about grand schemes to remake the world.

"William Hague is a very strong Shadow Foreign Secretary. We're both very good friends to Israel, both strong supporters, but we believe it's right to be frank and straightforward on occasion if there are things the Israeli government does that we don't agree with. To be someone's friend is to tell them when you think they're right and when you think they're wrong."

But that explosive phrase about "disproportionality"..."Yes, I think that was a statement of fact. I think attacks on Lebanese army units, the bombing of Christian parts of Beirut, were disproportionate. The use of cluster bombs. Israel had every right to attack the Hizbollah guerrillas who had rained in thousands of rockets. But the point I'd make really strongly is that we did not call for an immediate ceasefire. Lots of Labour politicians were.

"We thought Israel had a right to respond vigorously to the rocket attacks, as their own people were being killed. But that does not mean you should not also be able to say that elements were disproportionate." Presumably he suffered some personal grief over the party's stance. "Yes, lots of people told me they didn't agree with me. I was on holiday at the time, actually, in an almost entirely Anglo- Jewish household - the Feldmans were there, James Harding from The Times was there, the Spiegels... So I'm not insulated from what members of the community feel, if that reassures you."

He laughs. A political wake-up call, then? "No, as I still think I said the right thing. And the evidence shows I did. I was very struck in my recent trip to Israel that what it wants badly is a stable, democratic, peaceful Lebanon where there aren't armed militias." Cameron was in Israel from February 28 to March 2, a trip that took in Yad Vashem, meetings with senior politicians, as well as a helicopter trip to Israel's northern border.

"I really enjoyed my trip," he says. "The Israeli government went out of their way to show me around. The  thing that strikes you most is going to Yad Vashem. It is the most brilliantly arranged exhibition. It made me think I will bring my children here when they're old enough, because this is something everyone should see."

There were reports, denied from Jerusalem, that he had a heated exchange of views with the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, when he criticised Israel's building of settlements. True? He nods. "When you go to see politicians in other countries, there's no point just exchanging pleasantries. It's important also to have a lively chat, to ask questions, to probe. I was very impressed with the foreign minister, Mrs Livni, she's great, but I wanted to ask her about settlements and yes, we did have a good exchange. I wanted to show them that I'd be a good friend to Israel, but a frank one too."

So what would his Middle East policy be? "I believe that Israel has a right to exist, that it has a right to exist within secure borders, I respect the fact that it's a democracy, which is very rare in that region," he says.
"What we need is a twostate solution: a secure Israel, secure in its borders, not at threat from terrorists or its neighbours, and a state of Palestine based on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Britain should be doing what it can to help try to facilitate this. That means being very clear to the Palestinians that we shouldn't give money to a government that includes people who won't recognise the right of Israel to exist.

"Equally, we should defend Israel's right to protect itself. I can understand why they have built the security fence - I saw it for myself, and it has reduced the number of suicide bombings. But equally, we should try to persuade the Israeli government that they mustn't do things that make a two-state solution impossible.

"One thing that did strike me while there is that the continued growth of settlements, in combination with parts of the wall, is making a two-state solution more difficult." Would he negotiate with Hamas? "Until they show real solid substantial movement towards the Quartet principles, I think we should just not deal with them," he says. "You can't negotiate with people that are literally murdering your citizens and trying to destroy you. I have every sympathy with Israel over that issue. I'm delighted that Olmert and Abbas have met, and seem to have a good relationship - both said that to me separately. We should go on talking to Abbas, but until Hamas move towards the Quartet principles, I don't think we can talk to them."

How urgent a threat is Iran? "It is an urgent and growing threat," he replies, "and the most important thing is to stop them from attaining a nuclear weapon.

"I'm sure the right approach now is a combination  of sanctions and discussions; the sanctions need to be tougher and the discussions more urgent. Don't rule out the use of force, but I don't think the  circumstances are right for that now." And if the Americans decided that military action  were needed? "If they did it now, it would be a mistake, to be honest."

He has described his intended relationship with Washington as "solid but not slavish". Yet could it not be argued that Tony Blair's close relationship with George Bush had contributed to Israel's security? "That's the wrong way to think about it," he says. "There is not an anti- American bone in my body: we share history, language, culture, interests, we've fought alongside each other since 1917. "My grandfather went on the beaches on DDay Plus Three under the cover of American warships. But I don't think we serve our  interests, America's interests or, incidentally, Israel's interests, if we don't say what we think.

 "A good example: the fact that not enough was done to plan for post-war Iraq. It may well turn out, and we need an inquiry, that Britain didn't push this issue enough, that we were too slavish and not solid enough. If that's the case, it hasn't helped anyone in the Middle East, has it?" King's Cross station approaches.

Time for a final exchange on domestic politics. The government has delayed its response to the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism. What does Cameron think it should say? "It's very important that antisemitism must not be tolerated, point one," he says. "Point two, that should go right across the board. What is happening in some of the British universities, with boycotts and the rest of it, is unacceptable. Point three, there are still attacks taking place on Jewish students, for instance. We need to do more to stop that.

"There's also a wider educational point. The Holocaust Memorial Trust does a fantastic job, I'm full of admiration. But let's not forget that we've all got a responsibility here. Let's not pretend that getting rid of racism is just a government responsibility. It's a social responsibility too." He reflects: "Sometimes, some of the most vicious attacks on Israel can have tinges of anti- Semitism." But as for a more controversial recent claim of antisemitism: "I don't buy the theory that Lord Levy is being hounded in any way because he is Jewish. He is being looked into because the police believe there is a case to be looked at. We have to let them do that in a colourblind way, and I think they are. I really don't buy the idea that there is some sort of antisemitic witchhunt."

Still, the reported unhappiness among Jewish donors over Labour's treatment of Levy might give  Cameron's party an opportunity? After all, the JC has already reported that gaming magnate Lord Steinberg donated £530,000 and loaned £250,000 to the Tories; that hedge-fund owner Stanley Fink has recently given £103,000; that Dame Vivien Duffield loaned £250,000. We also know that Cameron's personal office has accepted donations from Trevor Pears and Bicom chair Poju Zabludowicz.

Cameron smiles. "I don't spend my life ringing up Labour donors saying, come on, give us a go," he says. "But I do think we've treated people better than the Labour Party. When this furore about loans happened, Labour just published a list of their donors and left them twisting in the wind. I don't think that's a fair way to treat people.

"We called ours up and explained either that they could have the money paid back or turn their loan into a donation or a public loan." But none of this fundraising, whatever transpires over Lord Levy, is doing British politics any credit... "No, it's not, which is why I was the first party leader to come up with a comprehensive package on how to reform it, and the first one to suggest we have limits on donations of £50,000." Again, without apparent effort, Cameron steers the conversation astutely to notch up a few more political points. We bid farewell as he prepares to board the train for Cambridge.

But something is still playing on Cameron's mind, and he turns back sharply. "It's important to get this Israel thing straight," he says, now animated and making intense eye contact. "The Stanley Kalms article was so annoying, was taking one remark and throwing his toys completely out of the pram. Then Irwin Steltzer wrote an article saying I was Israel-bashing..." He shakes his head in frustration. "It was just ridiculous. It's absurd. I'm not changing my mind. And I'd say a lot of people in the Jewish community would completely agree with what I've said.  Anyway..."

Last updated: 11:30am, September 26 2008