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Willetts: Britain needs a Conservative Government because…

Delivering the Swinton lecture at the 2006 Conservative Party Conference, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, David Willetts, said:

"It is ironic that it is a cartoon from Punch more than 100 years ago which captures so vividly the question in the minds of many Conservatives as we gather for our Conference this week. The cartoon shows a distinguished Tory peer acting as Disraeli's butler and entering the room to say "a deputation, Sir, downstairs, want to know the Conservative programme." Disraeli replied: "Eh - oh! - ah! - yes! - Quite so! Tell them, my good Abercorn, with my compliments, that we propose to rely on the sublime instincts of an ancient people!" Incidentally, the cartoon, dated 1872, came 4 years after the Liberals had once again beaten the Tories and after Disraeli had given a series of speeches that were powerful but thought to be a bit thin on detail. Two years later he went on to win the first proper Conservative election victory for a generation.

So I want to focus today on the question which will increasingly be asked by voters on the doorstep and by interviewers in the TV studio - what would a Conservative Government do for Britain?

It would be presumptuous to try to offer an authoritative answer when we have excellent policy groups hard at work. The Shadow Cabinet as a whole will be distilling their reports into a Conservative programme towards the end of next year. Nor am I going to come up with some neat slogan: too often a difficult analysis of exactly what has happened to our country and how we can make it better gets diverted into endless attempts to find exactly the right words to express it. But we have got important elections next May. When you are standing on the doorstep you have got 10 seconds to win that floating voter over. What exactly do you say to her? (After all, 57% of floating voters are female, according to MORI). What best encapsulates our understanding of the problems facing our country and how they should be tackled?

Answers that won't work

First, a few answers that won't work. It is very tempting to say 'vote for us because it's our turn.' Conservatives temperamentally want to be batting not bowling - and there are a lot of Labour MPs whose instincts are just the opposite. It is just so frustrating spending year after year in opposition when there are things crying out to be done. But we must keep such thoughts to ourselves, that is our problem not the electorate's.

There are some other equally tempting answers we might be tempted to give which are not much better. We might want to say Britain needs a Conservative Government because Labour have messed up. All of us in the Shadow Cabinet are aware of those deeply frustrated friends who think we don't attack Labour enough It is certainly an important and legitimate role of Opposition to challenge and question the government and express the sheer frustration of millions of people who suffer when governments fail - from the families struggling to make ends meet when their Tax Credit payments don't get through to the commuter stuck in traffic jams when that long promised by-pass still isn't built. But let's face it, people were already fed up with Blair by the 2005 election and we were led by a brilliant prosecuting barrister who homed in on his weaknesses with enormous skill. With the Labour vote falling to 35% we should have won the last election. We failed, not because we didn't attack Labour hard enough but because electors weren't confident in the Tory alternative. When voters look at us they have got to feel we understand our country and have a clear sense of how we can make it better. It doesn't matter how hard we kick Labour in the shins nor how low Labour sink in mid-term polls if people don't think when an election looms that they want us as the alternative government. That is the crucial lesson which three election defeats should have taught us. That is what David Cameron and all of us in his Shadow Cabinet have really taken to heart.

That is one reason why another reply we might find tempting is to tell that floating voter that the Conservative Party is changing. There was a time when it looked as if the Conservative Party could be the victim of one of those extraordinary historic ironies. All through the 1980's we told British business adapt or die. We were willing to tell a mining community that had been around for generations that sadly, and however painful, their pits just weren't viable any more. The very Party which had the courage to unleash all these dramatic changes which transformed our country didn't for a time seem willing to change itself. But we aren't somehow exempt from these changes and as Britain has become more open and more diverse so it is incredibly important that the Party at all levels, including the selection of parliamentary candidates, should become more open and diverse as well.

As we gather in Bournemouth there is at last a real sense that the Party is changing. One successful young black man explained in one word why he couldn't be a Tory - "tweed." But at last, thanks above all to David Cameron, we are beginning to look and sound rather more like 21st century Britain. But the rest of the country is already there. This is just getting what Corporal Jones in 'Dad's Army' would call 'permission to speak.' What then matters is what you say and do. All these Party changes are the foundations but they aren't the building. They are absolutely necessary but they aren't of themselves an explanation why Britain needs a Conservative government.


