Fraser Nelson says that electoral victory is not enough. To be a great Tory prime minister, David Cameron must be bold enough to abandon Labour’s failed agenda entirely and implement his own
Winning office is not the same as winning power. To get the keys to No. 10, a politician needs to be skilled in the arts of electoral combat. But to take power, a prime minister needs an agenda. Without one, he is a slave to his predecessors. The last two Tory leaders who took over from Labour promising change fared differently. Ted Heath, in 1970, was forced into a U-turn and lost power after four years. Lady Thatcher had her own agenda, and transformed the country. The question being raised in Westminster now is which of these two models Mr Cameron is likely to follow. Is he a Heath or a Thatcher?
To look at the Tory policies so far, it is hard to see any great vision for society. In the draft Tory manifesto, one sees several Labour ideas inserted like pagan offerings to appease a god of war. We find Labour’s commitment to tax the richest at 50p. A pledge to protect the bloated NHS budget. We see Lord Stern, a Labour peer, invited to advise the Tories on climate change. We find a pledge to increase foreign aid spending by some £5 billion — while cutting the military budget by about the same amount. At a time of war.
If these are to be implemented, then it is depressingly hard to work out what will be Tory about the next Tory government. The spending priorities will be roughly along Labour lines, the NHS will face less reform than it did under Tony Blair. The spending commitments given thus far make it hard to see how the Tories could cut the deficit very much faster than Labour, as they say. Mr Cameron looks like he is uncomfortable with cutting back the size of government, talking about it as if it were only necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies and protect Britain’s credit rating. What is strikingly absent is a clear, moral case for what will be the Tory mission: a smaller government.
When Mr Brown came to power, he stuck to Tory spending plans with a fidelity that even Ken Clarke would not have upheld. Ten years ago, state spending was at 36 per cent of economic output. Yet since then, Brown has been staggeringly successful in expanding the state. This year, according to the OECD, state spending will be 53 per cent of the economy — a faster expansion than any major country has ever achieved over a ten-year period, with the exception of Weimar Germany.
If the picture is bad nationally, it is scandalous locally. State spending is at Soviet levels in many parts of the UK: 64 per cent in the North East, 69 per cent in Wales. The state accounts for most employment growth since Labour came to power: we live in a voodoo economy which Mr Cameron must replace with a real one. But when he does, Mr Brown says words like ‘swingeing cuts’ and the Tories seem to recoil.
The Tories have, of course, been here before. In 1970 Ted Heath was elected with the so-called ‘Selsdon Man’ agenda — which had the basics of what was to become the Thatcher revolution. But neither Mr Heath nor those around him were sufficiently committed and the agenda was buried in the U-turn in 1971. The Conservatives were then locked into the Labour consensus: they had not broken free. This point was made powerfully by one of Mr Heath’s ministers after the defeat, in terms that would change the Conservative party forever.
Keith Joseph declared that he had been ‘converted’ to Conservatism in April 1974 — two months after the Heath defeat. He said he suddenly realised that, for all the bold talk about Heath taking over from Harold Wilson, it was the same government doing the same things. To truly take power, he said, one had to set the terms of the debate. He spoke of the ‘verbal snares’ which Labour had set for the Conservatives. If a Tory party takes power only to use Labour’s language, judge success by Labour’s yardsticks and confine itself to Labour’s ambitions, then that’s not change. It’s more of the same.
Verbal snares can be found all over Westminster today. Any Conservative who talks about ‘investment’ when they mean ‘spending’ or ‘cost’ has already fallen into one of Mr Brown’s traps. To say — as Andrew Lansley does — that protecting the health budget means that you care about health is to be caught in an intellectual conundrum. Since when does care mean cash? Defence will almost certainly be cut by the Tories: does this mean they don’t care? Why do we still hear Tories use the word ‘investment’ when they mean plain old ‘spending’? Repeating Gordon Brown’s language means incorporating Brown’s ideas.
Two snares are worth mentioning in more detail. One is the Tories’ decision to copy Labour’s pledge to raise the international development budget by more than 50 per cent. This would be equivalent to a DFID levy averaging a remarkable £460 per household within three years. Why do the Conservatives believe that the state should forcibly collect charitable donations through the tax system? The extraordinary response to the Haiti earthquake shows that, even in recession, Britain is a remarkably generous country. Charity does not need to be drawn out of us by the taxman.
Perhaps the most pernicious snare is the 50p tax on the richest. Even Mr Brown does not plan to introduce it until April — just days before he calls an election. Keith Joseph observed that ‘making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer, but it does make the state stronger’. Yet in this era of globalisation, when people and their money have never been more mobile, in fact it does neither. It simply chases the wealth creators away — and leaves the poorer to shoulder a higher share of the burden. An intellectually self-confident Conservative party would explain that, rather than swallow Labour’s bait.
The Thatcher government had a sound formula for squeezing the rich. In 1979, the top 1 per cent contributed just 11 per cent of income tax collected. By 1999, this had doubled to 22 per cent. What magic trick made this happen? Simple. Halving the top rate of tax to 40 per cent in the Budget of 1988 meant the richest had an incentive to earn and declare more. Entrepreneurs flocked to London, filling the Treasury’s coffers. If it is fair that the richest shoulder the greatest burden, then Nigel Lawson can claim to be the fairest chancellor of them all.
Given that Labour’s policies have led to economic ruin, why compromise with them? Part of it is pure political reflex. Westminster is notoriously slow to work out which direction the country has taken — and which ideas have been abandoned by the public. ‘The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies,’ said Lord Salisbury in 1877. ‘When a mast falls overboard, you do not try to save a rope here and a spar there in memory of their former utility. You cut away the hamper altogether. It should be the same with policy, but it is not so. We cling to the shred of an old policy after it has been torn to pieces, and to the shadow of the shred after the rag itself has been torn away.’
Westminster today is trapped in the carcass of Labour’s failed agenda. Why do we see so many shreds of Labour’s rags in the Conservative policy agenda? We must remember that the Conservative party is to an extent still in therapy, shellshocked not just by three election defeats but also by the trauma of its own internal warfare. The temptation is to get rid of anything that anyone might criticise, and become politically neutral: provoking neither hatred or enthusiasm. And here the Conservatives are in danger of forgetting Keith Joseph’s most enduring lesson: the difference between the middle ground and the common ground.
It was Harold Macm illan who infamously declared that the only honourable Conservative position was to be stuck in the middle: with socialists on one end of the spectrum, and laissez-faire on the other. But there was a fatal flaw with this middle ground, which Keith Joseph identified. ‘The middle ground,’ he said, ‘is not rooted in the way of life, thought and work of the British people. It is not related to any vision of society. It was simply the lowest common denominator obtained from a calculus of assumed electoral expediency, defined not by reference to popular feeling but by splitting the difference between Labour’s position and the Conservatives’ ... We became identified with an unworkable status quo.’
Seldom in British history has there been a bigger gulf between the Westminster consensus and the national debate — between the middle ground of Westminster and common ground with the people. The Tories and Labour now have only a tenth of the members they had in 1970, and this is not because the public is lazy or apathetic, as some politicians contemptuously claim. Over the same period, the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have seen their membership grow tenfold. Britain is still an intensely political country: issues excite us, but the current crop of political parties do not.
If the Conservatives are plotting a course to power, they must navigate by the most reliable stars. But very few of these stars are visible in the House of Commons. As a parliament, it is exhausted and hated. The rise of the BNP is a sign of this problem in politics. It was always folly for the Conservatives to try to colonise a middle ground. But now it would be suicidal.
The new common ground
If the Conservative revolution means the empowerment of the many, then things outside politics have been going rather well. Globalisation and the digital revolution have transformed the world in the last ten years — and for the better. Consumer power has been transformed, and people have come to expect far more choice in everything from clothes to holidays. The companies that succeed are those that give them that choice. Like most of the best changes in Britain, all this has happened without the government’s comprehension, let alone its help. The great social and economic trend of the last 20 years can be summed up in one word: empowerment. Out there in the real world, the Thatcher revolution never really stopped. The mistrust of political authority is a good sign for the Tories if their mission is, explicitly, to disempower government. Lady Thatcher won such huge working-class support because she stood for a set of principles shared by those who wanted the power to improve their own lives: to buy their council house, to buy shares, to do what was best for themselves and their family. It is a Conservative world out there. Mr Cameron recently said that his mission would be not to transfer control from Labour to the Tories, but from the state to society. This chimes precisely in the common ground.
In some areas, the Tories do recognise this. The Tory schools revolution, for example, is simple, radical and transformative. If the voucher system works in Sweden, the most socialist country in Europe, then imagine what it could do in Britain, where parental choice is almost an obsession and parents are literally arrested for the lengths they will go to in order to secure their child a place in a good school. Their energies, under Michael Gove’s reforms, will be directed into serving their communities, with government doing the only thing it is really fit for in education: writing the cheque.
It is always difficult to assess a future British prime minister from what they do and say in opposition. But we have seen in Mr Cameron someone who is undoubtedly capable of showing the bravery and radicalism required. He scared Gordon Brown off holding an early election by announcing plans for tax cuts, Swedish-style schools and Wisconsin-style welfare reform. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, three people in Britain were prepared to stand and speak in favour of the free market. David Cameron was one of them.
But against Cameron’s good angel, making the case for radicalism in his ear, there is a bad angel urging caution. This angel will say that any meaningful policy offers an unnecessary hostage to fortune. It will be trying to persuade him of the greatest political deception: we should be cautious now, and do what we want to do later.
This is the mission statement of every failed prime minister — because when does this moment for radicalism come? At what point will the Tory party not be in election mode? When Lady Thatcher’s ministers presented her with a five-year plan, she would point out that Britain won a world war in less time. But the bad angel will tell Cameron that actually winning is enough this time; the radical reforms can be left for the second term. Ted Heath thought the same.
Lady Thatcher started to govern not with a specific agenda or ideology, but with an instinct, with principles — and with incredible reserves of courage. And this is why she remains a lodestar for any politician who wishes to transform a country for the better. It could well be that Mr Cameron has such courage: he has proven that he is at his best when his back is against the wall. Just as well, as this is the position from which he will have to govern. He will either be a radical or a failure. There is no middle way.
Outside the House of Commons chamber, you can see statues of various Prime Ministers. The greats have full-length statues: Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill and, of course, Thatcher. The fag-end prime ministers, those who won the race for office but whose records were unremarkable, are represented only with a bust. And there is a plinth that stands tantalisingly empty as if to pose a challenge to Mr Cameron: which are you going to be? A bust or a statue? In just four months’ time, we will start to find out.
This article is adapted from the 2010 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies.