As a journalist I got used to asking questions. As an apprentice politician I’ve had to get used to answering them. And that has meant learning all over again that the simplest questions to ask are the trickiest to answer.
Most of my acquaintances have been extraordinarily encouraging about my decision to relinquish a journalistic career at the Times in the hope of being elected as the MP for Surrey Heath. But the father of one friend was perplexed. Sufficiently so to ask the question I least expected.
It wasn’t ‘Why have you done it?’ He could quite understand why someone would want to give up the frustrations of shouting on the sidelines and see if they could make any difference on the pitch. What he couldn’t understand was why I’d decided to stand as a Conservative.
Why indeed? I had thought it didn’t need explaining. He knew me well enough to know that I’d always been right-wing, didn’t he? He knew I was an Atlanticist who in a fight between George Bush and a tax-raising, terror-appeasing bundle of liberal prevarications was backing Bush all the way. He had often heard me protest that more centralised state control was part of the problem, not the solution, in education and health. And he knew that I found having to listen to the relentless left-wing bias of the Today programme an exquisitely painful duty, not unlike the whipping which members of Opus Dei are commanded to inflict on themselves. If that didn’t make me a Conservative, what did?
It was only as I reviewed each of these pieces of incontrovertible evidence of deep-dyed Toryism that I began to understand the mischievous power of my friend’s father’s question and, with it, the precise nature of the challenge we Conservatives face.
For in each of the cases I was inclined to bring up as proof of Conservative instincts, the father of my friend could argue that Tony Blair had appeared to be on the right-wing side of the argument and many Conservatives on the wrong. His case was simple. While the Prime Minister had publicly stuck with Bush through difficult times, several prominent Tories had come out for a Kerry presidency. When New Labour had taken very tentative, indeed almost imperceptible, steps towards more market solutions in health and education, Conservative MPs had voted against them. And when the BBC had got its come-uppance for running left-wing propaganda masquerading as news, it was a Labour government that held the Corporation to account while many Conservatives simply missed the point.
‘I don’t know what your party really stands for any more,’ my friend’s father ventured. ‘And I can’t see why I shouldn’t carry on voting for someone who exceeds my expectations rather than a group who seem determined to disappoint them.’
Before explaining here, as I did to my friend’s father, what makes me a Conservative, and what I believe will make the Conservatives a governing party again, I have to acknowledge that he had a point. The Conservatives have, in the past, exasperated their supporters and confused the rest of Britain by displaying a distressing lack of consistency. During the Nineties, in government, we forfeited the trust of the British people. Afterwards, in opposition, the party failed to stay true to promises of modernisation. Conservatives reached for hasty, hand-me-down expedients in an effort to secure an instant breakthrough in the polls, rather than sticking to a strategy for the long term.
It was the eventual decision to elect Michael Howard as leader that led me to believe that the party was ready to move on from its past mistakes. As home secretary, Howard was the one unalloyed Conservative success of the Nineties. And at the Home Office he showed a consistency under fire in pushing through Conservative principles, which is the precondition of success as a leader.
But what are those principles? Hasn’t everything for which the Tories once stood either been colonised by Blair or rendered marginal by the changes he has presided over? If New Labour now calls itself the party of business, the future, the universities, hard-working families, the Atlantic alliance, strong defence and no-holds-barred crime-fighting, what is left to us? Fox-hunting, Gibraltar and the House of Lords?
The first thing to say, of course, is that Labour’s attempt to appropriate natural Tory issues is an acknowledgment of the intrinsically conservative nature of England. Tony Blair recognises that no one can govern this country effectively who is seen as anti-enterprise, nostalgically tied to old ways of working, hostile to educational excellence, opposed to our most durable alliance, disinclined to stand up for Britain abroad and negligent of voters’ security.
Because Blair’s embrace of these positions is bogus, inauthentic, compromised, timorous, mechanical or half-hearted shouldn’t blind us to their importance. These are all issues where Conservatives should be seeking to establish superior claims to Labour rather than denying their importance and retreating to the positions Blair has left us.
I am as passionately committed to the cause of Gibraltar, or the freedom to hunt, as any Conservative, but I don’t believe we should be defined by defence of those issues other parties won’t embrace. The durability of Conservatism has come not from its attachment to specific causes, but its respect for human nature. Over the centuries, Toryism has survived and prospered, even though its causes, from tariff reform to the empire, have passed into history, because there are certain durable qualities in our make-up to which it speaks.
Conservatives have remained successful by realising when the vessels for their values are no longer seaworthy and then carefully transferring those values on to new carriers. Whenever Conservatives have forgotten their values, or clung too long to outdated craft out of sentiment, they have been overtaken.
Those Conservative values, which we abandon at our peril, are a belief in the maximum freedom for individuals, a recognition that wickedness should be countered by discipline not therapy, and an acceptance that the price of progress is a patchwork world.
A belief in freedom is the beginning of my politics. Buried in my soul, at a level too deep to surrender, is my passionate dislike of coercion, conformity and collectivism. I think the inherent dignity of humans depends on the free exercise of their will, and efforts to curtail, corral or conscript for the sake of a greater good not only stifle the human spirit, but also generally fail to achieve the good proclaimed.
To my mind there is a beauty in the quirky, the eccentric, the divergent, which one never sees in uniformity. And underpinning my conviction is the knowledge that progress, from Socrates through Galileo to V