That is why a lot of people say that what we really need is more detailed policies. Now I confess to being a bit of a policy wonk myself. Properly worked out policies are desperately important. But there is something wrong with these 5-point plans and six-point programmes and ten-point manifestos. For a start I can never remember all the points. If I can't remember them why should the voters. The reason I can't remember them is that all too often they are laundry lists of miscellaneous policies, each targeted on some particular group or some particular grievance but they don't add up to a coherent whole. All of us shadowing Departments of State have to have a grown-up Conservative view of a whole host of specific issues. But putting them all together in one great big collection isn't politics it is stamp collecting. We can leave that to the Lib Dems.

We could try to do it a bit more elegantly than that. I think fondly of the marvellous note from Macmillan when he was Prime Minister: 'I am always hearing about the middle classes. What is it they really want? Can you put it on a sheet of notepaper and I will see if we can give it to them.' Some would say that summarises the historic purpose of the Conservative Party. But we can't approach politics like that. We need something simple which captures people's anxieties about what is happening to our country and shows that we understand what has got to be done to change them.

What we must and will offer at our conference is not policy detail but real substance. We are focussing on the authentic Conservative theme of responsibility. That must mean individual responsibility. But it goes beyond that. It must be social responsibility. It includes responsibility to one's family, to one's profession, and to one's neighbourhood. But there is another, fundamental responsibility we bear. It's very important but it's talked about very rarely - it's the responsibility that each generation has to its successors. Above all, it is the responsibility of the biggest, most powerful, most prosperous group in Britain today - the baby boomers.

The Challenge to the Baby Boomers

Let me ask a simple question. Do you, the people in this audience, middle-aged and some perhaps a bit older than that, believe that you have enjoyed opportunities and prosperity greater than your parents did? I believe that for most of us the answer is yes. But are you confident that your children or grandchildren will similarly enjoy better lives, more secure and more prosperous than ours? I am not so sure about that. Many people fear that somehow we are not passing on to the next generation opportunities as great as we have enjoyed ourselves. It is a fundamental obligation that each generation has to try to pass on something a bit better for the next generation.

It is in a way an eternal challenge. You could argue that it is just what every generation fears. Don't we all worry that we haven't done well enough for the next generation? It is indeed a profound human urge to want to pass on something to the next generation. It is one we all understand. Because we live in a culture so preoccupied with present excitements I don't think we politicians have done enough to respond to this deeply human concern. One opinion survey asked people if they wanted politicians to base their actions on ideology. Very few people did. But then they were asked if they wanted their politicians to base what they did on long-term objectives. That is what most people wanted. When you are young you behave as if you are a childless immortal but I much prefer the wisdom of the Indian tribe, the Iroquois, who were supposed to have said that the test of any decision by the tribe was what its effect would be over the next seven generations. There are fundamental instincts here. But in addition there is specific hard evidence why the challenge of fairness across the generations is particularly important now. It shows why this challenge should be central to the revival of Conservatism which is now under way.

Do you remember Tony Benn saying that he wanted to achieve a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people? Well, what we have done is instead to deliver a fundamental shift of power and wealth to the baby boom generation, roughly the people born between 1945 and 1970. There are so many of us that we have created a world that reflects our culture and is shaped around our economic interests. We haven't quite been selfish but we have been more than lucky. Although it goes wider, it's easier to measure in economics.

When we are young we tend to be borrowers, not least between buying our first flat or house. Inflation can be very helpful in eroding the real cost of our debts. Then when people get older and the mortgage goes down and you start building up savings for your retirement you want low inflation. That is just how the world has worked for the baby boomers. The dramatic shift from high and variable inflation to what we must now hope is low and almost stable prices has created dramatic winners and losers. It has delivered a once off increase in asset prices of enormous benefit to one particular cohort. Think of the transfer of financial wealth as a game of pass the parcel: it was in the hands of the baby boomers when the music stopped. Owners and savers have made enormous gains from this shift. But for the younger generation those student loans and mortgages are not going to be eroded in the same way.

We baby boomers haven't just bought our houses cheap and written off the borrowings with high inflation. We've then pulled up the ladder behind us by restricting the supply of housing as well, further pushing up prices. So now the next generation face high house prices and are finding it incredibly difficult to get started on the ladder at all. The average age of a first time buyer is now 29. Also, 16% of the income of first time buyers is now going on mortgages and there is no inflation to bring that down in the future. Meanwhile, many middle-aged older people are sitting on enormous gains in the equity value of their houses. That feels marvellous but there is just the niggling anxiety about how our children are going to be able to get started on the housing ladder themselves. That surely is what lies behind the growing concern about Inheritance Tax. People think that the equity value of their house is what is going to help get their children started on the housing ladder. I personally am not sure exactly how much of this housing equity is going to be around for the next generation anyway. When the financial services industry finally works out a straightforward, attractive, equity release scheme this housing equity is going to be used to maintain the living standards of older people through much longer lives than they expect, and is not going to be available, taxed or not, for the next generation to spend.

Out of a total of £6 trillion or so of financial wealth belonging to British people, about £3 trillion is housing, and the next biggest is around £1.5 trillion of funded pensions. Here it is the same story - we have passed laws making the company pensions promise much more expensive than many employers originally intended. They have resolved not to be caught out again and have been closing their schemes to new members so the next generation are not going to have anything like the generous pension promises the baby boomers enjoy. But meanwhile they are desperately shoving in extra money to make up the deficits on the promises they have already made. This extra money comes from profits earned by all the employees, but more and more of them - the younger ones - are never going to enjoy any benefits from this themselves. That's why fresh thinking on new flexible ways of rewarding savings across the life cycle is so important to us.

Meanwhile, because of the way that Gordon Brown has been running the public finances we have been building up an enormous amount of debt. He quotes the official figures which show just under 40% of GDP. But once you add in some of the off balance sheet items, the public finance initiatives and the public sector pensions that we have all got to pay, the true figure is much closer to Government debt of 100% of our national income. These debts are going to have to be paid for out of the next generation's incomes.

The Chancellor should have a bumper sticker on his Ministerial car reading 'Spending the Kids' Inheritance.' The most powerful single argument for controlling the growth of public spending and cutting back the fiscal deficit is quite simply the burden we are placing on the next generation.

In the post-war period we succeeded in spreading ownership of wealth through the two great drivers of home ownership and funded pensions. Both of these are now going into reverse, leaving the younger generation behind. And instead, they face a future of tax bills and mortgages costs taking a bigger and bigger slice of their disposable income. A young person could be forgiven for seeing Britain's economic and political structure as nothing less than a conspiracy by the baby boomers in our own interests. It goes way beyond economics. We shape the culture as well to remind the baby boomers of when they were growing up. That's why the Mini has just been re-launched, the Rolling Stones still go on tour, and Twiggy is modelling again.

Obligations to our children

One of the 20th century's great political economists, Joseph Schumpeter, offered the most coherent account of what is going on. He said that in a modern consumer society people might end up living for the present rather than having projects for the future. And do you know what he forecast more than half a century ago as the key evidence for this? He said that we would save less and borrow more, he said that our families would become more fragile as we became less willing to make long-term commitments to each other and he said that there would be fewer and fewer children, the ultimate project for the future. Now our birth rate is lower than what the demographers say is necessary to replace ourselves and our savings are lower than what the economists say is needed to replace our physical stock of investment.

When it comes to children, it is not just that we are having rather fewer of them, there is something else going on as well. We just aren't caring for them in the way that we should. Let me put my earlier challenge about opportunities for the next generation in even more precise terms. Do we baby boomers believe that our children are enjoying a childhood that is as good and as happy as the one we enjoyed? Do they have that magical mixture of security and freedom that a child needs? The answer is I think in one of the most powerful books of the year, Sue Palmer's 'Toxic Childhood.' I am delighted that she accepted our invitation to speak at our Conference today.

Some people have dismissed her research as just another example of the endless anxiety that all of us parents have about how we are raising our children. The last thing we want to do is to add yet further to the burden of guilt that any modern parent feels. But the evidence that something is going wrong is absolutely overwhelming. Look at what is happening to children's diet and the crisis of child obesity. Jamie Oliver has done a brilliant job of showing that mechanically reconstituted meat, the turkey twizzler diet, just isn't good enough for our children.

But it's not just physical. We are doing something similar to the subjects they study, replacing some of them with mechanically reconstituted ones that just don't have the same rigour and the same value for universities and employers - turkey twizzler studies. Once again, with such an explosion of knowledge and learning, and so many students working so hard we really could be enjoying a great flowering of education. I see so many committed teachers and hard working students, but in order for them really to gain the greatest benefit from all this we have to have the confidence to believe that there are real intellectual disciplines and real values that are worth transmitting from one generation to the next.

In the intricate ties that link the generations, our obligations to our parents matter as well as our obligations to our children. Education is what we give our children. Healthcare is what we owe our parents. 75% of NHS care goes on people aged over sixty-five as against 14% for the under 15s and 11% for everyone in between.

