LONDON -- Is David Cameron a great Conservative leader in the making, or a shallow PR man without the guts to change Britain? His response to anarchy on our streets will tell us.
When he became Prime Minister Britain had no great appetite for a Conservative-led government. He won power more because of the failings of an exhausted left-wing administration than his own vision, and even many Conservative voters expected him to be, at best, an average Prime Minister.
He was lucky not to have the burden of expectation that President Obama faced. Whereas Obama delivered his inauguration speech in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring supporters, Cameron's first utterances on the steps of Downing Street were drowned out by protesters shouting "out, out, out" a few yards from where he stood. Few Prime Ministers have started out with less respect and anticipation, making it almost impossible for him to disappoint.
And yet some of his supporters were confident he could do better. Five years earlier, when he became Conservative leader, they'd heard him identify Britain's "broken society." He didn't just recognize our massive social problems, but was prepared to make them his priority, and boldly proclaimed that he would do for society what Margaret Thatcher had done for our economy.
Of course his opponents scoffed. "What's broken about Britain?" they said, even as gangs of youths murdered on the streets of London and generations of families lived on nothing but welfare.
But then what happened? He went quiet on the whole issue. Perhaps he was cowed by the risk of telling a truth that was so critical of his own country, or afraid of "talking Britain down." Perhaps he was ashamed to be so obviously Conservative. Whatever the reason, he barely uttered the words "broken society" from the moment he entered Downing Street until his rushed return from vacation last week. Anarchy on our streets finally jolted him into action.
His failure to make Britain's broken society his main priority for government did the country a disservice as great as anything served up by the liberals among his political opponents, who never understood, or never admitted, how broken Britain was. Now, just as many Americans are pointing the finger at Obama and saying "what have you delivered?" so Cameron's supporters are staring at him, wondering whether he's an empty suit.
He must be kicking himself. He could and would have been recognized as a far-sighted, inspirational leader if he'd had the courage of his convictions to make Broken Britain the central plank of his Prime Ministership. Even if the riots had still happened -- and they would have done, because no government can transform society in 15 months -- he would now have the moral and political authority to lead the fight back.
As it is, and for all his powerful words in the last few days and belated recognition that Britain is "not just broken but sick," he leaves doubts in people's minds. A Prime Minister who could have led our moral revival as he entered Downing Street, but chose not to try, gives the impression of being out of his depth.
Now, he has another shot at proving worthy of the challenge he set himself -- of reversing decades of social decline. He has finally recognized the need for an American-style zero-tolerance of crime and anti-social behavior, and early intervention in families and schools so that youngsters grow up with a positive mindset, knowing how to behave like civilized human beings. His proposed initiatives mix the carrot and stick in a country that has had neither for too long. They sound impressive, though the hard work, of course, is to come.
Some people from other countries have generously viewed Britain's riots last week as a warning for Western democracies generally. But the social problems Britain faces are distinctive. The people of other countries don't riot for the sake, as Cameron puts it, of "pure criminality," and Britain is the only country where the failure of many of its own people to behave in a decent, civilized way is a now a major political issue.
Great leaders find words to galvanize action and inspire people, such as Churchill's "We will never surrender", Reagan's "Tear down this wall" and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream." Cameron now needs to find the words to inspire Britain's moral fightback. He should forget the "Big Society" that his advisors came up with a couple of years ago, which mystifies just about everyone who hears it. Instead, Cameron should speak of "A Britain that cares" -- an invitation to everyone who values responsible community spirit to help build a country where people once again care about society and care about each other.
David Cameron let his supporters down once by a failure of political courage. He now has another chance to show us what kind of Conservative leader he is.