Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Davis: I want us to be the party of hope

The 2005 Reform Lecture made at Conservative Party Conference

"Last month I said that what I want to bring to this Party is a new Tory idealism. Today I want to try to explain more of what I mean.

There are two sorts of idealists. First, there are those who try to impose upon the world an idea that they have themselves conceived. These are the planners, the Utopians, and frequently they are also in one shape or another socialists.

But there is also another sort of idealist, who draws his ideal from reality, from humanity and from experience, from what Edmund Burke once called the "general bank and capital of nations". That is the conservative idealist. And in case you were in any doubt, I am a conservative.

The fact remains, however, that whatever sort of idealist you are, you need ideas. And - to quote the title of a book by another conservative thinker of an earlier era, Richard Weaver - "ideas have consequences".

Ideas are true or false, good or bad, useful or useless. But they are always powerful. I very much doubt whether anyone important in nineteenth century England thought that a scruffy old fellow in the British Museum, writing his acres of unreadable prose, was about to change the world. But Karl Marx did it. For the worse.

The Conservative Revolution of the 1980s in Britain - which itself started the revolution of freedom and free enterprise that continues to transform the world - was largely begun in the Institute of Economic Affairs and then regenerated in the Centre for Policy Studies. It took enormous qualities of perseverance and courage to see the project through.

But without the ideas, that project would have been aimless and valueless. The core ideas - about the wisdom and rights of individuals and the limitations and abuses of government, about the role of markets and the rule of law - governed all that was done. They were at once the fuel which powered the engine and the compass by which the helmsmen steered - in Britain, in America, and then in other countries.

These insights are important today. Tories are not, with a very few exceptions, stupid. But as in the time of John Stuart Mill, we have too often allowed ourselves in recent years to look like the "stupid party".

This is because we have seemed not to take ideas sufficiently seriously. And, frankly, that perception has in large part been correct.

Britain is blessed with some exceptional think tanks, a range of eminent scholars, universities that lead the world with their research. I could name many such contributors to opinion - but it's not only courtesy or even friendship which leads me today to mention Reform.

Nick Herbert, who has now sold out to politics, and Andrew Haldenby, whose virtue is as yet unsullied and above the fray, are truly outstanding examples of how intelligence and dedication can shift the national debate.

They have done more to expose the follies of state monopoly and to argue the case for change and improvement of public services than a host of Tory politicians. I salute them - and all who support their work.

Too much of the thinking and debate in modern Britain has been passing the Conservative Party by.

The Party's priorities have been distorted. The truth is that you will not persuade people with the occasional soundbite, or steer opinion by means of an endless focus group - valuable as advertising and polls may be.

No: you need to engage sincerely and openly with the cleverest people and the deepest thinkers and you must sharpen your insights on the edge of their ideas.

Ideas matter, and ideas shape politics. They matter in Opposition. But they matter even more in government, because if you have to borrow and beg your ideas from the civil service, or the press or the pressure groups, you will veer and shift, and ultimately you will fail.

I wouldn't want to lead a government of that kind. I want to lead a government based on strong and clear ideas, which will bring forth principles and policies that change Britain and improve people's lives.

And I realise that to do that you have to ensure that the thinking starts in Opposition.

You can divide this process of intellectual renewal into two broad kinds. On the one hand you have the fundamental insights and beliefs, which because they are based on unchanging human nature and on an only gradually evolving national character, are by their nature general.

On the other hand, you have an enormous range of other insights reflecting social change, economic advance, technological progress, and the ebb and flow of international circumstances.

TIMELESS PRINCIPLES

In the first category, I would place what I have called the Conservative Party's timeless principles.

We believe that politics is about the individual and that government is about empowering individuals to fulfil their own potential. As Ronald Reagan once put it, Conservatives have "faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny".

This confidence and the optimism it brings with it should be reflected in every facet of the Conservative Party's life.

Conservatives believe that politics is about creating the space that individuals need to thrive, by limiting the action of government and extending choice in all spheres of society.

We believe that you have the right to spend the money that you have earned; that you know best the education that will suit your children; that choice in health and pension arrangements is essential if those systems are to work.

Conservatives believe that giving people this space to grow isn't just necessary to enable the strong economy and a liberal society that we all want to see. It is also necessary as a prerequisite to human growth and fulfilment.

People with more control of their lives begin to think differently about the world and develop the positive virtues which ground strong national communities: individual responsibility, restraint, trust, compassion and loyalty.

Conservative beliefs should shape a world where the rule of law, property, security, limited government, and strong families are seen as the fundaments of a healthy and free society.

A FAST CHANGING WORLD

So far - I hope - so good. But the other kind of ideas - the ideas that reflect changing circumstances - must then be accommodated.

The world is changing faster than we could prepare for, let alone plan for. Indeed, the pace of change is such that a five year programme would be outdated in five minutes - which doesn't seem to discourage the European Union.

Think back to only sixty years ago. Britain was a different country. Food was rationed. The average life expectancy was about 50; it is 80 today. Only one in eight married women worked. Heathrow airport did not exist.

19,000 pupils stayed on until the age of 18 - and only half of these went on to university. Today there are a million students in full time further education.

Across the world the political landscape is changing just as fast. For young people voting for the first time at the next election, the Cold War really will be history. They will have been born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and as a result, they will grow up knowing only a world which has benefited from the spread of Conservative ideas.

CONSERVATIVES HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR

The sheer pace of change of the modern world can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable and insecure. But for Conservatives, there is nothing for us to fear.

Instead there is work for us to do.

For example, the Conservative belief in free markets and property rights makes us uniquely well suited to deal with the challenges of a global economy.

Last week, Tony Blair urged his party to come to terms with the idea of globalisation. But Conservatives have long understood that it is modern flexible economies which will reap the advantage from the growing prosperity of developing nations.

Similarly our Conservative understanding of the rule of law, of community and of nation also enables us to meet the challenge of social breakdown which should certainly be at the top of the agenda of the next Conservative government.

In an excellent speech earlier this year, David Willetts showed that Conservatism has never stood simply for consumer choice in the sense of empty materialism.

That is much more, in my view, a characteristic of so-called New Labour - the Party of 24 hour drinking and the legalisation of soft drugs.

Instead Conservatism has always understood that people's desire for freedom and opportunity is balanced by their roots, their belonging, and their identity.

Precisely because we are anchored in our beliefs, we can grasp the potential of new technology to transform and improve our lives - without being thrown off balance.

Scientific advance and technological progress will recast old political debates and provide us with new solutions. Conservatives should always be open to these possibilities.

Let me take the environment as an example.

For too long now the argument about the environment has pitted so-called green campaigners, who oppose any economic growth at all, against supporters of unhindered capitalism and unchecked development.

The greens have refused to face up to the economic costs and the business enthusiasts have refused to face up to the environmental dangers. But new technology is making this old debate obsolete. It offers a world in which we have to sacrifice neither our prosperity nor our landscape, neither jobs nor climate.

Just recently, the United States announced the New Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It's a bit of a mouthful. But what it amounts to is a pact between the United States, Australia, China, India, South Korea and Japan to cooperate in developing new energy technologies.

That includes clean coal, wind power and the next-generation of nuclear fission reactors.

The aim is for developed countries to use their lead in technology and resources to develop modern, clean technologies to provide to the developing world - where so much new development and so new pollution will arise. Britain, with its strengths in research and development, should play a leading role in this far-sighted project.

New technology will also help us with our future energy needs. This is a matter of significant national interest. We are too heavily reliant on a single energy source, and we are importing too much oil and gas from unstable regions in the world. Renewable sources alone cannot replace conventional sources of energy.

This means we must as a matter of urgency address the technical, economic and political problems so that, if necessary we can commit Britain to making the next generation of nuclear energy a key part of our national energy strategy.

Something of the same debate about the environment has long been echoed in discussions of Britain's transport needs.

Our transport networks are simply not capable of meeting the demands we place upon them even now - let alone in the future.

And though there is plenty of scope for argument about how rail or air links could be improved, the fact is that most people will always want - and business will always need - to be able to travel by road.

And again the argument has been polarised. Some environmentalists argue against road building of any kind. There's not a by-pass that doesn't present some threat to nature.

But simply building more roads is hardly the answer, because, as we all know, new roads attract new traffic, and they become bottle-necked as well.

New technology offers us a solution. It can allow to make much better use of our existing road network, and to expand it only in line with real demand.

Road pricing isn't a new idea, but new technology can make it a practical reality. Sophisticated schemes of road pricing are already in operation. You will find them from Singapore, to Germany, to Norway.

