Fraser Nelson

What’s needed now is a modern Conservative party with clear, discernible principles

What’s needed now is a modern Conservative party with clear, discernible principles
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I'd like to do a final round of responses to comments to my Keith Joseph lecture. It’s easy for debates about Conservatism to be caricatured as being for or against Cameron – and my lecture fits into neither category. I’m a big supporter of Cameron’s, but often wish he’d have more faith in himself: I fear he feels he has to make more short-term concessions than he has to – thus blunting his message of ‘change’. For years, any debate about Tory policy is described in the terminology of Tory civil war circa 2002 (which all too many people, from both sides, are still fighting) – ie that you an ‘Thatcherite or a ‘moderniser’. But now, in 2010, there can surely be a truce. Both sides had their points at the time. What’s needed now is a modern Conservative party with some clear principles that the ordinary voter can discern. That is what I sought to call for in my lecture. I’ll divide this into points rather than people, but here goes:-

1. The problem is lack of direction, not ideology. My Spectator colleague Matthew Parris says in The Times today I want some "distinctly right-wing proposals" - which chimes a little with some CoffeeHousers who suggest that my problem is ideological and I just want Cameron to be more right-wing. I wouldn’t phrase it like that. I just want policies that are different. (not 50p tax/protect NHS spending/pump up DFID spending/hire Lord Stern etc). For example, I'm not against a tax on the richest but favour one that would actually raise revenue. A luxury goods tax, for example, would raise more from the richest than 50p (which would raise nothing).

 

2. It’s about empowerment, more than party politics.  Are the changes I want right wing? I think of them as economically liberal: reforms that would empower the many, at the expense of the bureaucratic and political elite. There are many left-wingers (Alan Milburn, Frank Field) who I entirely agree with on this. And many paternalist right-wingers with whom I fundamentally disagree. If lifting the poorest out of tax altogether and trying to restore broken social mobility is a right-wing proposal then yes. But, for what it's worth, I would never use the phrase. To me, the dividing line in politics is not between Labour and Tory so much as between those who want to empower the many, and those who believe that Britain should be changed by a ruling class. That line cuts across party political divide, and many of my heroes are in the Labour Party. I am guilty of using "Labour" as shorthand for "Gordon Brown's government". I feel a bit guilty as there are many radical, original and noble thinkers amongst Labour MPs whom I greatly admire.

 

3. Conservative policies are not electorally unpopular. Quite a few commentators suggest that I say Cameron should be saying “slash the NHS”. Paul Gilboy says “unfortunately the language is brutal and does not resonate with the public”. Again, this references not Tory language but Labour’s caricature of Tory language. And the Labour view (reflected by much of the media) that Britain is a leftist country that rejects Tory ideas. Brown’s greatest victory is persuading the Tories of this too – even now when the British Social Attitudes Survey shows Conservatives way outnumber Labour supporters in Britain. No sane person is suggesting Cameron talks about the axe he would wield. But he can find Conservative language for this. He could say: “Our country is in danger of following Greece on the road to bankruptcy, I will protect NHS frontline services but cut out the waste which is brining us to ruin.” All British people make cuts to their budget right now, they’re familiar with the concept and want to see the government do the same.

 

3. Size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts.  Matthew Parris also says that the international aid proposal is "loopy" but the sums involved are "chickenfeed". I have heard members of the Shadow Cabinet protect this on the same basis. But the sums I worked out the other day: the sum would be an additional £4.5bn over three years. This would be the same as what defence would go down by. It's hard to say that "we need the £4.5bn from defence, hard choices, etc etc" while saying (as I have heard Shadow Cabinet members do) that the sum is insignificant. To transfer £4.5bn from the MoD to DFID is in no way a Conservative priority. Osborne will look like a fool on budget day if he doesn’t change this.

 

4. Keith Joseph, as a minister, was an example of what not to do. Both Max Hastings and Matthew Parris have reservations about using him as a poster child. Max says in the FT today that Joseph was “feeble” in office – Matthew Parris says that Keith Joseph was "kept in his box" by Thatcher in government. I’d say more than he was given a box, but failed to break out of it. Latterly, he’d admit this, too. Oliver Letwin (who was drafted in as his spad) describes how Keith tried to have university-style debates with the civil service. Argument A on the one hand, Argument B on the other. But the civil servants always won, because they were more numerous and wily. A significant part of the Keith Joseph story is how the boldest and clearest thinkers can be useless in opposition. He was a thinker, useless in executive government. Thatcher did not regard herself as an intellectual, but excelled at getting things done. 

 

5. Cameron is “a man of remarkable gifts, who may confound the doubters and prove an outstanding prime minister.” So says Max Hastings – I’d go a little further and say that he probably will confound the doubters. I think he’ll have to improvise a lot in office, relying on his instincts which I regard as sound. The ‘bad angel’ is at his most influential during election mode – and the bad angel is suffering from PTSD of the Tory civil wars. I believe the election will finally free Cameron from his biggest demon: fear of what Gordon Brown will say.

 

6. Labour is not still trapped by Thatcher as Michael White suggests that the reverse of my analysis is true: that New Labour is the party trapped by the Thatcher/Joseph counter-revolution. “It's the model that persuaded him to embrace the excesses of the City and not to interfere in Kraft's Cadbury grab or Master Todd's pay-off,” he says. Thatcher knew the difference between capitalism and corporatism, and would never have governed hand-in-glove with the banks as Labour did. Brown’s greed for tax revenues led him to allow the City to get way out of control, without capital adequacy ratios. He replaced the Tory regulation with a fracutured, inept system. He looked the other way, as long as the Exchequer took a 40% cut in bonuses (which it did) and pocketed a fifth of all banking profits. The regulatory regime which Labour dismantled would have coped far better.

 

7. It is not treachery to have this discussion now. Potager asks: “Have you lost your judgement? Do you seriously want Gordon Brown rewarded with an election victory?” TrevorsDen speaks for many in asking me if I want a “conservative or socialist govt”. I’m afraid The Spectator has never been in the business of toeing a party line. Our loyalty is to our readers, whom we would not serve by censoring – or not reflecting - the debate about the direction of the incoming Conservative government.