It is an appeal to fairness. It's a fairness which we Conservatives truly understand - fairness across the generations. Baby boomers are not bad people. It isn't really a conspiracy. It's mostly just a consequence of all the power we enjoy. Now is the time to appeal to our better nature.

I believe that that appeal for a fair deal for the next generation should be at the heart of all the policy work we do.

Social Mobility

There is one way of looking after the next generation and that is to try to solve the problem one by one. It is a deep and admirable human instinct to want to look after ones own. Each of us can battle to try to build up an inheritance that we can pass on to our child, to try to fight for an education that gives our child the best chance in life. There is nothing wrong with that but we can't just solve this problem one by one. I don't just want to battle about how we allocate a fixed number of good school places, I want more good school places in total. I don't just want a decent inheritance to help my child on the housing ladder, I want property ownership spread more widely. Moreover, if governments don't meet this fundamental requirement for fairness across the generations and we just do it ourselves, then something else goes seriously wrong in our country. You get a decline in social mobility. We are all so busy trying to help our own children that we end up entrenching advantage rather than spreading opportunity. That is why we can't just do this on our own, we want a country where many more children have a decent start in life.

Some people say that there is one obvious way of achieving all this - bringing back the 11 plus. I certainly wish that the Conservative Governments of 1951-64 had made Butler's Education Act of 1944 really work. Who knows, if we had really invested as much in secondary moderns as in grammar schools and if we had really created the technical colleges that were supposed to emerge as well then we might have a system that was widely accepted as fair and legitimate. But we missed our opportunity. Now there would be a real danger that more academic selection wouldn't spread opportunities but would entrench advantage. The Sutton Trust have looked at the 200 best secondary schools in the country and have measured the social backgrounds of the children at them. In general across the country 16% of children are on free school meals. In areas where the good schools are 12% of children are on free school meals. In those schools themselves only 3% of children are on free school meals. This includes many grammar schools. It is just not the case that they are as effective a device as we would wish for reaching out to children from deprived areas. If you really want to spread opportunity and advantage you have to look at the opportunities facing much younger children. One study in America quoted by Sue Palmer tried to measure how many different words children from different social backgrounds had heard in conversations with adults by the age of 4. Let me quote from her account of the findings:- 'On average it appeared that a professional's child has heard around 50 million words, a working class child 30 million and a welfare child a meagre 12 million.'

Just saying that those children can sit an exam at 11 to decide who should go to which school would have a real danger of entrenching all those advantages and disadvantages, not overcoming them. That is why the agenda which David Cameron and I are working on is to have more good school places in total, not to get bogged down in arguments abut how we select for a small number of good school places.

We can rise to the challenge of spreading opportunity and hope to the next generation. There is already a lot of good policy work going on in our Party that shows what can be done. We need to be much better at pulling it all together to show what can be achieved. Together with Maria Miller we are looking at ways in which we can improve early years education. There is an enormous amount of good work going on in pre-school provision in the voluntary sector, and indeed the commercial sector, but it is under real threat from clumsy regulation. We want to see more good schools. I am looking at ways in which we can break down the barriers which stop good schools expanding and make it harder to create new schools. Caroline Spelman and Michael Gove are developing good ideas for making it easier for first time buyers and confronting the fact that we do need to make it possible to build more houses in Britain. When George Osborne says he is going to put financial stability before tax cuts he is promising to protect the next generation from a heavy burden of debt if we don't run the public finances prudently. Of course David Cameron himself has put the environment at the centre of our concerns. So this does hang together as a coherent, Conservative attempt to offer a fair deal to the next generation - true social responsibility.

Tony Blair has started his farewell tour. Soon it will be for the historians to judge what he has achieved. Compared with the enormous opportunities he has had he has achieved far less than he could have done. That's because under him we had an endless stream of eye-catching initiatives rather than anything that was really built to last. He has lived in the present, he never planned for the future. He got away with it because people thought the Conservatives were just stuck in the past. But we should link past, present and future by thinking of the obligations that successive generations must discharge. Above all it's a call to the baby boomers who have prospered so much to discharge the debt we all owe to our parents and our children. It's ultimately a moral challenge.

We should live up to Burke's beautiful image of what a country is really about: 'the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern. It is to be looked on with reverence: because it is a partnership in all science: a partnership in all art: a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

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