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Maude: Conservatives lead from the front

In a speech in his Horsham constituency, Rt. Hon. Francis Maude, Shadow Foreign Secretary said:

"Since the start of this election campaign, we have heard more talk than ever before about voter apathy and indifference. In particular, it is said, young voters don't care. The pundits loftily lament this, neglecting to reflect on the contribution made by their own systematic denigration of the political class.

Well, I don't know who the pundits are talking to, but I have to say that I do not find people indifferent to this election.

I find people who care passionately about their country, who want to take pride in Britain, and who mind what happens to it.

And it is especially patronising and offensive to assume that younger voters have no interest in the future of their country. Politicians frequently and glibly say that the young are the country's future. True, of course, if hackneyed, but the reverse is equally true. Britain's future is their future. And of course they care about it.

Tax/public services

However, it is indisputable that people are today more sceptical, more cynical about government and politicians than ever before.

They are more sceptical today than ever before about the ability of governments to improve lives. They know that governments cannot supply an answer to every problem. We cannot wipe away every tear. And today any politician who claims that government is the answer to every problem will get short shrift indeed.

And especially people simply don't believe any more that ever-higher public spending funded by ever-higher taxes is the only way to make things better.

If there were any lingering doubt about that, then the experience of the last four years would have dispelled it. Tony Blair promised he had no plans to raise taxes at all. Yet after 45 stealth tax increases the tax burden is now much greater. Yet despite this, our public services have got worse, not better. Our teachers, our doctors, our nurses and our police are hampered more and more by pointless and expensive bureaucracy and red tape. And our economic prospects - once rosy - are being steadily eroded thanks to a relentless stream of tax rises and regulation by stealth.

But while people - especially younger people - are increasingly sceptical about the ability of governments and politicians to make a difference, in today's Internet age they are more confident about their own ability to do so. For the e-age is truly the age of empowerment.

Above all else, the rise of the Internet has acted as a leveller, balancing the scales of knowledge between the individual and the state. People have access to more information and thus to more knowledge than ever before and this empowers them. Freedom of choice and the horizons of everyone, especially the young, have been vastly expanded.

When my generation was young, a tour around Europe was an adventure. Today, it is like a trip across town. Today, young people in their gap years can span the world and they do. And they want to make a difference in the world - themselves - they don't think it's all down to governments. People want to do more, not just for themselves, but for each other and for their communities.

That's why the old shibboleths about tax no longer apply. The old belief that because people care passionately about public services, as they - rightly - do, they will think tax-cutting politicians are only appealing to their greed and selfishness, is just that. An old and out-of-date belief that has no place in today's network world.

No one today seriously thinks that there is a black and white choice between lower taxes on the one hand and better public services on the other. Nobody seriously believes that lower taxes and first class public services are mutually exclusive. People are more sophisticated, more enlightened; and less burdened by the dogmas of the past. And they know that it takes more to solve a problem than throwing money at it.

So a commitment to cut taxes implies no lack of commitment to public services. Nor does it imply a belief that people are inherently selfish and that their votes can be bought by tax-cutting bribery. Indeed it implies the reverse. It implies a deep faith in people's essential goodness. In their fundamental decency. In their common sense. In their wisdom to make the right choices, when they are given the choice to make.

It is the parties of higher tax - Labour and the Liberal Democrats - who have a sour and jaundiced view of our fellow men and women; who believe that good is only done when people are bullied, taxed, regulated and nannied into it.

That is not the Conservative view. We trust people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own and others' lives.

For we know that when people pay less tax we don't just have a stronger economy and people who are more self-reliant. We have a stronger society and stronger communities, bound together by strong bonds of mutual obligation and care.

Disraeli once said that 'all power is a trust; that we are responsible for its exercise; that, from the people and for the people, all springs and all must exist.' A Government that forgets that, a government that shows by its actions that it has no trust in the people from it derives its power should not be surprised that the people have no trust in the government.

Europe

It is these same changes, the internet revolution, globalisation, the new network world being built around us, that helps to explain why people in Britain are so sceptical about scrapping the pound and joining a single European superstate.

