Many people’s walk to the polling station on 6 May will be spiced up by the prospect of playing a part in Gordon Brown’s removal from 10 Downing Street.
Many people’s walk to the polling station on 6 May will be spiced up by the prospect of playing a part in Gordon Brown’s removal from 10 Downing Street. Each voter will have their own favourite gripe: the pensions heist, the debt, the failure in schools, the catastrophic mismanagement of the financial system, the scandal of welfare ghettoes. The sheer scale and variety of Labour’s failures may impel voters to remove the party from office, but this reason to vote Tory is eclipsed by another, far more important one. And that is the case for David Cameron.
The Spectator’s endorsement of the Tories will hardly come as a surprise. We have been the world’s leading conservative magazine since Wellington ran the party. Unlike other right-leaning publications, we were never seduced by Tony Blair. And we were the only publication to back Margaret Thatcher during her first leadership bid, seeing radicalism where others saw triviality. We see the same promise in Cameron.
It is always difficult to grasp the radical nature of Conservatism, because it is distinguished by an absence of grand schemes and vainglorious projects. The Labour party is essentially about faith in the state: five-year plans, targets, quotas and goals for bureau-cracies. The essence of Conservative government, on the other hand, involves putting faith in the British people: the idea is that, if power is returned to them, they will use it more wisely and constructively than the government ever could. When Mr Cameron talks about ‘rolling forward society’, it sounds nebulous. But it stands in the finest Tory tradition, that of putting faith in what Burke called the ‘little platoons’.
Perhaps the best illustration of the coming Conservative revolution is Mr Cameron’s best and most developed policy: his plan for Swedish-style independent schools, paid for by the state. The formula is simple: anyone can set up a school if enough parents back the idea, in any building that meets the criteria. As Sweden has found, this takes education in directions that central planners would never have dreamed of. New schools bloom everywhere, offering an array of teaching styles. The poor would have a choice that, today, only the rich can afford.
Mr Cameron’s education policy might not fit on a pledge card but it could be transformative. As Michael Gove told this magazine two years ago, ‘After four years of Tory government, in your neighbourhood, there will be a school going out of its way to persuade you to send your children there. It will market itself on being able to generate better results, and it won’t cost you an extra penny.’ The promise is unequivocal, and the rate of progress in Swedish education shows that it is feasible. So under a Cameron administration, one of the greatest scandals in Britain — that sink estates are served by sink schools — could be ended.
The offer of independent education for all is, in itself, reason enough to vote Con-servative. But it is encouraging that Mr Cameron would adopt this model more generally. Under his government, public sector workers would be allowed to stage what is, in effect, a management buyout of their own division. They could operate for a profit, offering services to companies as well as governments. There are increasingly hopeful signs that this will be adopted in health, too. As Oliver Letwin recently put it, ‘Hospitals compete for patients, schools compete for pupils, welfare providers compete for results in getting people out of welfare and into work.’
Such a vision is nothing short of revolutionary. It shifts power from the state to the individual, forces efficiencies through competition, and turns bureaucracies into industries. As Thatcher did with the economy, so Cameron promises to do with public services. There were times when Tony Blair had such visions, but he led a party financed by those with a vested interest in the status quo. He called it the ‘choice agenda’. Cameron calls it the ‘post-bureaucratic age’. Neither phrase sums up the radicalism of these proposals, but it is clear that, starting with schools, the Tories can deliver what the Blairites could only discuss.
Encouraging new industries is one thing; supporting existing ones is another. George Osborne proposes immediate relief for Britain’s enterprises, cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28p to 25p. In his first budget, he will set out how this rate will be taken down to 20p — giving Britain the lowest corporate tax rate of any major economy. Thus the Conservatives propose to grow the economy again, placing trust in British enterprise. Mr Brown, by contrast, puts faith in the state, believing that government spending will somehow nurture a recovery. This is precisely the illusion that led Japan into its ‘lost decade’ — a fate to which Britain might be condemned if Labour wins.
Again, this represents a conceptual volte-face. Mr Osborne understands that the less money that is taken out of the economy by the state, the more enterprise there will be. He would introduce a new tax model, called ‘dynamic scoring’, which for the first time would take into account the discouraging effect of tax rises when assessing the Treasury’s options. Not something a candidate would mention on the doorsteps, to be sure, but it amounts to a simple promise: that voters will be better off under the Tories.
It is crucial that economic growth, when it comes, tackles British unemployment — something that has not happened under New Labour. Instead, the debt-fuelled Brown ‘boom’ sucked in millions of immigrants which misrepresented the jobs figures. Only last month, Mr Brown was boasting about the 2.5 million new jobs ‘created’ since Labour took office. ‘Imported’ would have been a better word. Unpublished official figures, obtained by The Spectator, show that 92 per cent of the new jobs since 1997 are accounted for by immigration. At no point under Labour have fewer than five million been on out-of-work benefits. This is a tragedy.
The answer does not lie in tightening Britain’s borders, helpful though that may be. The immigrants come because there is a vacuum in the British jobs market, created by a welfare state that pays natives not to work. It is a disaster which only a Cameron government can address. Only from Conservatives like Iain Duncan Smith do we hear genuine and convincing outrage. His agenda has been taken to the heart of the Cameron project, and would involve complete restructuring of the welfare state. His policy is to replace the matrix of 52 different benefits with a simple, unified system with one purpose: to ensure that everyone, at every salary level and every stage of life, is significantly better off in work than out of it.
Labour has proved itself unable to fix welfare, and not just because it believes so many of its voters depend on it. It is psychologically unable to accept that its good intentions have led to the worst of results. The worst mistake in politics — to judge a programme by its aims, not its outcomes — is hardwired into the Labour psyche. Tell a Labour activist that just under six million are today on out-of-work benefits or that immigrants make up 13 per cent of the national workforce, and you will be met with genuine disbelief. Many of the prospective Tory MPs were radicalised by seeing British welfare ghettoes. They are passionate about ending this scandal. Thanks to Mr Duncan Smith, they have the process in place to do so.
David Cameron has argued, more powerfully than any other party leader, that the greatest single welfare tool is the institution of the family. It is the first, best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. Yet the welfare syste
m continues to ensure that many couples are financially better off apart than together. The state has robbed marriage of its economic function. Today, one in four British children lives in a single-parent household — a record. Reams of statistics show how much harder life will be for those children.
Mr Cameron will abolish these perverse incentives. He will get rid of penalties against married couples. The party should also remove the incentives given to girls to become young mothers. Pregnancy should not be seen as a career option. Yet today, a lone mother with two children on benefits has more disposable income than the average post office worker. Anyone who cares about the damage this does to the poorest parts of our country should vote Conservative.
It is true that many of Mr Cameron’s proposed reforms will cost money — money the government does not have. But Mr Cameron can be taken at his word when he says the sums will be larger when the national finances allow. And the direction of travel is clear — and heartening.
The same is true with the Tories’ liberty agenda. To abolish the hunting ban — as Mr Cameron has said he will support parliament in doing — will send a message not just about the injustice of the initial legislation but the Conservative belief in freedom. The abolition of identity cards, an expensive and pointless scheme, shows that the Conservatives aim to dismantle our surveillance state.
Alongside the Conservative belief in liberty comes their belief in sovereignty — and the thorny question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The cost of our membership has risen by an outrageous 60 per cent in the past financial year to £6.4 billion. This is the legacy of the Blair era, in which his grandiose dreams of ‘leading’ Europe saw him barter our rebate. Mr Cameron has no such ambitions. His pledge that sovereignty will never again be transferred without the consent of the British people will at least place a halt to the steady integration.
The hardest battle ahead will be with the trade unions. They will look at the cuts made in Ireland and various American states, and conclude that they are on their way here. They will test Mr Cameron’s resolve at an early stage, and seek to break him as they broke the Heath government. Mr Cameron’s natural resilience will help him win this battle. As he said on Tuesday, families are cutting their budgets; government must too, no matter how much the unions protest. The increasingly impressive George Osborne has grasped the need to deal with the deficit. If his resolution wavers, the markets will soon scare him into action.
Mr Cameron and The Spectator are not at one on every issue. But our differences are mainly over timing, not direction. We would like the revenue-destroying 50p tax abolished immediately, rather than after the two-year wait that Mr Osborne envisages. We would like more dramatic health reform, and we consider the Conservative pledge to protect the NHS budget unwise and unpractical. But in this election, there is no doubt about who offers a more compelling vision for the country.
Labour’s decision to attack Mr Cameron by comparing him to Gene Hunt, from the wildly successful BBC series Ashes to Ashes, set in the 1980s, demonstrates Labour’s in-ability to understand the country it governs. It was during the 1980s that Britain won the Cold War, took employment to a high that has never been matched since, and transformed Britain from the sick man of Europe into a world economic success story. All this was done with great political courage — precisely the quality we need now.
Perhaps Mr Cameron’s two greatest attributes are calmness in a crisis and versatility. If he does form the next government, we shall hold him to account even more ferociously than we have Mr Brown: we expect more from those whom we respect. If the scale of Labour’s failure is astonishing, then so too is the scale of the Conservative opportunity. It is time for the work to begin.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 10, 2010