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Duncan: Understanding the country we aspire to govern

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2005

"Mr Chairman. Today, I just want to be straightforward, frank, and just tell you what I think. Because I want to be blunt.

The reason I want to be blunt is that I think the Party is at a fork in the road. We are working in the face of massive historic undercurrents, and we can now choose whether we become a political museum or whether once again we can become a vibrant political force.

When I say that, I may be talking to you, but I am not talking about you.

I get very angry when the media so rudely label you as blue-rinsed or bigoted. Such a caricature is an offensive myth, and it is time they put an end to their collective insults.

We who are MPs must bear the prime responsibility for the Party's reputation. It is our duty to shape and lead our thinking so as to inspire you to support us still and work with us.

There is a book all of you should read. It is called The strange Death of Tory England by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The dust sheet says it all:

"the gradual eclipse of military virtues and patrician ideals came to discredit Toryism, the Party tore itself apart over Europe and it suffered from the malign influence of a quasi-intellectual New Right which held sway in the Tory press."

I want to speak bluntly of the path we need to take if we are to restore our purpose and appeal to people after three successive defeats. But before I do, the portfolio I hold, Transport, deserves its proper place at this Conference. In many ways it exemplifies the significance in people's daily life our policies need to have if once again we are to deserve people's trust.

Transport is not just about moving people and things around. It has massive environmental impact; its infrastructure has a massive effect on our patterns of behaviour and on our sense of belonging. And it determines how we manage to control our public space.

We are grappling with the global problem of aircraft emissions, and the domestic problems of airport expansion and the unrestrained growth of disturbing flights at night.

We are grappling too with the growing problem of congestion, and we will engage responsibly in the debate we need to have about road pricing and the better use of our cars in the limited space we have.

We are grappling with the thorny issue of how to establish safety on our roads without making the life of every car-owner a constant misery. And in doing so, it is time to force on the Government a wholesale review of the increasingly discredited regime of speed cameras, temporary speed limits, and highways management. The speed camera regime is inconsistently and arbitrarily set by unaccountable partnerships The mass prosecution of minor infringements is unacceptable when speed cameras do so little actually to make our roads safer.

We will start a national debate about the whole nature of risk in transport, seeing as we do that it makes officials paint every road, put a metal pole on every corner, double-bank lamps and lights, cover our roads in humps and bumps, and brutally desecrate our streetscape with execrable hoardings and structures. It is Conservative-run Kensington& Chelsea which is pioneering new, better-looking, and safer streetscape. Many more County Councils would do well to follow their example.

We fully endorse the CPRE campaign to reduce street sign mess, to which end every council should appoint a clutter-buster to audit and reduce the forests of poles and lights which make a mess of our environment. These things matter in our daily life, and we should resist the march of brutalist highways designers who are destroying much of Britain's visual environment.

And I will prosecute one particular issue with all the energy I have. Unknown to us in Parliament; kept secret from the world, there was a plot. We now know the deceit and deception surrounding the Government's underhand acquisition of Railtrack. Labour spent months planning to steal a company from its shareholders. They may yet win their case in a court: but they must not be allowed to escape the judgement of Parliament. Stephen Byers may be a busted flush, but the most guilty party is Gordon Brown who pulls the strings of the puppet then hides behind him to save his guilty skin. Byers and Brown are guilty men, whose conduct over Railtrack is a disgrace.

Brown thinks he'll be Labour's leader - that'd soon turn people off. We're watching you Tony. Will you? Won't you? I can see how his mind is working. 'You know. I'm marvellous. I've done 8 years. And I've got a master plan. I'm going to double your council tax, then double cross Gordon".

"And as for Two Jags Prescott. He says he's a member of Mensa. In fact he's a member of Densa."

We've just heard a brilliant speech from Malcolm. It's a tribute to this party that we have people of the calibre of him ...... and David Davis, and Ken Clarke, and David Cameron, and.......

I thought I'd give it a go too. I got massive support. Just none of it in the House of Commons, that's the trouble.

But I'm well qualified - I've got hair. It's a bit grey. They call it Bill Clinton without the fringe benefits !

I stood because I thought things need to be said.

I've lived and breathed politics since school. I was and am a Thatcher fan. She inspired a generation, rescued Britain from decline, and hastened the collapse of communism.

While Blair in his conference set his goons on someone over 80 who exercised his freedom of speech, we in this conference salute an 80 year old who brought freedom of speech to the entire communist world.

She beat the wets who had failed to appreciate economic change. We now need to challenge those who have failed to appreciate social change.

Because things have changed. While we were in government people's priorities changed; their social attitudes changed, and our main opponents - the Labour Party - changed too. The only people who failed to changed were us. After high interests rates and the collapse of the ERM we lost our unique selling point - our reputation for economic competence. We've since been struggling to work out what to do for an encore.

While Labour govern by propaganda, and while most people can pay their bills we have been left far behind. And one of the main reasons people turned away from us is that some of our MPs seem to sneer at them.

