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Alan Duncan: Conservatism - Forward not Back

Speech to students at the City of London School

"Just over four months ago, I came here to speak to the sixth form. My subject then was the future of the Conservative Party. I was, as I rather nervously recall, very frank with you all, and in return you put to me some of the most perceptive and intelligent questions I've ever had to face. Your opinions and observations were markedly more stimulating than the House of Commons. So if you are the future: we can all have hope.

In fact, I was dangerously frank about where I thought the Party was heading, and explained why I thought we were struggling to make progress. All too sadly, events have unfolded as I predicted. Given that I was so candid just as the election was looming may I say how grateful I am to all of you that no one sneaked on me!

Thank you now for giving me the chance to speak to you again. Since I was here in February we have faced the electorate and lost once again - third time unlucky. It's becoming monotonous.

So I want today to take a longer and deeper look at our plight, and this time any budding journalists among you are welcome to file a report to anyone who will listen.

In my view, politics should be fun. It should be aspirational, missionary, inspiring, and full of causes and hopes. It should be a vehicle for anger and indignation, as well as a source of pride and enthusiasm. I'm afraid that for Conservatives it hasn't felt quite like that for some time now. Our motivation has been gradually sapped.

The truth is we've been fighting for survival. We've been running hard, just to stand still. We haven't really been fired up with the certainties we used to enjoy. So - can it ever be fun again? Can we restore our zeal? Are we looking at an historical opportunity, or are we facing historical oblivion?

I apologise if I was a touch precocious, but I first became interested in politics at the age of 12. I perhaps was suffering from a slight touch of the Hagues! But the memories of the 1970 General Election - Heath versus Wilson - which first excited my interest remain vivid. I dived into the school library to read all the parties' manifestos, and tried to work out what politics was really all about, and who stood for what. This leads to my having to make a dire confession: I started out life as a Liberal - essentially, as so often in the formation of political allegiance, the legacy of parental and a grandparental loyalties. But fortunately I soon grew out of it.

The main issue then was Britain's economic decline. While in opposition Ted Heath had attempted - most publicly at a conference at the Selsdon Park Hotel - to define an agenda based on free markets and liberal economics. Unfortunately its underpinnings were too flimsy to withstand the pressures of government, and instead of trusting free markets and liberal economics he thought we could better control prices and incomes by passing a law to restrain them. Selsdon Man gradually morphed into something so intellectually androgynous we ended up being thoroughly discredited.

Crucial then to the quality of the debate the Party was having was the Spectator. It was absolutely seminal in its critical diagnosis of our Party's thinking and our country's predicament. It was largely thanks to the pages of the Spectator that we saw the beginnings of a pivotal debate between Keynesians and monetarists.

But the debate that took place before and during the Heath government was only a prelude to the deeper intellectual renewal that followed. The real changes came later. The choice the Party made about who led it then, and the process of intellectual renewal in which it engaged, present compelling historic parallels for our plight today.

The need for a new battle of ideas…..

Six years ago I exploded a little political grenade by being interviewed in the New Statesman. I said we needed a new battle of ideas if we were to revive as a party. William was not amused. Ever since the early 1990s we've been out of sync, and unable to engage in such a debate. Too close to an election; too close to George Bush; too close to another election. Not long enough for a period of thinking in advance of a period of policy-making. Don't rock the boat. The long-term has always been relegated. We've been living from day to day, dwelling only on the short-term. As a Harvard professor once told me 'If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.'

Now, at last, we have the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being thrown straight into post-election turmoil, Michael Howard is presiding over a period in which we are all free to think, and speak, and listen, and learn. This is attracting broader interest. Newspapers are alive with the thoughts of politicians. It hasn't harmed their circulation yet.

Thinking must not be overshadowed by leadership talk…..

This period, though, is not without risk. In an ideal world we should be talking only of ideas and principles and philosophy; and then later on perhaps of party rules and picking a new leader. The risk is that all three become entangled, and the most important of them all - our long-term thinking - becomes relegated once again. The challenge we face is to make sure thinking is not overshadowed by manoeuvring, that we work out where we stand, and that we then make sure we have the best leader to take us forward with agreed ideas.

The New Labour project is faltering as its cheerleaders reach their sell-by-date, and people are tiring of government by propaganda. There is an appetite for a revived Conservative Party - and we have the best (maybe the only) chance in a generation to satisfy that appetite. So how must we approach this challenge?

Leadership and thinking need to coincide. We've picked leaders for negative reasons.....

In 1975 there was of course anti-Heath sentiment. But the alternative was as much intellectual as it was personal. Indeed Mrs Thatcher was perhaps the least obvious leadership candidate. It took wise heads such as Airey Neave and Angus Maude to spot her and promote her, and then back her to champion the ideas they wanted to put into practice.

It worked then, for that age, but let's be honest about the choices we've made since we picked Margaret Thatcher. We've essentially chosen subsequent leaders because of who they were not. They have been campaigns to stop people, not to promote people.

We picked John Major because he was not Michael Heseltine.

We picked William Hague because he was not Ken Clarke.

We picked Iain Duncan-Smith because he was not Ken Clarke or Michael Portillo.

Michael Howard at least was not picked simply because he was not someone else!

But let me also be brutally frank about what lay behind this. It's no good blaming the membership for what people are deeming to be a deficient system. The truth is that both MPs and party members primarily supported a candidate because of their views on the EU.

Very few people gave much thought either to the broader plight of the Party in terms of its thinking and appeal, or the broader qualities required of any candidate.

It was quite simply europhile versus eurosceptic. Go for the sceptic. Kill the europhile - that was all that mattered.

Factions have gone, and must stay that way: do things on merit…….

But the selection of Michael Howard marked a crucial improvement in the fortunes of the Conservative Party. It is that, for the most part, those corrosive factions which so undermined us all for so long disappeared. A party should always have shades of opinion and strands of thought, but it won't ever succeed if it comprises two or more blocs who all hate each other. The stark factional splits which sapped our strength and did so much to destroy our reputation have all but gone. We should now be determined not to create new ones in their place.

In the absence of such factional splits, our choice of a leader can be far more constructive. We must make sure it is. Choosing a leader should not be about gangs and deals. It should not be about mere attention to rank. It should not be about such facile concepts such as dream tickets or skipping one - or even six - generations. It should not be about factions and favourites. Nor should it be about easy labels like mods and rockers, or even Left and Right.

It should be about the serious qualities needed in a leader, be he young or old, fat or thin, combined with a clear understanding of the direction in which they, and we, need to take the Party and the country.

These days, a leader has to be good on TV. He needs endless stamina. He needs a track record of clearly held, and clearly understood, views and he needs to be able to appeal far beyond the core support we currently attract.

When Marks & Sparks needs a new CEO to turn them around, they look for the very best person to do it. There is a danger that all of us tend to take too shallow a look at the qualities required for leading us.

If we are to disentangle the confused issues of thought, rules and leadership, and ensure we have the best combination of all three, then we must put our thinking caps on first.

How we did it last time.....

Let me therefore go back to 1975, and compare and contrast (as your exam papers rightly demand of you) then with now. As Conservatives, we should learn from the past, and look to the future.

In 1975 Britain was going down the plughole. Britain's economic plight was dire, and the challenge of overcoming our decline appeared insurmountable. We lacked the courage to shape fundamental solutions until Mrs Thatcher said 'We must win the battle of ideas.' That process was crucial to analysing the problems, but was also essential for building the confidence to tackle them.

We identified the enemies we needed to confront: inflation, strikes, trade union abuse, nationalisation, unemployment, trade pressures, and so on. But she spoke first in concepts and principles, articulating both at an academic and a popular level the merits of freedom, enterprise, lower taxation, sound money, self-reliance, enterprise and the private ownership of businesses and homes.

At that stage of our intellectual renewal, direction was more important than detail. What mattered, and it's what we have to do again today, is that we shaped an overarching framework of belief into which all policy could subsequently fit. Love her or hate her, people would say 'I know where she stands: I know where she is trying to go.' As a result, all ensuing policy announcements made sense and resonated.

That period of intellectual revival enthused a whole new generation of voter, and reached those parts of Britain our previous efforts had never reached before. It involved politicians, think tanks, commentators, academics, students - indeed anyone who wanted to join in. For those of us who were then at university it was a profound influence.

What then went wrong…..

The Party's principles, and the policies that followed, served us and the country well for a decade or more. But it is what happened then that explains our plight now.

In short, we became victims of our own success, and did ourselves out of a job. We slayed the dragons we needed to destroy; the social composition of the country changed; people's political priorities changed; and without us showing any appreciation of its significance, our principal opponents changed too. So much around us changed, without us adapting to that change. We became totally out of touch.

Also the toughness of style we needed at first no longer suited the approach we needed thereafter. And Labour eagerly seized on the significance of a social agenda, and appreciated that reputation in the economic field had shifted from concerns about inflation and tax into concerns about security and the provision of public services.

Then, when we bailed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism we lost our unique selling point, leaving people to say 'If the Tories can't even handle the economy, why the hell do we need them at all?'