They understand that in a fast-changing, highly interconnected world, the nation state matters more, not less, than before.

And they understand that a revolutionary shift in the role of government is taking place, as the power balance between government, Non-Governmental Organisations and big business is re-weighted in the dynamic landscape of the e-age.

For in this new network world, control and agility are everything. Our ability to shape our own future, to ensure this necessary flexibility, matters more than ever.

That is why a Conservative Government would keep the pound. Control of monetary and fiscal policies, regulation and taxation are the keys to success in the business of winning business and investment.

In order to succeed amidst the shifting sands of today's globalising world, nations and institutions must make a choice: to adapt and adjust to the demands of the age or to risk extinction. The European Union is no exception.

On any audit, the EU has achieved much. The prosperity of Europe's citizens has improved greatly, with the biggest single market in the world and with free trade the victor in a continent previously more prone to protectionism and national insularity. With NATO, the EU has provided a framework that has made a major European war inconceivable. But the EU needs to change. It needs to modernise. Its structures are too rigid. Too many of its aspirant members are being forced to sign up to the policies of the past.

And in today's world of global economic integration, big centralising blocs no longer make sense. The EU is the only organisation still wedded to the 'head office culture'. Try to find any other 21st century multinational organisation - be it a business or a voluntary organisation - which favours more centralisation and you will fail. It is decentralisation that works; the creation of modern multi-centred structures, with decisions taken away from the centre.

In the network age, a rigid one-size-fits-all model of European integration is not just inappropriate - it is a recipe for division and fracture. Nor is it what people want.

Armed with unprecedented freedom of choice, people don`t want harmonisation: they want to see the subtle shades and strong contrasts of different cultures.

And through low turnouts in European elections and falling support in opinion polls, the people of Europe have sent a clear message to their governments. That message is that real unity cannot be imposed by integrationist treaties and by diktat.

The EU cannot afford to be blind to the trend of change across the world and deaf to the voice of its citizens and still expect to succeed. If we want the EU to succeed, we have to move away from the one-size-fits-all dogma. It belongs to yesterday.

We need a fresh approach to Europe. To reform the EU to make it a modern network organisation. In the e-age, we need adaptability, flexibility and a light touch from the state if we are to realise the goal of a stable, prosperous, outward-looking, free market and democratic Europe.

During this election campaign we will set out our vision, a strong positive vision, of what the future of the EU can be. It is a vision close to the hearts of the mainstream majority of the British public, who do not want to turn their backs on Europe; who have no desire to retreat into a surly isolation; who are thoroughly international in their outlook, but who want Britain to be an independent self-governing country.

By contrast the Labour and Liberal Democrat belongs to yesterday. We challenge Robin Cook to live up to his pre-election bravado and make Europe a central election issue. Since his brief outburst of fighting talk he has disappeared from sight, bound and gagged in some Millbank cellar by anxious spin-doctors concerned that the election debate on Europe will be stifled.

It will not be stifled. For in a democratic election it is the voters who set the agenda. And voters will demand that Robin Cook break free from his durance vile, and engage in the debate.

He can duck it no longer.

Asylum

Asylum too must be another key issue at the heart of this campaign.

We are fortunate indeed. We live, for the most part, in a better world than our forebears. It is a world in which nations and groups of nations can, in the absence of major natural disasters, choose whether to succeed or to fail.

The old definitions of first, second or third world no longer apply.

Today every country has the choice. The choice to be in the fast world or in the slow. The choice to look forward to the future or to remain mired in the past.

Countries that choose the rule of law and the open economy will succeed. Those that turn their back on either will fail to thrive.

But there are still countries in the world - many countries - whose governments are choosing failure. Increasingly, their peoples are not prepared to accept this choice, because today, they know that it is a choice. In the information age, they know far more than previous generations about what goes on in the rest of the world. They are able to make comparisons and when they do not like what they see at home, and they cannot change it, they want to move, to countries where they can have a better and more prosperous future.

