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Keith Joseph’s lesson to today’s political pygmies

In this extract from his Centre for Policy Studies lecture, Peter Oborne says that the great Tory sage and architect of Thatcherism was quite unlike the politicians of today

4 March 2009

12:00 AM

4 March 2009

12:00 AM

Thirty-five years ago Sir Keith Joseph was the first politician to provide a coherent response to the collapse of the postwar economic settlement. Our ruling elite continued to analyse the financial and social catastrophe of the mid-1970s in traditional terms. But Sir Keith — in an act of quite astonishing courage for a front-rank politician — departed from the orthodox. This meant that he was misrepresented, he was insulted, and in career terms he may have paid a heavy price. In those lonely speeches made in those now far-off times, Sir Keith Joseph invented a revolutionary new political economy. In doing so, he changed British history and saved us from stagnation and disaster.

Today, as in the 1970s, our economic system has collapsed and once again our political class is trapped by defunct paradigms. Once again we urgently need a fresh analysis.

I have been reporting from Westminster for almost 20 years. During that time I have realised that British politics is governed by two almost infallible rules. The first is this: the nastier a politician appears to be, the nicer he really is. This rule works equally well in reverse. Indeed it was spelt out explicitly by Tony Blair in conversation with the Foreign Secretary David Miliband as he was about to enter parliament for the first time eight years ago. This is what Blair told Miliband: ‘Go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them.’ This appalling anecdote appears in Chris Mullin’s diaries, published this week.

Sir Keith, by contrast, was agonisingly honest in his personal dealing. This straight- forwardness could make him seem unbending and austere, but he never spoke to anyone as if they were a non-person. He never insisted on his own status. He was often drawn into elaborate conversations with people of no public consequence. He completely grasped the distinction between his own private role and the grand offices of state that he occupied, and this indifference to the trappings of power meant that he could never have abused his office for private gain — as so many cabinet ministers and, it is very important to acknowledge, Tory MPs do today. Sir Keith would never have briefed against a colleague. This indifference to his own interests liberated Sir Keith. Instead of serving himself, he could serve his country — and so possessed the mettle to serve up the truth to the British people at a moment of national crisis.

This brings me on to my second rule. Never pay much attention to what a politician says: watch what he or she does. If a front-bench spokesman says on the Today programme — and they do, about half a dozen times a week — that their position on such and such is very clear, what they really mean is that it is unclear. So-called ‘radical’ reforms are a certain sign of timidity. New Labour once announced an ‘ethical’ foreign policy. It now emerges that this was the prelude to the systematic smashing of the Geneva Convention, and the reintroduction of the barbaric practice of torture as a basic tool of our foreign and security policy. Several years ago Gordon Brown, when still Chancellor of the Exchequer, placed the slogan ‘A budget for the family’ on top of the copious literature accompanying his annual financial statement. This was the budget that abolished the married couples allowance.Tony Blair even announced that his government would eradicate sleaze. There are literally thousands of such examples, and from all political parties.

You could never distinguish what Sir Keith Joseph said from what he did. He possessed an agonised personal integrity. So the question is this: has something gone so horribly wrong with the parameters of modern public discourse that honesty and mainstream political activity are no longer compatible?

Because Sir Keith was interested in actual facts, not just in twisting them to suit some political purpose, he was able to look deeply into the nature of things. When he was on the front bench in the late 1970s, unemployment kept surging up. A conventional opposition spokesman would have made much of this. However, Sir Keith had studied the facts and concluded that the employment figures of the day greatly magnified the problem of joblessness because they included several hundred thousand members of a transient working population who were claiming benefit because they were between jobs. So, to the mortification of colleagues, Sir Keith played down the official figures. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the technique used by contemporary ministers who automatically distort or invent statistics that will help them make their case.

There is also reason to doubt whether, supposing Sir Keith were alive today, he would even be able to obtain the facts he needed. Several months ago, in a pamphlet for the CPS, the Tory MP Brooks Newmark set out to discover the true scale of the national debt, as opposed to the fabricated number used in the prime minister’s public utterances and in Treasury press releases. He did the best he could but, as Newmark acknowledges, the task was beyond him. The figures covering the private finance initiative, public sector pension liabilities, and other numbers essential for a realistic understanding of our contemporary financial predicament, simply do not exist. The great Guardian editor C.P. Scott famously noted: ‘facts are sacred, comment is free.’ The great thing that has changed in British public life since C.P. Scott shut up shop is that facts are no longer sacred. This novel state of affairs calls into question the very possibility of democracy, which depends on uncontested facts around which political opponents can then enter a well-informed public debate.

The lack of respect for fact has led to an entirely new kind of politics. Something really interesting has taken place in Britain. We have abandoned the idea that there is an independent reality which is out there and subject to independent verification — and adopted instead a new political epistemology. The emphasis of argument has moved from truths that can be proven to narratives that can be constructed. This new postmodern political settlement is formally recognised by the ruling elite. Peter Mandelson, inventor of the new politics, speaks of the need to ‘create the truth’. Appearance and reality have become identical. Government therefore ceases to be about getting things done — it’s about being seen to get things done.

Today, for the first time in almost two decades, there is a realistic prospect that a Conservative government will win the next election. Much — rightly so — will be made of the ideological contrast between Conservative and Labour, even though sometimes I find it rather hard to detect.

If the Conservatives are to govern effectively over the next decade, they need to reclaim the truth, and look back to their own roots in the British empirical tradition.

For an incoming Conservative government this means two things: one a matter of detail, and one an issue of deep principle. First of all, the Conservatives must dismantle the apparatus of postmodern government. Above all, that means restoring the administrative function of the British civil service and downgrading its dominant presentational function. But it also means looking truth in the face — and the success of David Cameron as prime minister will depend upon whether he has the courage and rigour to do this; to bear in mind the words of Margaret Thatcher on the occasion of the first Sir Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture.

‘In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won — or indeed can be worth winning.’

Peter Oborne is a Spectator contributing editor and a columnist for the Daily Mail. The full text of his Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture can be downloaded from

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