Road pricing will encourage people to travel at different times of day, just as already happens with rail and air travel, and it will encourage more efficient use of transport. So it can greatly reduce congestion.

We should be alive to the potential benefits of technology in other areas too. For example we know that punishing criminals with a prison sentence reduces the overall crime rate by incapacitating them and deterring others.

But we also know that too many of our prisons are unmodernised and provide too few of the programmes of drug treatment and work and education that make it less likely that prisoners will reoffend on release.

We need technology that is much more robust than the current tags and we should never use it as an alternative for criminals who rightly should be in prison. But we should be alive to new advances which will enable to us remove criminals' liberty without the use of custody.

NEW LABOUR ILL EQUIPPED TO DEAL WITH PROBLEMS OF MODERN WORLD

So how does the Labour Party match up to these new challenges? Well, I am perfectly prepared to give credit where it's due - and since Gordon Brown's calls upon credit are likely to become enormous I suppose that's wise.

New Labour deserves at least half a cheer. The Prime Minister has learned how to talk the language of change and ever so cautiously he has even embarked upon a little.

Foundation hospitals and the use of the private sector in health are a start towards opening up the NHS monopoly.

City academies are a step back towards the Grant Maintained Schools that Labour destroyed in one of its first acts in Government.

Attempts have been made to shift people off welfare rolls and back to work.

But if it sounds like a revolution to the TUC, it's more like stagnation to patients and parents and taxpayers.

On road-pricing Labour deserves half a cheer, again, for being willing to consider the implications. But London's congestion charge, introduced with some political entrepreneurship by Ken Livingstone, isn't really a form of road pricing at all.

It's little more than a tax, and while there's nothing like a tax to put a smile on Red Ken's face, the danger is that the charge gives proper road pricing a bad name.

There is a something unreal about the plaudits which Mr Blair receives from Conservative-minded commentators. Let me set a simple test the result of which might change this perception.

Instead of indulging in relief that Labour hasn't made matters worse, let's actually consider what it has improved. And let's do that while keeping in mind the forces of economic and technical progress which are driving society forward, despite and not because of what a Labour Government does.

From that basis, everything suddenly looks less rosy - and New Labour looks less new.

Given Labour's traditional character as a Party - its egalitarian obsession, its distrust of choice, its preference for statist solutions - you would never expect a Labour Government to face up to the challenge of reforming public services. And your gloomy expectation would be totally fulfilled. They have had eight years - and they haven't reformed them.

You would never expect a Labour Government to make the economy more competitive. Well they have had eight years - and we are markedly less competitive than in 1997.

Taxes are rising to their highest level for 25 years, the Government's own Regulation Czar admits that extra regulations are now costing British business around £150 billion a year and unemployment is rising.

You would never expect a Labour Government to reform welfare or encourage saving. Well they have had eight years - and our pensions system is in crisis.

Of course any modern government must support greater personal provision whether by companies or by individuals. We should not even contemplate a world in which pensioners live on benefit income alone.

But that is the logic of Gordon Brown's disastrous means tested tax credits which are destroying incentives to save.

Last week Mr Brown made a rather surprising speech in which he sounded as if he wanted to join the race to become the leader of the Conservative Party.

He spoke of "value for money" in public spending. He called for "choice and accountability" in public services. He set the goal of "a home-owning, share-owning, asset-owning, wealth-owning democracy".

No-one could disagree - or at least no Conservative would disagree, because plenty of his sullen audience certainly did.

The trouble is that we have eight years of Mr Brown's record to judge him against. And that record shows that he has spent without reform and taxed without shame.

The Chancellor spoke about "prosperity" and "enterprise". But productivity is now growing at its lowest rate since present records began, and the economy is growing at its slowest rate since 1993.

He spoke about "ownership". But he has taken £5 billion a year out of people's pension funds. The pensions crisis is man made - and Gordon Brown is the man who made it.

He spoke about "opportunity". But his tax credits have entrenched dependency, so a third of households now depend on the State for at least half of their income.

And he spoke of "reform". Reform is indeed what is needed to improve the standards of public services and to reduce their spiralling costs.

But no-one has done more than Gordon Brown to frustrate reform, even when it has been proposed by other members of the Government.

It was the Treasury that drove through the most comprehensive array of targets and regulations ever imposed by a peacetime government.

It was the Treasury which tightened the grip of Ministers on public services.

It was the Treasury which opposed foundation hospitals.