This is understandable, but economic migrants do not need asylum. And when they seek entry to Britain, they must be judged by entirely different criteria to those in genuine need of asylum.

In Britain, we have a reputation as a staunch champion of human rights and freedoms. We have been proud to set international standards of behaviour by example. Because of this, we can look back on a noble and long-standing tradition of providing a safe haven for genuine refugees. Refugees from persecution. Refugees from torture. Refugees from genocide. No matter what creed, colour, race or religion, they have found a warm welcome in Britain.

It is a reputation of which we are right to be proud. It helps Britain, at her best, to walk tall in the world. We must preserve it and protect it, for the true measure of any society is to be found in its treatment of the vulnerable and the defenceless.

But today, that reputation is under threat.

Too many refugees who claim asylum come here simply to better themselves. Too many come here, not because their lives or liberty are under threat in their home countries, but because their livelihoods are. Too many come here, not because Britain provides a safe haven, but because it is a soft touch.

After all, why else would people come all the way across Europe, passing through Italy, Germany, Belgium and France on the way, but only claim asylum when they reach Britain? All of these are free countries, and these people are not seeking asylum in Britain from German or French persecution.

The massive jump in asylum applications last year tells its own story. There were a record 76,000 applications - an increase of 134% since 1997. As a result, our asylum system is collapsing, not just under the strain of these numbers, but under the strain of four years of mismanagement and delays. In 2001, we have an asylum system that is costing more and achieving less than in 1997.

This chaos helps no one. It does not help local councils who must deal with new arrivals. It does not help those who erroneously believe that if they enter Britain illegally, they will be able to stay. Some of these have risk tragedy to get here when they never should have tried in the first place. And most worryingly, it does not help genuine asylum seekers. The current abuse of the system is harming the very people whom it was above all meant to help.

So we need the tough policies on asylum that we have set out: secure reception centres for new asylum applications, rejection of asylum applications from safe countries; the speedy deportation of those whose claims are rejected; and the strict enforcement of laws on illegal work. We need these policies not because Britain is xenophobic or racist. It is the exact reverse.

It is because we value so strongly our tradition of providing a safe haven, and because we know how much Britain has benefited from it that we have an obligation to prevent its abuse. Britain has gained not just from the enrichment of our human capital but also from the high moral standing that this tradition has conferred upon us in the world.

Asylum is an issue on which the Government has patently let Britain down. Scurrilous attempts on their part to play the race card are nothing but deeply shameful and irresponsible. There is no smokescreen behind which this Government can hide its failings on asylum nor will we be deterred from talking about those failings.

Asylum is a real issue. It is a serious issue. We have not only a right, but a duty to raise it, in a responsible and measured way. The Government has an obligation, in the name of human rights and justice, to answer us.

If they cannot answer these criticisms, then they had better stand aside for a party that understands the value of Britain as a safe haven, not a soft touch.

Why we can win

I have quoted Disraeli once before in my words today and I am happy to do so again. In 1880, he wrote that the Conservative party had 'existed for more than a century and a half as an organised political connexion and having survived the loss of the American Colonies, the first Napoleon and Lord Grey's Reform Act, they must not be snuffed out.' By Disraeli's calculation, we have now existed for over two and a half centuries as a party and we have no intention of being snuffed out.

This party is the longest-standing, most successful party in the history of democracy. We could not have been that without standing for and speaking for what the mainstream majority of the British public believe. That is as true today as it has ever been.

We have been behind in opinion polls before, and won the succeeding election. You don't have to go back to 1970. Just look at 1999, when we went into the European Parliament elections 30% behind in the opinion polls, but came out 8% ahead. And given the choice between winning in the opinion polls and winning in the real polls, I'll settle for the real poll.

So there is everything still to play for. We are campaigning strongly. William Hague is leading courageously from the front, always willing to take the case direct to the voters, not carefully shielded from them by an army of spin-doctors.

What we stand for is what most people believe. We can win this election. And we're going to fight it every inch of the way."

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