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Rifkind: Right in theory, right in practice

Speech to the Centre for Policy Studies

"There was a splendid conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson while they were on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

Watson replied "I see millions and millions of stars."

"What does that tell you, Watson?"

Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?"

Holmes was silent for a minute then spoke. "Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!"

That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is part of the problem facing the Conservative Party. We have won the political war. But we have, for the time being, lost the battle. Someone has stolen our tent.

Over the last ten years Conservative beliefs in liberty combined with responsibility; in free enterprise as the main source of wealth; in choice and competition as the provider of quality; and in strong defence and law and order; have become the common currency of other political parties even if their commitment is superficial and opportunistic. The Tory Party, however, remains, for the time being, in the doldrums, as silent as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.

Part of the explanation is that we have not fully understood how the political firmament has been shifting underneath our feet. It has been conventional, for many years, to think of political opinions as running along a one-dimensional line, from left to right. At the moderate left sat the Labour Party; at the moderate right the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats popped up at various points, according to the mood of the day. To the victor in the battle for the central part of the line went the spoils of electoral success.

This has been a powerfully entrenched image. But it no longer applies as it did. We will continue to struggle unless we understand that New Labour's electoral success has been based on a ruthless determination never to be outflanked on the right; that is, never to leave free for us any part of the line that we traditionally occupied.

In their first term, Labour outflanked us on the economy, sticking doggedly to tight Conservative spending plans inherited from John Major's government. Since then, they have sought to outflank us on immigration, with their strident attacks on bogus asylum-seekers; on law and order, with their resort to ASBOs and Control Orders, whereby criminal penalties can be meted out without the normal requirement for a criminal burden of proof to be met in an open court. They ensure, much to Peter Mandelson's dismay that we never get ahead of them in Euro-scepticism. These are only examples, but crucial ones for our electoral message.

And how have we reacted to this? We have allowed our policy-making to be transfixed by this strategy, sometimes criticising the government for not being right-wing enough; sometimes saying that we agree with the principle but argue the odd detail; sometimes just collapsing and going along with what the government has decided to do. At each point of attack we have ceded the ground and allowed the government to occupy our space.

A disinterested commentator, looking at the traditional left-right line, would say today that New Labour has swamped the right of it, the Liberal Democrats have moved to occupy some of the left-wing territory abandoned by Labour; and the Conservatives are - well, barely left with an inch of ground to call their own.

How long can this go on? The answer is, in principle, for ever. The Conservative Party is a decent party and a broad church. Labour knows there are parts of the line to the far right that we will never seek to occupy. There may be few limits to how far not only Blair, but also Gordon Brown, will push to the right in an effort to cut our ground from under us.

That is why the task of the Conservative Party has to be to change that line; to understand, and to communicate, that there is more than one dimension to political thought and argument; to move on from a largely economic Conservatism, valuable though that will remain as a tool for encouraging prosperity and job-creation, to one in which we project a vision of what our country is, and what it should look and feel like. Fulfilling that task would not only benefit the Conservative Party. It would, also, help meet the current needs of the country, needs which are more worrying than is often acknowledged.

There is a disturbing paradox in Britain today. It is one that must be addressed by all those concerned with our national future.

Britain is a vibrant, exciting country. Most of its people enjoy reasonable prosperity. There is greater opportunity than was enjoyed by previous generations. There is little internal strife and a great sense of tolerance and fair play.

Britain also seems comfortable in its relations with the wider world. London is a major international city. Visitors and migrants speak of Britain being more welcoming and relaxed than most other Western countries. Our language is the first language of the world. Our values, beliefs and culture are part of a universal whole.

And yet there is also a great unease both at home and abroad. Are we truly one nation at peace with ourselves and with our neighbours? The reality is that, alongside our achievements, we are grappling with serious and disturbing challenges both to our country and to the world of which we are part. The assumption of Britain as one nation is, in some respects, looking fragile.

At home we have seen the fragmentation of our society. The family unit has less relevance than at any time in our history. Many children are brought up by one parent; the elderly either look after themselves or are helped by the state; people are less aware of their neighbours. Charitable and voluntary organisations may be more active than ever before but so is the need for them and for their services.

We have, also, become more sensitive, particularly in the last few weeks, to the unresolved problems and strains in the relations between the ethnic communities for whom this country is home. We had assumed that the welcome absence of inter-racial violence had meant that the peaceful integration of immigrant and host communities was progressing well. The recent terrorist incidents have brought home to black and white alike that there remains hatred and alienation that can produce unspeakable violence. It is too early to say whether such problems are restricted to a few individuals or whether they are symptomatic of a much wider cultural gulf within the nation as a whole, which will need to be urgently addressed.

Our national unity has also been challenged by the growth, over several decades, of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, by the unresolved issues of Northern Ireland and by the clear evidence of a renascent English identity. These trends can be seen as a healthy corrective to the excessive uniformity of the past century but they can also lead to a harmful fragmentation and unproductive rivalry in what is a small and highly populated island.

Internationally, we may be able to hold our head up high on many issues but we have not yet fully resolved our relationship with our partners in the European Union. Likewise our unequal alliance with the United States gives us considerable influence but little real power and has its impact on how we are seen by the rest of the world. We consistently undervalue the potential of the Commonwealth and we are distant from the growing power of China. The world has become a much smaller place and we will need to adapt accordingly.

So our country faces formidable challenges. Against a background of considerable success in many fields we are fragmented and divided in others. We need a new dynamic to resolve our problems both at home and overseas. That dynamic for Britain can best be expressed as One Nation in One World.

This is, of course, a belief and an aspiration and not a policy but its adoption would enable us to frame a strategy for both domestic and global challenges not in a vacuum but with an ideal and a principle to guide us.

It is no coincidence that this challenge for the nation and the challenge faced by the Conservative Party have much in common. The Tories have, after all, been an integral part of Britain's history for centuries. In recent times Conservatives have had great success. They have won the battle of ideas. It has been Tory values of personal responsibility and Conservative belief in free enterprise and low taxation, that have become acknowledged by all the other political parties. Socialism and the ideologies of the Left have been irreversibly rejected.

But, at present Conservatives are seen, by some, as, largely, speaking to ourselves and not to the wider country. We are, unfairly, caricatured as representing the interests of the "haves" without any real commitment to the "have nots". We are presented as the party of the South-East but without real roots in the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland or Wales. Historically, these canards are groundless but, today, they are widely believed and they have to be disproved.

Likewise, our commitment to controlled immigration and a firm policy on bogus asylum seekers may be right and in the national interest but we are seen amongst many in the ethnic minorities as largely indifferent to their aspirations. The result is that our share of the ethnic minority vote remains derisory.

As with the nation as a whole, Conservatives have to recognise that past glory is no substitute for current performance. And just as the country as a whole needs to clarify its national identity and to build on its natural strengths; so the Conservative Party must respond in a comparable fashion to the challenges it faces. The remedy may not be all that different for the Conservatives as for the country. Let me explain why I believe this.

We have, this year, been celebrating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The main architect of victory in that conflict was Winston Churchill. Despite his achievement the Conservative Party was overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate in the General Election immediately afterwards. The reason was very simple.

For the public, the Tories were identified with the Depression of the 1930s, with unemployment and with the means test. They did not seem right for the post war challenges of 1945. Churchill had won the War but he had lost the political battle. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would be out of power for many years. The parallel with the challenge facing the Conservative Party today is striking.

Churchill did not wait for 'one more heave'; he did not simply restate existing manifesto commitments. Instead, he set out to win the battle of ideas. He established what became known as the 'One Nation Group' under Rab Butler, Enoch Powell, Iain Macleod and Reggie Maudling. They were so successful in creating a modern, relevant Conservative Party that six years later Labour was out and the Tories were in for 13 years.

We must learn from our own history. As Tom Paine once said: 'We now have it in our power to make the world again.' We should do so by wearing 'One Nation' as a badge of pride but we need to modernize and adapt it to the new world in which we live both at home and abroad.

People are entitled to say, "Well, that is all very well but what does One Nation Conservatism mean in 2005? What would be the approach and priorities of the Conservative Party in Opposition and, subsequently, in Government? In what way would it be different to New Labour?

One Nation Conservatism has nothing in common with the socialism of the Labour Party, Old or New. The One Nation tradition goes back to the very roots of the modern Tory Party. William Wilberforce, who led the campaign for the abolition of slavery, was a proud Tory. Lord Shaftesbury, who initiated the Factory Acts which improved the working conditions of millions of poor people, was a convinced Conservative.

The very name "One Nation" owes its origins to Disraeli, who highlighted, in one of his novels, Sybil, or the Two Nations, the Rich and the Poor between whom there was "no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws".

In more recent times, Rab Butler's Education Act which gave proper secondary education to the population as a whole; Harold Macmillan who , as Housing Minister, provided decent housing for millions of post-war families, and Iain Macleod, whose vision and humanity inspired a generation, have been champions of One Nation Conservatism as a distinct Tory alternative to an unattractive Labour Party.

The One Nation approach was also part of the achievements of Margaret Thatcher's Government. During her term millions of council tenants exercised their right to buy their homes. Home ownership ceased to be the privilege of the middle classes and, for the first time, became available to working class families. The class divisions were eroded. Wealth was spread by opportunity and choice and not by coercion nor confiscation.

But what of today? How, you might ask, would One Nation differ from the approach of the Party over the last eight years?" My answer is as follows:

1. Our Conservatism would be more pragmatic and less ideological than we have sometimes seemed in recent years. We would need to be satisfied that new policies and proposals would work in practice and not just be attractive in theory

2. Our priorities for this Parliament would be health, education, crime, tax reform and terrorism. Issues such as immigration, asylum or Europe would be important but would not be allowed to dominate.

3. On health and education we would be radical and innovative on partnership with the private sector and on greater power for patients and parents. But such reforms would only be advocated when we could demonstrate that real improvements in quality would be the result. Too much of our promotion of choice has been theoretical. Not enough has been as a result of hard evidence.

We need to do much more research. We need to draw on the expertise of professionals in health and education so that there can be public confidence that our proposals would work and would deliver.

Choice is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

4. Likewise, on crime and terrorism we would be tough and robust but only where there was hard evidence that the result would be a reduction in crime and terrorism. Too many of the government's proposals have seemed to be more concerned with tomorrow's headlines than with catching criminals and terrorists.

We would pay more attention to civil liberties and recognise that liberties reduced or removed now may be gone for ever. The onus is on the government to demonstrate why any sacrifice of traditional freedom may be necessary.

Law and order is, quite properly, a high priority for Conservatives. But it does not just mean that the guilty are caught and punished. It also means that the innocent and vulnerable are protected from harassment, from false conviction or unreasonable interference with their freedom by the police or by the state. This has been important for Tories in the past. It must be seen to be a priority now.

5. On immigration and asylum we would continue to support any proposals that would be effective in preventing illegal immigrants or bogus asylum seekers.

We would, however, ensure that the tone and content of speeches recognised the sensitivity of these issues to the wider need for good race relations. We would be careful not to exaggerate the problems. We would not advocate "remedies" that might provide good headlines but would be unlikely to deliver results. We would acknowledge the desirability of cross party agreement on these issues if at all possible. We would give greater priority to working with the ethnic minority communities in taking forward these policies.

6. On Europe we would continue to oppose British membership of the Euro and the new Constitution. We would criticise the European Union where that was justified but avoid the use of inflammatory anti-European rhetoric. We would recognise that the European Union, with all its faults, was a historic achievement for Britain as for other European countries.

We would stress that the real debate is not whether we are "in Europe" or "out of Europe" but what kind of European Union makes sense for the peoples of Britain and of other member nations. We would judge new proposals on a pragmatic basis as to whether they would improve the prosperity, security or quality of life of the people of the United Kingdom. If they would not we would oppose them. If they would (as with the Single Market) we would be constructive. We would support the trend towards a more flexible Europe with "variable geometry".

7. On tax we would support a major reform and simplification of the tax system which would be desirable in itself and release considerable savings which could be used to reduce the tax burden. Economic growth would also enable selective tax reductions to be made. Otherwise tax reductions funded by reduced spending would be available if there was clear evidence that this spending was unnecessary, undesirable or of minimal benefit to the recipients.

Tax cuts, in the first instance, would be used to benefit low earners, pensioners and others who have lost out in recent years.

8. Within the Party we would give greater priority to the North, the great cities, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales.

We would use our councillors as much more powerful agents for our political recovery. We would support new, radical measures to ensure far more women are selected and elected as Conservative MPs.

9. We would give priority to the restoration of the House of Commons, and of Parliament, as the centre of the nation's political life. Legislation would not be allowed to proceed until it had been properly scrutinised. MPs would be given greater personal power both by an enhancement of the role of Select Committees and by a reduction in unnecessary whipped votes. We would resist proposals to curb the traditional freedom of MPs and candidates to speak their mind.

There are two other priority areas that a One Nation Conservative Party would address.

The One Nation tradition of the Tory Party has its origins in Disraeli's concern about the Two Nations of the rich and the poor. The elimination of residual poverty must, today, become a much greater priority for the Conservative Party, as for the country. We live in one of the richest countries in the world but we have our own deep problems of deprivation.

In recent weeks we have seen how in New Orleans the indifference and neglect of generations to the underclass that exists there and in other American cities has been exposed by the recent hurricane. The comfortable middle-class majority left the doomed city with relative ease. Left behind were tens of thousands, some of whom died, and the others who endured avoidable death, squalor and fear until relief, eventually, arrived. We are not the United States and our problems are of a different scale. But problems they are and a One Nation Conservative Party would address them with vigour and determination.

As the Government have discovered there are no easy solutions to the problems of poverty but finding worthwhile employment for hundreds of thousands of jobseekers is one top priority and assisting pensioners is the other. New approaches to both are urgently required.

On jobs, the Government must continue to be the major provider of resources but it must, increasingly, be the enabler, leaving it to others to administer the policy at the local, community and personal level.

Those others must be the voluntary organisations and the private sector. Voluntary organisations are already far more successful than the government's agencies in providing jobs for the unemployed and disabled. They deliver more permanent jobs and do so at lower cost to the taxpayer. Their success is because they are local, flexible and non-bureaucratic. They are also involved in this work because of personal commitment and this makes them more effective than the local offices of the national government. They should be enabled, increasingly, to take over the role of local JobCentres throughout the country.

The private sector, too, is, of course, crucial. There is an alarming mismatch between the jobs that are available and the jobseekers yearning for employment. This can only be resolved at the local level by potential employer and employee. Here, too, the Government cannot resolve the problem without trusting local communities, employers and voluntary organisations to find and match jobseekers with the jobs available.

The elimination of poverty also requires greater help for pensioners. This is a major issue in itself but it is clear that those who lose out most under current rules are women. They rarely get the full state pension, they are less likely to have occupational pensions and, in other respects, many have a poor standard of living. There will need to be a major reform that will ensure that women who are bringing up children or who are caring for elderly relatives are deemed to have made full national insurance contributions. This principle has begun to be applied elsewhere and we are, after all, dealing with people who are working not people who are at leisure. Fairness requires that they are no longer penalised for their efforts.

A second major reform that is urgently needed is a serious transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities. We need to reverse the excessive centralisation of the last twenty years that began in the 1980s and has seriously accelerated under Labour.

The County Councils and local government have been emasculated. John Prescott, sitting in his Whitehall office, now has more power over the building and demolition of housing in Hampshire, Yorkshire, Liverpool or Bristol than the elected representatives of these local communities.

Likewise, billions of pounds in the NHS have been wasted by the micro-management of Ministers in London imposing targets and penalties on hospitals in Newcastle or Cornwall. Schools and head teachers suffer the same interference as do Chief Constables trying to deal with the upsurge in local violent crime.

The Conservative Party will always find it easier than Labour to respond to this problem. We dislike big government and have promoted real reforms, in the past, transferring real power from government to parents, to patients and to council tenants.

We now need to promote a major transfer of real power from Whitehall to County Councils and to urban local government. People live in communities, and where responsibilities and the use of resources require accountability local government can meet that need. Britain has more centralised government than most other Western countries and it is less true than ever that Whitehall knows best.

Such a revolution should go further than restoration of previous powers to local government. In most countries of Western Europe cities and regions have significant responsibilities for local hospitals and health facilities. Why should that not also apply in the United Kingdom? It is absurd that the NHS is controlled for the whole of England, Soviet style, in Whitehall when many of the responsibilities could be administered far more efficiently, flexibly and sensitively by County Councils and by our major cities.

Thus, One Nation, today, has a wide resonance and relevance. It's approach is a fundamental precondition of us winning back millions of moderate, middle-of-the-ground voters who used to support us and who will do so again if we gain their respect.

A clear commitment to One Nation Toryism would demonstrate that the Party feels an ethical and political obligation to the nation as a whole and not just to our own supporters or to those who share our beliefs.

It would give much-needed credibility to our policy on the elimination of absolute poverty and deprivation, and show that it reflects our values and not just tactical convenience.

It would help persuade black and Asian Britons that the Conservative Party will be their party and that their involvement will be welcomed at every level of the Party.

It would enable us to reach beyond the South-East of England and rebuild support in the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland and Wales. We are a national party or we are nothing. At present we are not, in crucial respects, a national party.

It would recover our reputation as a party that prizes common sense and pragmatism over ideological fervour and show that we draw our support from timeless values, principles and beliefs and not from temporary political fashions.

It would appeal to younger voters and show that we are a Party with idealism and vision, free from dogma, and with principles and a programme that can transform their future.

It would enable us to develop a foreign and international policy that applies One Nation principles to the challenges of One World, and frees the Conservative Party of any Little Englander image. Recent months have reminded us all that millions of Britons identify with the plight of Africa and other poor nations. As Tories we share that concern and accept a moral and ethical obligation to improve the lot of our fellow man. In a previous age Conservatives led the national debate in seeking to improve "the condition of the people". Today, for the people, read the developing world but the obligation remains the same. The principles of One Nation are the same as those who seek the stability and contentment that would be achieved by One World.

One Nation would, therefore, provide again, but in a modern and contemporary form, both real and symbolic evidence to the electorate that the Tory Party has changed and that those who consider themselves to be uncommitted to any political party can, with confidence and without troubled conscience, turn to us and give us their political support.

It would also create the trust that is essential between the electorate and the Party if we are going to be able to introduce the radical policies on health, education, tax reform and reduction in the power of Whitehall, that are essential if the country is to move forward.

We are in the middle of a great debate about the future of the Party. Some of our opponents will attempt to mock that debate and to ridicule those who are taking part in it. If we are wise we can demonstrate that we are behaving as mature, sensible adults determined to give the public a real and attractive choice so that Labour can be removed at the next Election.

If the Tories are seen, at the conclusion of this debate, to have rejected a narrow minded, self-centred, insular politics in favour of a return to an inclusive, moderate One Nation Toryism we will have sent a clear and unmistakeable message to millions of our fellow citizens that we have heard what they have been trying to tell us for the last eight years.

The Tory Party needs a simple, comprehensible identity that is both true to its own traditions and that will appeal to the public. If 'One Nation' did not exist we would be striving to invent it. Something so deep rooted in principle, and with a history of such obvious political success, is the real answer to so-called New Labour.

But One Nation in One World is also a creed and an aspiration for the country as a whole. It recognises the need for diversity to thrive within a united country, for localism to revive within a United Kingdom, and for internationalism to flourish within a united world.

It would allow us to face the people and the wider world with an optimism rooted in the conviction that government can be a force for good; that public life is an arena for service; that a common endeavour can help overcome division and fear.

It would build on the essential decency and generosity of spirit characteristic of the people of Britain.

This is not a credo that aspires to be all things to all people. As Conservatives we have a proud belief that Right of centre solutions are almost always more effective and more successful, than the strategy of the Left, in creating wealth, extending opportunity and in resolving the problems of our nation. But as Tories we are not ideologues; we are problem solvers. Our solutions and policies cannot just be right in theory. We have to be satisfied and to be able to demonstrate to the electorate, that they are also right in practice. If we can do that we will earn the public's trust and reap the electoral harvest.

One Nation in One World is, therefore, what the modern Conservative Party stands for. It is also an ideal with which the United Kingdom, as a whole, can identify as we address, together, the unprecedented challenges of our time."

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