Now I'm a conventional sort of chap. Head Boy at school. Son of an RAF family. Oxford. Harvard. No smoking. No drugs (Honest, yer 'onour!). It just so happens I'm gay. That's just the way it is. I'm not a campaigning Lefty. I've never wanted to bang on about it. I regard it essentially as private.

But in politics you can't hide things, so one day I said so. As far as I'm concerned it wasn't news. But it was. And the reason it was news was that it seemed to be at odds with perceived Conservative attitudes. In fact, the constituency was entirely supportive, and most - I hope all - of you don't give a damn. But that's not how we're always seen by others.

So many people wrote to me - young and old, parents, sisters and grandparents - and so many said they were natural Conservatives but just couldn't bring themselves to vote for us because of our social attitude.

Even now there are still some people who just don't realise how off-putting their behaviour can be. We all want to improve people's life. That's what we're in politics for. The Civil Partnership Bill for instance helps thousands of couples who feel discriminated against, and does absolutely no harm to anything or anyone. It does not undermine conventional marriage. Michael Howard voted for it. Most of us did. It is therefore contemptible that after it was passed so overwhelmingly in Parliament some Conservative councils are now trying to block its ceremonies on council property.

Carry on like that, and this Party will look like nothing more than a repository for prejudice and spite. I say to them, please, get real. So we can all get going.

As my favourite book explains, harping back to an old age that probably never quite existed has contributed to a narrowing of our base of support and detachment from modern England, especially in our towns and cities. And if we don't win in towns and cities, and amongst the young, we will remain in opposition.

I want party unity. You, the volunteers, are fed up with MPs bickering with each other. But Margaret Thatcher once said to me "Unity, for what?". Politics is about the 'for what'.

Just when we have escaped old corrosive factions in Parliament, the last thing we now need is for new ones to appear. We are all Conservatives. We would all love a world in which people fly the flag, don't abort and don't divorce, but sounding like a mixture of Victor Meldrew and Colonel Blimp does not constitute a coherent policy or a basis for political appeal. I think that a lot of the ideas bubbling away in Parliament identify the direction we should take, but we must be wary of parading the sort of moral self-righteousness which has previously alienated an entire generation of voter.

Let's instead join together to draw up sensible policies to address difficult social issues. Let us convert moral indignation into social aspiration for those whose life our political decisions can most assist.

We need British solutions to British problems. The march of Christian fundamentalism may suit the politics of America, but it does not suit the politics of Britain, and we are not going to solve our Party's plight by thinking we can just import it like that from the United States.

The same principles must also apply to our foreign policy. Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon. To think about it is to be wise, not weak. Terrorism is wrapped up in social change in Arabia, the Arab/Israeli dispute, military conflict, and anti-American sentiment. We are entitled to form our own view about how to be tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism. And if we are to engage in the real concerns of the modern world, it's high time we spoke more passionately about the need for a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and peaceful Israel.

Actually, George Bush is to be congratulated for doing just that. But while the US is, and must remain, our closest ally, we should not sacrifice the dignity and confidence of Britain by thinking that all our foreign policy needs to be is an off-the-shelf replica of America's.

Another dimension of our foreign policy is Europe. When I was at Harvard 25 years ago, I heard Zbig Breshynski, President Carter's security adviser, speak at the Kennedy School of Government. He began with the words: "The United States will never have a grown-up foreign policy until it learns to lose its obsession with Cuba". I bridle at the EU flag, and don't ever want to see it on our public buildings and embassies; I believe we should retrieve the right to make more of our own law, but if we want to get elected we must put this issue in perspective. We must learn to lose our obsession with Europe.

There is something else we need to learn too. For the first time in my life we are in opposition and the Liberal Democrats are rising not falling. I think, at heart, they are all over the place, but we need to learn to take them seriously, and we can look once again like an attractive political force, there are many in that party whose belief in liberty, a smaller state, fairness and decency could and should persuade them to support us instead. We need to be so reasonable, nobody need feel they have an excuse to vote Liberal Democrat again.

Today, compared with 25 years ago, we face a changed nation, and it's not easy to accept. Change is always, in some sense, a loss. Do we oppose change; do we merely live with it; or do we welcome it? Today, we can only laugh when we read that Mr Stanley Baldwin spoke of 'a Cabinet of which Harrow School could be proud'.

So has the British nation really left us, or is it just enjoying an adulterous fling with Labour? We must bring it back if we are to remain in business as a credible party.

I don't like it when the state takes pretty well half of everything we earn. I believe that when it does so, we become less rich, less free, and less moral. I believe the state should step in when people hurt each other, but get out of their life when they don't. I want a low tax, high opportunity society which generates wealth and security for all.

I am fed up with Labour governing by propaganda and deceit.

I am fed up with Tony Blair strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.

I am fed up with Gordon Brown stealing tomorrow's pensions to buy today's votes.

I am fed up with the destruction of educational quality to satisfy the myth of popular equality.

We are all fed up with being in opposition.

If we understand the country we aspire to govern; if we confront modern problems with our solutions; if we make it clear for all to see that we are for the whole country and not just part of it; if we unite around the leader we are soon to pick; and if we fight New Labour as we have never fought before; then we can all ensure that the next Conservative Leader will be the next Conservative Prime Minister."

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