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FactCheck: David Cameron's speech

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 01 October 2008

How did the Tory leader's keynote to conference fare on the FactCheck scale?

The claim

"We will hold a referendum on the EU constitution, something Labour promised and never delivered."
David Cameron, Conservative Party conference, 2008

The analysis

It's a popular war-cry from the Tories; that Labour backed out of holding a public vote on Europe.

The French, Dutch and - fatally for this latest union plan - the Irish all had their say but we didn't, complain Conservatives.

The claim dates back to a promise Tony Blair made on 20 April 2004.

Then he told Parliament it should debate the European constitutional question "in detail and decide upon it" and "then let the people have the final say".

But Blair had seemingly changed his tune by the time he was interviewed by the Financial Times in early 2007.

He said: "If it's not a constitutional treaty, so that it alters the basic relationship between Europe and the member states, then there isn't the same case for a referendum."

And there's the rub. The government was only signed up to a referendum if the treaty had constitutional significance.

Number 10 said the EU Treaty didn't, so they hadn't broken the promise Cameron talked of today. Others, of course, still dispute the distinction.

13 Jun 2007: FactCheck - did Blair promise EU vote?

The claim

"Listen to this. It's the President of the Spelling Society. He said, and I quote, 'people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer.' He's the President of the Spelling Society. Well, he's wrong. And by the way, that's spelt with a 'W'."
David Cameron, Conservative Party conference, 2008

The analysis

Straight after making "a declaration of war" on "the dangerous practice of dumbing down", David Cameron criticised the president of the Spelling Society, Professor John C. Wells, for promoting exactly that.

If you have never heard of the Spelling Society before you may be forgiven for thinking that this 100-year-old organisation is tasked with upholding the norms of the English language. You would be wrong.

If you have never heard of the Spelling Society before you may be forgiven for thinking that this 100-year-old organisation is tasked with upholding the norms of the English language. You would be wrong.

Its aims are "raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and to promote remedies to improve literacy, including modernising spelling" (David Cameron may also be put out by the mixed verb formations in this sentence as well).

The Society's argument is: "To improve literacy in the general population, modernisation of the spelling system will bring similar benefits to what decimalisation brought."

The president is a professor of phonetics at University College London. The quote that David Cameron uses is from his speech to the Society's centenary dinner. He said:

"Text messaging, email, and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English. Let's stop worrying if people sometimes spell you as u, your and you're both as ur, and whose and who's both as whos.

"Nowadays we often see light written as lite and through as thru. Let's not hold up our hands in horror - people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer.

"When I was a boy one of my English teachers insisted on our writing to-day and to-morrow with a hyphen, and spelling show as shew. We'd laugh at him today. Let's allow English spelling to continue to develop so as better to reflect the times in which we live."

Professor Wells may like to note that "dumbing down" is also one of those new phrase concoctions of modern society, having derived from "dumb-down"

Since the Spelling Society have no regulatory power, perhaps they may not be the most effective target for David Cameron's attack.

Modernisation is, after all, a concept he repeatedly claims to be familiar with.

And that's Modernisation with an 's' and not a 'z'.

The Spelling Society

The claim

"There are housing estates in Britain where people have a lower life expectancy than in the Gaza Strip."
David Cameron, Conservative Party conference, 2008

The analysis

It's a headline grabbing jibe - that parts of the UK are even more dangerous to live in than war-torn Gaza Strip, sandwiched as it is between Israel and Palestine.

It is a claim the Tories also rolled out in their assault on Glasgow East earlier this year.

So how risky is it to live in the Gaza Strip? Well, perhaps not as risky as you would think.

According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy at birth for 2008 is estimated to be 72.34 years. This breaks down to 71.01 years for men and 73.73 years for women.

It's a similar story for troubled Palestine as a whole: based on 2004 data, the World Health Organisation's country profile puts life expectancy at birth in Palestine at 72.6 years; 71.1 years for males and 74.1 years for females.

That means it is indeed safer than some housing estates in the UK, where rates can dip below 70 years.

But it's really by way of the fact the Gaza Strip's life expectancy rates are higher than the average Brit would expect, if they watched the news.

Overall the UK is joint 28 out of 193 in the World Health Organisation's most recent life expectancy table.

7 Jul 2008: FactCheck - Glasgow worse than Gaza?

The claim

"Repairing our broken society."
David Cameron, Conservative Party conference, 2008

The analysis

Ah yes, that familiar construction. David Cameron referred to a broken society eight times in his speech today, seven of which he talked about "repairing" or "mending" our "broken society".

He backed away from the phrase slightly in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday, when he claimed "I've always said the same thing, which is that parts of our society are badly broken."

But in this speech he once again used the broad-brush "broken society" phrase without making the distinction between 'all' or 'part' of it.

"Some say our society isn't broken," he said. "I wonder what world they live in."

Well, one may be Conservative London Mayor and Oxford University contemporary Boris Johnson.

He wrote in his Daily Telegraph column in August: "If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.

"And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is."

What on earth has come over our aimless, feckless, hopeless youth?, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 19 August 2008
29 Sep 2008: FactCheck - partly broken society?

The claim

"It's great to be here in the Symphony Hall."
David Cameron, Conservative Party conference, 2008

The analysis

Finally, one from pedant's corner. Cameron is wrong to call Birmingham's 2,000-plus seat concert venue "the Symphony Hall". It's actually just "Symphony Hall".

It may not matter very much but, then again, when you are trying to play to your hosts - not just the wider audience - it's always best to get these kind of things right.

After all, you wouldn't find him saying: "It's great to be here in the Wembley Stadium." And not just because we're unlikely to see a party conference in the capital any time soon.

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