The one exception is the granting of independence to the Bank of England. That embodied all the principles of successful reform: Ministers decide the strategic objective and set managers free to achieve it.

But it is the exception that proves the rule: Britain is now less prepared to meet the challenges of the modern world than it was when Labour took office in 1997.

NEW CONSERVATIVE THINKING

All this may seem a bit personal. But actually it isn't. Mr Brown is in his way an idealist. He's clearly intent on doing good.

The trouble is that almost everywhere he only succeeds in doing harm.

Sixty years ago exactly, the great Tory polemicist, Colm Brogan, published a book entitled "Our New Masters". It contains the observation that, "Wherever Sir Stafford Cripps has tried to increase wealth and happiness, grass never grows again".

I am sure it is mere coincidence, but almost exactly the same metaphor sprang to the lips of a leading economist last week, who said: "Gordon Brown is effectively drip-feeding weedkiller on the roots of further economic growth in the UK".

Gordon Brown's idealism is damaging and even dangerous because it is based on bad and wrong ideas.

So I return to my starting point: ideas matter.

Ideas about what really constitutes human happiness and human motivation and human nature; ideas about the proper relationship between the citizen and the State; ideas about what drives economies and societies forward.

And within our ideas there must always be room for new insights and fresh understanding of the changing world in which we live.

Let me, finally, try to give you, very briefly, a sense of the potential benefits of new thinking on the issues that most preoccupy Reform: I mean the economy, education and healthcare.

On the economy, we simply cannot accept Labour's old style tax rises. They are completely out of step with the demands of the global economy.

Instead we must bring down the tax burden, and the modern way to do that is to control the level of public spending.

Please note that word "control". We don't need actually to cut the level of total public spending - we simply need to ensure that it rises in moderation, at or around the rate of growth of the economy.

Reform proposed a "growth rule" of this kind in its Manifesto for Reform, before the general election. It is an idea we should consider.

In this way, we can do something far more significant than merely plan affordable spending. We can move from a spending agenda to a growth agenda - and agenda where government focuses on achieving value for taxpayers' money, and where the increase in public spending is moderated to ensure that there is room to lower the burden of tax.

And let's remember. We are here being as pragmatic as we are principled. We are learning by others' experience.

To take an international example, the Republic of Ireland has held down public spending as a proportion of the economy, reduced taxes, and enjoyed very fast economic growth. As a result, it has been able to invest far more in public services.

By focusing on growing the economic pie, rather than merely on taking a bigger slice, Irish governments have been able to deliver more resources for essential services.

It is the kind of modern thinking that we should follow.

Then take education. Widening effective choice and applying new technology can, in tandem, offer a new horizon of possibilities.

In Sweden, for example, new chains of independent schools have emerged, following the introduction of school choice. One of these chains has used technology to design a personal curriculum for every child, tailored to their own pace and style of learning.

It would be easy to introduce such a reform in the UK.

It would greatly improve the lives of thousands of pupils and teachers. But the centralising, one-size-fits-all prejudice of Labour prevents the Government even considering it.

The potential for linking choice, decentralisation and new technology in healthcare is just as great.

In modern health systems around the world, the trend is for healthcare to move from old fashioned general hospitals to new local units, much more convenient for patients and with even better medical equipment. This improves the experience for patients, raises the standard of care and controls costs for the taxpayer.

But Labour's approach has been to pour taxes into the old fashioned monopolistic structures of the NHS, instead of using those precious resources for reform and modernisation.

We must open up the system, as the best hospital and PCT chief executives want us to do. It is time for a radically new approach.

CONCLUSION

This then is what I mean by a new Conservative idealism.

Abiding principles, fresh insights, new techniques.

These are the elements of a new Conservative revolution, one which will change Britain and improve lives.

Dick Wirthlin, an advisor to President Reagan, said that in any democracy, in all ages, there are only two types of political party: the party of memory and the party of hope.

I want us to be the party of hope. I want us to have the ideas that will prepare Britain for the challenges of tomorrow.

This means that we must radically reform the way we work in Parliament, opening up our policy discussion much more widely.

We need to talk to the people who will be affected by our policies - to families, to people in business, to people working in the public services.

We need to see how our principles and ideas apply to their modern lives so that we can improve them.

Labour has failed. The country is stagnating. Opportunities are being lost.

It is time for a new beginning - for the Conservative Party and for Britain."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech