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Maude: 21st Century Conservatism

Lecture given at the Centre for Policy Studies


"It is a truth now universally acknowledged that the Conservative Party is in want of change. No one who has ventured into the debate that Michael Howard so sensibly called for has argued that all we need is one more heave; that our third defeat in a row is to be attributed solely to Tony Blair's brilliance; or that the electorate will suddenly experience a Damascene conversion and apologise for so badly mistreating us. It would be astonishing arrogance in the face of this last rejection to deny the need to change. It would amount to saying that we have been right all along, and the electorate themselves need to change.

The electorate of course already has changed. This is a country changed in myriad ways from that in which most of our political reflexes were forged. Our problem is that we as a party have not kept pace with the country; we have lagged behind.

Calls for change in the Conservative Party tend to trigger three responses. I know this because I have been doing it for quite some time now. First that it is a navel-gazing distraction from the real job of attacking our opponents. Second that "change" is code for aping Tony Blair, which is obviously bad, although I guess we wouldn't mind aping some of his electoral success. Third that it means abandoning true Conservative principles in favour of a soggy and treacherous marsh called the middle ground.

Let me deal with each in turn. No, of course we should not be endlessly picking the fluff out of our own navels. But we do have to get this analysis right. We do need to understand why not nearly enough people vote for us to give us to have the chance to serve our country in government. It would be a grave dereliction of our duty to our country for us to assume that the pendulum will swing us back to power without effort from us. And at a time when people have lost faith in the willingness of politicians to be honest about anything, a clear willingness to be honest about our own problems really isn't a disadvantage.

Second, this business of "aping" Tony Blair. Labour's problems were profoundly different from ours. Their whole underlying ideology had been proven wrong both electorally and in substance. Our principles haven't. We don't have to junk our underlying values and principles as Labour did. That makes our problem both easier and more difficult. Easier because we don't have a clause IV to ditch. More difficult because we don't have a Clause IV to ditch: there is no Clause IV moment for the Conservatives, no single vivid emblem of change.

The third objection to change is that it is code for abandoning true Conservatism. I reject this. The middle ground is treacherous terrain. Even if antique notions of left, right and centre still mean much today, it has always seemed wrong to me that a great party should seek to move either towards its opponents or away from them. The doctrines of "clear blue water" and "the middle ground" are equally dangerous seductions. Both are wrong and for the same reason: that they require us to define our positions by reference to our opponents rather than by reference to our beliefs.

Our challenge is different from that faced by New Labour. It is to apply our beliefs to the problems that Britain faces today. It is to show that we understand modern Britain and the aspirations and concerns of modern Britons. There is plenty of evidence that people in Britain, especially younger people, are hungry for Conservative policies. Our problem is that they are depressingly reluctant to buy their Conservatism from today's Conservative Party. I will return to this later.

Others have already made the case for change, David Willetts and David Davis, Malcolm Rifkind and Alan Duncan just in the last few days. To recap, we have lost support since 1997 among women, our electoral mainstay throughout the twentieth century; among younger voters where we are now in third place among voters under 35; among the A and B socio-economic groups; above a line from the Severn to the Wash; and in the great conurbations outside London.

When Margaret Thatcher won her first and pioneering victory in 1979, Conservatives had a solid lead among women, younger voters and the fabled AB voters. She achieved this because she had herself in the best sense of the word modernised the Party. She had made our party the more forward-looking of the two main parties; the party most in tune with the way people, especially younger people, wanted to live their lives, and most in tune with the kind of Britain they wanted to live in. She had understood that there is no conflict between "traditionalists" and "modernisers"; indeed that one of the greatest traditions of the Conservative Party is that it has always been ready to renew and modernise itself. Without that readiness it could scarcely have survived and prospered as long as it has, longer than any other party anywhere at any time.

Today we are too often seen as a party at odds with contemporary Britain, and therefore at odds with contemporary Britons. Even among people who agree with us and vote for us, far too few answer yes to the question: "are the Conservatives my kind of party?" That's not because our principles and values are wrong. It's because they still think we're at odds with modern Britain.

So change is self-evidently needed. Not change for the sake of change. Nor change cynically undertaken to make us electable, although the right changes will indeed make us electable. Change that enables the Conservative Party again to fulfil its historic destiny, which is to place its values and beliefs at the service of our country and our communities. We will only be able to serve our country again when many more people than today say of us: "Yes, the Conservatives are my kind of party".


First we need to take our values and beliefs a lot more seriously. A serious party needs serious and hard-edged values and principles. And they need to be in balance. There is no single one imperative that dominates all others. I was not surprised that there was a mixed response when the Board of the Party recently proposed a set of values to be incorporated into the Party's constitution. Some found it hard to decide whether to criticise them for being hopelessly bland or for portending some sinister repositioning. In truth they simply represented the best effort at distilling the timeless values to which any serious Conservative in the last fifty years or indeed the next fifty years would be happy to subscribe. Yet the combination is one which other parties would be unlikely to assemble. They're uncontroversial among Conservatives. But tonight I'm going to canter through them to explore how they can apply to the Britain of today and tomorrow.

Strong Communities

The first is a commitment to strong communities. This was perhaps the greatest aberration of the Conservative government in the eighties. Today almost everyone is a localist. But we should remember the localist heritage of our party. Well before Lord Salisbury created the County Councils in 1888, 18th century Tories were the country party, believing in the dispersal of power away from the geographic and political centre. Since then we've had two major departures from Tory localist orthodoxy. The first was in response to the great centralising reforms of the Attlee government. For a number of years Conservatives thought to reject the idea that the "gentleman in Whitehall knows best" was to risk caricature as the party turning its back on public services. The second aberration was Margaret Thatcher's determination to enforce good standards and financial rectitude on local councils that were often bastions of sluggish complacency, mulish obstinacy, blithering incompetence and even toytown revolutionary fantasy.

In retrospect we can see that she was spot on in her analysis of the problem but wildly wrong in her proposed solution. What should have happened then - and must certainly happen now - is a massive strengthening of local democracy. Bad decisions are taken when they are taken too far from thee people they affect. The lifeblood of communities is the power to improve things. Remove responsibility and the rot sets in. Those who are truly talented see no scope for their abilities. Those who are well motivated see no possibility of changing things and only place seekers and ego trippers involve themselves in a charade of office without power.

This government deserves praise for initiating mayoral elections in several parts of the country. The experiment has been successful - perhaps rather too successful for the tastes of the Labour Party - and the outcome has strengthened the hand of those of us who see a growing role for elected officials administering state resources and public services at a local level

Nor should decision making be confined to elected mayors and councillors. Many people are looking with renewed interest at the highly successful Swiss system of propositions and referenda. At a local, state and national level it is citizens themselves who wear the trousers. They have the power to initiate action and to vote on matters of concern. The lesson for Westminster seems to be that when you lose your monopoly on power you gain a more satisfied electorate with a far greater sense of involvement in and ownership of the political process. In a Britain where MPs fret about the public's growing alienation from politics and contempt for politicians this is something we need to consider very seriously.

There are encouraging signs that this is starting to happen - and it's the Conservative Party that's in the vanguard of change. Two days ago a group of younger Tory MPs, part of the exceptionally talented 2005 intake, together with candidates and activists, brought out a pamphlet entitled Direct Democracy. This old Localist pays enthusiastic tribute to these New Localists. Let's pursue localism with rigour and enthusiasm. But we must understand that serious localism is no kind of soft option. If we are truly to let go from the centre, we have to accept that sometimes things will go wrong. If we make hospitals genuinely independent, not all will perform to high standards. There is still a genteel pretence that central control can deliver uniform standards. But no one in their deep heart seriously believes today that central control does actually deliver equity. Embracing localism whole-heartedly means formally abandoning this pretence. Letting go means letting go. Real independence for local authorities means not just freedom to spend; it means taking full financial responsibility for that spending. Letting go means you will get postcode policing, postcode prescribing, postcode recycling. Autonomy means real autonomy, not "earned autonomy", one of the more depressing phrases from the New Labour lexicon. It is only when we allow people and institutions to get things wrong that we open the door to the dramatic innovation that really does spread good practice.

And let's not forget the ultimate Conservative reason for deep localism. It is our belief in the dispersal of power. It is the suspicion shared by most people of what politicians will do when too much power is concentrated in their hands. Strong politicians should have the strength to do what is most difficult for us: to give power away. That power should be given to communities.

Cohesive Society

Second, we make a commitment to a cohesive society. Motherhood and apple pie? Yes, indeed, both of which are good. Why do we need to spell it out? Because people came to think, because some Conservatives themselves came to believe it, that Conservatism was just about individualism. It's easy to see how it happened. In the days when socialism stalked the land, we properly opposed state collectivism. But the alternative to state collectivism is not individualism. This is a false opposition. The alternative to collectivism - more properly statism - is people doing things themselves, voluntarily. And most of what most of us do, day by day, is done in groups - in the family, at work, with friends, sports, church or voluntary organisations. We don't do that much completely solo.

This is what makes such a thing as society. And Conservatives believe that the strength of society flows from what people do, not what the state does. Most of what people do is done together, in groups, in communities, in that fantastically complex tapestry of voluntary organisations - so-called "intermediate institutions" - that together combine to form society.

Personal Freedom and Responsibility

This then flows into our third value: personal freedom and responsibility. I will say a little more about freedom in a later passage. But the notion of personal responsibility - a phrase that trips with eager enthusiasm from Conservative lips - must include the responsibility that everyone has for each other and for society being genuinely cohesive. Iain Duncan Smith is completely right when he speaks of the need for Conservatives to talk the language of social justice, and to mean it. A society where so many people and communities are left behind, trapped in a hideous cycle of deprivation and failure, is a fractured and mean society, where we are failing in our personal responsibility for each other.

Limited Government

Fourth in the list is limited government. For me, part of this is a strong Conservative preference for lower taxes. The arguments are wearily familiar. Yes, you tend to get a stronger economy when taxes are lower. Yes, we do believe that people are likely to be more self-reliant, and look after themselves and their families when they pay less tax. But we also believe that society is likely to be stronger and more cohesive when taxes are lower. There is an economic case and a moral case for lower taxes. But at the best these arguments sound cold; at the worst they can sound like a self-interested appeal to the voter's own self-interest. By contrast the social case for lower tax is an idealistic appeal to people's best instincts. For the assumption it makes is that people generally want to do good and generous things. They have a sense of obligation to each other, to their communities and to people in need of help wherever in the world they may be. We do not assume that people feel that their social obligations are discharged as soon as they have paid their taxes.

It can be argued that this presumption is excessively optimistic. That there is less and less space in people's lives for altruistic activity, whether financial or physical. Maybe. But it's worth remembering that during the eighties, when marginal tax rates fell sharply, charitable giving multiplied.

It's also worth looking at the whole argument about university funding. We bewail the failure of university alumni to support their alma mater. In truth it is unsurprising, because universities in Britain have been essentially taxpayer funded and have felt like instruments of the state. But in America where most universities are genuinely independent of the government and students take responsibility for paying for their courses, philanthropic support for universities is at a level we can only dream of. Fully one third of Yale's revenues are from endowment income. Among other things it pays for support for clever students from disadvantaged families. The combination of the institutions being robustly independent of the government, a low tax environment and students paying their way through college has created a magnificently virtuous altruistic circle.

However, our commitment to the virtues of limited government must never be able to be parodied as a visceral hatred of the state and all its works. For one thing, Conservatives have always believed in a strong state able to do well those things that must be done by the state. That doesn't just mean the irreducible minimum: defence of the realm, maintaining the currency, securing public order and safety. It means a serious role in ensuring the provision of quality public services. There is a growing consensus in today's Britain that public service monoliths and monopolies belong to the past. But Conservatives will find it hard to take an appealing part in this hugely important debate if the perception persists that our only interest in the public services is in breaking them up, privatising them and helping people to escape from them. For even if the most radical dreams of the most creative Conservative reformer were miraculously to be implemented tomorrow, the truth is that most people's health care and education in any kind of near term future is going to be paid for and provided by the state. The sense that Conservatives deep down nurse a visceral dislike of these services debars us from a hearing in a debate to which we have a vigorous contribution to make. It is well attested that people's generally warm approval of Conservative policies on health and education drops sharply when told that these are policies put forward by Conservatives. The problem is not our policies; the problem has been ourselves.

Our commitment to limited government has sometimes in the past inclined Conservatives to play down the importance of environmental policy. But "leave it to the market" won't quite do. Environmental degradation, as Oliver Letwin ahs recently argued, demoralises and degrades the human condition. And much of it flows from the actions or inactions of government itself. While Conservatives will always and rightly prefer market-oriented solutions to environmental problems, let us never forget that even an emission-trading system requires a regulatory cap set by government to be effective. It is the people who have made sure that politicians now have no alternative but to do what they can to make poverty history. The Conservative Party could today mobilise the same emotional commitment in the public to solving environmental problems. We have to say it, but we also have to mean it.

When we talk about transport, it is no good us claiming that we are simply the party of the motorist. For one thing, it tends to confirm the negative perception that our values are essentially individualistic rather than social. On a more simplistic level it ignores the fact that most car drivers want better public transport, if only to encourage other drivers to get off the road. And we should accept also that even allowing for road pricing, which we should certainly support in principle, the stark reality is that the major improvements in transport infrastructure that Britain needs in order to be a cutting edge enterprise economy will not come about simply by the operation of the market and private finance. It will require activist government but also some serious commitment of taxpayers' money. So limited government: yes. But not minimalist government.

Established Institutions

Number five is our commitment to established institutions. Of course that doesn't a blind reactionary attachment to any structures that happen to exist. But it does convey an understanding of the strength that society derives from institutions that have the authority and independence that flows from history. It is an understanding of the stored knowledge, deep-dyed loyalty and ancestral wisdom that comes from continuity. In relation to the constitution, it is the deep understanding of the complex and unwritten relationships, the checks and balances, that have evolved over centuries in an organic web of tradition, convention and practice.

One such established institution is of course the family. No Conservative - probably no one at all - needs persuading that the family is essential social glue. Children are generally better with fathers as well as mothers. But we have to show that we understand that the family is a broader institution than the twentieth century nuclear model. The fact is that today many parents bring up families on their own. In the last few days of the election I had a salutary conversation with a highly articulate woman. She came from a Conservative family, and she wanted to vote for us, but couldn't bring herself to do it. A natural Conservative, I thought, hard-working, family-oriented; she tried to be a moral person, and a good role model for her children. So why wouldn't she vote for us, I asked? Because you don't approve of people like me, she replied. Why? Because I'm a single mother. There is a profound lesson for us. She was not out of sympathy with Conservative values; not at all. But she was deeply out of sympathy with the Conservative Party, because she felt we were out of sympathy with her. She felt - and said so explicitly - that we were out of touch with a lot of families in Britain; that we disapproved of how they live their lives.

This is not particularly about whether or not we are social liberals. I happen to think we should not be a party that seems to lecture people on how they should live their lives; if you believe in freedom and choice you should be content to abide by the choices people make, even if you don't personally approve of them. But my single mother in Crawley was not rejecting us because she thought we were illiberal. She was rejecting us because she thought we hadn't caught up with how people live their lives in modern Britain. No friend to Tony Blair or his government, she was rejecting values of intolerance and lack of generosity that she ascribed to us. We have to understand that this kind of baggage is an impediment that discourages many people who are natural Conservatives from supporting us. To sum it up, she thought we were not her kind of party.

The Rule of Law

Sixth in the list is commitment to the rule of law. Conservatives believe in the rule of law not merely in the banal sense of obeying the law of the land but as a principle of a society in which law and the judicial process are not subjugated to the whims of politicians. As democrats, Conservatives will uphold the supremacy of the legislature over the judiciary but this imposes a grave duty on those elected to Parliament not to collude with attempts to chop and change the law of the land for the political convenience of ministers.

This government has done two things that, taken together, now act as a pincer movement undermining respect for the law. Civil liberties as traditionally enjoyed in Britain have been undermined. We've seen trial by jury eroded, the law of double jeopardy compromised and ID cards proposed.

ID cards are intrusive, expensive and ineffective unless converted into a compulsory carry-at-all-times card, which would clearly be objectionable. Britain is not to be a show me your papers society. And we must not fall into the trap of making life difficult for everyone, including the innocent, because we are too timid to target and deal with the guilty.

The law is also being brought into disrepute by the implementation of the Human Rights Act. Judges have used its vague yet sweeping provisions to make a series of rulings that bear no relation to the intentions of legislators, the wishes of voters or common sense itself. When people read that a murderer has used the Human Rights Act to obtain access to hard core pornography they feel not respect for the law but contempt and alienation.

National Self-Confidence

Value number seven is national self-confidence. Conservative Britain should look confidently outward, always internationalist, never isolationist. Apart from his love affair with the idea of European integration, a love affair now rudely interrupted, there is much to praise in the conduct of the Prime Minister. The Balkans, Sierra Leone and Iraq have all benefited from vigorous armed interventions either led by or substantially contributed to by the UK.

I referred earlier to the unstoppability of making poverty history. Helping Africa is not a fashion statement, it's a moral imperative. How right Michael Howard was to put into our manifesto a commitment over time to increase Britain's international aid to the UN target of 0.7%. It gives us the moral authority to make the argument - the powerful argument - that aid and debt forgiveness alone are not the only solution to African poverty. Thirty years ago Asia had the same GDP per head as Africa. Today it's three times as high. Not because Asia has had more western financial aid than Africa. It hasn't. It is the direct result of liberalisation and democratisation. Africa must be helped along the same path. Here is the global challenge of the next decade. Corrupt and warmongering regimes must be helped aside and the dedication and generosity of the developed world allied to the natural talent and resources of Africans to improve the continent out of all recognition.

This kind of instinctive internationalism is the true basis of Conservative Euroscepticism. The noble vision of a united Europe developed by the post war generation politicians as a response to their own sombre experiences now looks a bit limited in ambition to the gap year young of the 21st century. Why Italy but not India, they ask. Why Austria but not Australia? Why Belgium but not Brazil? The idea of an ever more centralised club on the western side of Europe with its outmoded head office culture is beginning to collapse under the weight of its own anachronisms. We are with the Dutch and the Danish in our scepticism. We are with the new Europeans of Poland and the Czech Republic who understand far better than us what happens when small, vital, democratic nation states lose too much power to large, sluggish, remote multinational blocs.

Enterprise Culture

Last comes a commitment to an enterprise culture. It ought to go without saying. But for too long we've tended to assume that once you do lower tax and deregulation you have a full Conservative economic policy. As both George Osborne and David Willetts have argued, our economic policy has to be far broader than that. David has argued convincingly that we now need some really rigorous thought about supply side reform. In New Labour's early years in office there was much fulminating about "rip-off Britain". Beneath the spin and populism was a serious point. Some product markets in Britain don't work well. A lot of things are much more expensive here than elsewhere. Supply side reform never comes to an end. The idea that you need only do it once went out with businesses that used to believe you get to an optimal state of efficiency and then coast.

Alongside our preference for limited government must be a recognition of the need for new thinking on education. World class education is crucial to Britain being a really successful knowledge economy, and it won't just come about through the benign workings of the market.

Making Us "My Kind of Party"

So is it enough to have clear values, and to have thought out how they apply to modern day Britain? I don't think it is. I think the need for change goes further. This is where we get in to the much more difficult area of culture and behaviour. Charles Moore has written recently and very perceptively about the need for the Conservative Party to change how it looks and sounds and behaves. He has argued that "building outwards, making the shared enthusiasm of a few persuasive to the many by staying alert to the signs of the times…is the way to go".

Part of "staying alert to the signs of the times" is coming to terms with how the political landscape has changed. The reality is that the centre of gravity of British politics has moved decisively in our direction. Issues that were the raw meat of politics twenty years ago are now dead and gone: control of inflation; acceptance of capitalism; the nuclear deterrent; absurd privilege for trade unions; the acceptability of penal taxation; all now have been pretty much taken out of contention.

In this changed landscape people see conventional adversarial politics as being out of kilter with the reality. Most people - even if disillusioned with Blair and New Labour, as most are - do not feel especially threatened or alarmed by them. This last election was one in which not many people felt either threatened or inspired by any of the parties. Britain is after all still a reasonably prosperous country; the case against Labour is not that they have wrecked the country; more that they have eroded Britain's competitive advantage, and that they have missed a massive opportunity to drive through transforming reform, especially in the public services.

So if we go on about the government as if it were the worst government ever, if we overstate and exaggerate the case against Labour, we trigger two responses from anyone still listening. One is that it confirms their view that we don't mean what we say. This is a belief not just about us but about politicians in general: that we say what we say not because we believe it but because we think it will serve our partisan electoral self-interest. It then becomes even more difficult to secure a sympathetic hearing for anything at all we have to say.

The second typical response is that this kind of over-statement shows us to be out of touch. If Conservatives go on as if they think the country has actually ground to a halt, then it simply confirms the perception that we inhabit a different universe.

I should stress that this is not a plea for soft-pedalling Labour. Where we think they're wrong - and they often are - we should say so. But when we think they're right or trying to get it right - and sometimes they are - we should say that as well. Criticism should be measured, realistic and honest. As Conservatives, we do not believe that government is the answer to all problems. We should be consistent therefore and accept that not all problems that arise are created by government failure.

We need to understand that if we try desperately to differentiate ourselves, by seeking out "clear blue water", its effect paradoxically may be to make us look more the same: we simply look like another group of politicians saying things in order to attract support. We best differentiate ourselves from New Labour - arguable the most partisan political party in recent times - by being less partisan, not more.

Being populist does not make you popular. Saying things that sound like they're being said in order to win votes is a turn-off. We're more likely to be heard and respected for saying things that may at first hearing be unpopular: hard uncomfortable truths that show we care more for the truth than for our own electoral self-interest.

It seems to be a rule of British politics that in order to achieve the scale of electoral sea change that defeating Labour in 2009 would require always involves winning the support of younger voters. This was true in 1951, in 1964, 1979 and 1997. The party that breaks a pattern has to be the party that is the more forward-looking of the two; the party that seems to be more in tune with how people live and how they aspire to live.

Could we persuade younger voters today to support the Conservatives? Without doubt. Today younger people are more sceptical about government and the ability of government to improve their lives than my and preceding generations were. They simply do not believe that the state is going to provide for them. And at the same time they're much more self-confident about their own ability to make a difference. They don't want to be preached at; they want to be given the space to make their own decisions about how they live their lives. They're perhaps a bit more idealistic than we were; certainly more sophisticated. They're used to making decisions in a much more consumerist society than the one we grew up in.

They want the state to concentrate on the things that only the state can do and give them more space to run their own lives. Less tax. Less nanny state. Not because they're selfish and want to look only after number one. Mostly they do want to help others and are quite amenable to the Conservative argument that freedom and prosperity confer obligations on everyone to help others.

But we have to cut through their scepticism about politics and politicians. We need the chance to persuade them that we mean what we say; that we will do what we say; and that we will do it not because it serves some narrow sectional interest, nor just because it creates a better and more vibrant economy, but because our way is the way to create a more generous, cohesive and compassionate society.

We only get the opportunity to persuade them if we catch their attention. We only catch their attention if we rigorously eschew adversarialism, if we make our case in measured and proportionate terms. In short if we behave very unlike the public's worst idea of what politicians are like.

One last thought. I repeat that this is not at all about soggy, bland me-too Blairism; about camping in the consensual centre. It is about making it impossible for anyone ever to say of us: they're in it for themselves. We have to be in everything we say and in everything we do people who manifestly care more for the good of the country than we do for our own electoral self-interest. No one ever accused Margaret Thatcher of being a consensus politician. Equally no one - however much they disagreed with what she was doing - accused her of being "in it for herself". She was always - transparently - doing what she did because she thought it was for the good of the country.

If we do all this: if we restate our values confidently, and show that we understand how to apply them to Britain as it is; if we change our behaviour so we are less like what people expect politicians to be like; if we are true to the best of ourselves; if we get out and stay out of our comfort zone, our geographic, social and cultural comfort zone; then people will start to say of us once again: "Yes, the Conservatives are my kind of party." Then we can begin - again - to serve our country in government."

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