Alex Massie

The Tocquevillian Tories

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I think that today's Tory manifesto is really quite a piece of work and potentially a work of genuine radicalism. It looks west and back and while it honours plenty of traditional Tory themes its inspiration is American in ways that not even Margaret Thatcher would have imagined - and that the Lady would have found too radical.

Hopi Sen worries that none of the questions he asked about the manifesto have been answered. So here, in a fraternal spirit, is how they might be so answered:

1. Why is a pledge on cutting inheritence tax for millionaires a higher national priority than reducing the deficit or tax cuts for low income single parents?

Good question! The answer, silly, is that this pleases the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Never mind that there are vast swathes of the country in which very few houses are worth more than £600,000; there are lots of big houses in southern England that are. And some that aren't even that big, you know. But remember that we also want to exempt the low-paid from Labour's National Insurance rises. So it's not quite an either/or situation. Think of it as a small pay-back for all the millions now paying more than 40% of their income in direct taxes...

2. Where will savings in Education budget come from, given you are spending BSF money on setting up “Free Schools”?

Good question! Since our plans for English schools require that we build extra capacity into the system it's true that, in the short-term at least, it is probably going to need more money. At the very least existing funds will need to be spent more efficiently. Crunching the education bureaucracy is a good place to start but unfortunately that might have to be left up to local councils. Do we need a Department of Education with thousands of civil servants? Not really! We'll look to New Zealand for how to do this.

3.  You have promised to offer referendums on Council Tax. What will you do if a Council loses a referendum, cannot raise funds, so closes vital services to save money, as has happened in California? Will the Government accept Council plans to close schools and sell of parks in such a case?

Ideally we should have allowed referenda on raising taxes too. And we really need to rethink the way local government is funded. We need to do more than just think about a local sales tax. But, yes, there has to be an element of moral hazard here and councils need to know they won't be bailed out. Would we let Liverpool go under? Well, let's just hope Liverpool doesn't ask us to test that proposition. Right? (OK: the theory says yes let failure concentrate minds; political realities might say something different.)

4. If you are to cap non-EU immigration but at what level – Press reports suggest 40,000 a year. Is this correct? If so, what impact do you expect this will have on UK Universities and Business?

Um, yup, this is a terrible idea but one we've been bounced into by our own rhetoric and by the newspapers. Even so, I think we'll find that, alas, it's actually difficult to "follow-through" on this one.

5. The Marriage tax allowance mostly goes to married couples where one partner doesn’t work.  Why won’t married couples with two earners on the same income (like a nurse and a teacher, living together) get any help?

Because that fig-leaf would be too expensive and these days we can only afford budget fig-leaves. It's a small but beautiful fig-leaf and should not be taken too seriously. Sorry, true believers but that's the way it is.

6. You have explicitly protected NHS, defence and DfID spending, promised not to reduce fuel allowances or pensions, offered tax breaks to the wealthy, married couples and business,  Who are you asking to make sacrifices  to reduce the deficit?

Well, we're hoping that there will be economic recovery and that will help. But this is a long-term debt problem that's bigger than just the deficit. Incidentally, you forgot our commitment to high speed rail. We don't know where the money is coming from for that either. Growth, right? And by cutting waste! But look, if you really want us to answer that question honestly then you must think we're daft. We'd quite like to win the election, thanks, so we may pass on this matter. Just like Labour. And the Lib Dems.

7. The Conservative party has explicitly attacked the “Postcode lottery” in the past. Under your plans we will see very different services in parts of the country as local providers make different decisions about everything from class sizes to MRI scanners.

Exactly! The Postcode Lottery must be a feature not a bug! That's one way of measuring success. We were wrong and silly to attack it in the past - though then, mind you, it was evidence of how Labour's philosophy was failing on its own terms - and now we embrace it.

8. Do you now [think] that a short term “postcode lottery” is an acceptable consequence of devolving power, and if not, how will the Government intervene in failing “independent” schools, hospitals, and police forces?

Yes! Look: there are 60 million people on this island. It's daft to expect them all to receive an equal set of services and daft to think that's what people need. Local communities are perfectly capable of running things for themselves. We've had postcode lotteries for centuries anyway. This is one way of recognising that they will always exist as local needs and conditions must vary. 

The problem will be explaining this when the media and opposition and public go mental because some lunatic council in the west midlands thinks it's a good idea to close all the hospitals. That's not something that need concern voters in Northumbria though is it? Ideally everyone would see this as an opportunity to improve local government, though here again we need to think about funding mechanisms.

There's a lot here and a lot that has a great deal of potential. But it's not a done deal and much of it is necessarily sketchy. That's one of the problems with a radical and potentially transformative agenda: people will think it is terrifying or, just as bad, hopelessly optimistic.

People have been mentioning Burke and his little platoons and that's good but this manifesto, at heart and at it best, isn't really about Burke at all. It's about Toqueville and it's a plea, as one of you Labour chappies once put it, to bring some of the American Revolution home to the Mother Country.

That may seem a long way from the nuts and bolts of this carefully uncosted manifesto but this is what we dream of when we imagine that one day someone might turn on the money tap again.

So, yes, this is risky. Is Britain ready for it? I really have no idea. Will it work? Well, there's a control available: Scotland. Nothing like this is going to be happening in Scotland any tume soon. Here even Labour's mini-reforms for England are too radical and risky. We'll be able to see, in ten to 15 years time, which model works better.

UPDATE: Pete emails to remind me that the Toies have indeed embraced variation in provision. Holding their nerve when the press is on the warpath may prove a different matter. And I see that Hopi has a post that might be thought a pre-buttle to this one. More later, I guess...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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