How they see us now……

For the last decade we have been desperately struggling to overcome a crisis of identity and reputation.

In the eyes of many we appear socially distasteful as well as economically irrelevant. It is our divergence from the social attitudes of the country we aspire to govern that has done such enormous damage and which has prompted talk of so-called modernisation.

We need to appreciate that our attitudes over the last 20 years have alienated an entire generation of voter, whose respect and affection Labour have ruthlessly harnessed for themselves.

It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which anyone under the age of 35 is more likely to vote against us than for us. Anyone who denies that risks condemning us to an ever-narrower base of support, which at the moment is primarily elderly, male and rural.

We have no divine right to exist. There is no automatic return to government. We face a continuing three party electoral battle, and our historic interest base is disintegrating. I'd like to see the Conservative Party so clear and thoughtful that nobody need feel the urge to vote Liberal Democrat.

This may all sound pessimistic, but actually I'm an optimist. It's just that it's only when you understand and admit the problem that you can successfully design the solution.

Do not copy New Labour…….

But that is where the parallels with Labour end. In shaping our solution, on no account must we think that our route forward lies in copying New Labour's. History does not repeat itself in such exact ways. We should stay clear of talking of our Clause 4 moment or our Granita deals. Our solution does not lie in copying them: indeed imitation of New Labour would be the sincerest form of idiocy.

It is for us to find our own solutions to our problems and our country's problems, and to do so in our own way.

Banish focus groups……

One other parallel we should bin is the use of focus groups. Focus polling is the shallowest science which claims illusory and simplistic certainty for complicated issues. Taking a steer from focus groups leads to the politics of the lowest common denominator. Opinions which blow one way one day will blow another the next, as they reflect the participants' latest impression. They are weathervanes, not signposts. We should conduct an audit of Britain based on facts; not a flimsy analysis based on transient opinion.

What we should do now……

So how can we engage in the battle of ideas we were so active in 30 years ago?

In my view, the problems are just as severe, and merit the same rigorous analysis today that we deployed 30 years ago. It's just that the challenges are not as blatantly obvious now as they were then.

I believe our party should stand for a society in which the state does better what only the state can do, and gets out of areas people can do better for themselves; for a country of liberal economics and liberal attitudes. People should be free to live as they choose without being bossed around by the state until such time as they do harm to others. The state should assist those who most need it and not claim to be the only provider for the majority who don't. Government should be designed for the benefit of all, not just the benefit of those whose votes they need. The nation should be re-established as the principle unit of democratic legitimacy - that means reaffirming the role of parliament in our national political life, while accepting its need to adapt to the dictates of a rapidly modernizing world.

Turning first to economics, I wrote a book in 1993 called 'An End to Illusions' which called for radical reforms to remove wayward government influence from the ups and downs of economic fortunes. It was heartening to see a Labour government embrace most of the recommendations, including independence for the Bank of England.

But we now face a massive challenge if we are to confront the new illusions now being entrenched by Labour. Debt is massive, but debt is hidden. Credit card debt is perilously high, NHS trusts face growing deficits, PFI debt will commit future revenue flows for years to come, and the shortfall in our pension funds amounts to many tens, if not hundreds, of billions, putting millions of people at risk in old age.

Economic stability across the ups and downs of the economic cycle remains paramount, and it is not going to last. A good period is being unforgivably squandered.

If the economics of the government are tight, so are those of most households. Savings have diminished, and a worrying fraction of society live from week to week, pretty well hand to mouth, with little or nothing set aside. Even the poorest are taxed before they have enough to live on, and they are inculcated with the expectation that most obligation for most of what they do lies with the state. Conservatives should recapture thinking on poverty, as we have shown ourselves capable of doing on global poverty.

Too many have no pension at all, a problem that especially affects women, and most live in fear of how to pay for old age care. The original state pension was not anticipated to cover more than the last few years of a person's life. That model has long since been superseded, but the structures of provision have not caught up.

We should contemplate crafting a shift of emphasis in government spending from cash to infrastructure, especially in cities, regenerating economic activity in the north rather than an overcrowded south.

The post-War settlement in both health and education is under strain. The main focus of debate should be based on a refusal any longer to accept the sub-standard provision of health and education. Why do we put up with either?

Education which is not achievement focussed is nothing. We need to work out what we should teach, and how we should teach it. There are many models of supply for health and education which she should have the confidence to explore.

Perhaps the most practical policy we had on health was the commitment to contribute half of the cost of an operation if someone was force to seek treatment outside the NHS. All the logic justified the policy, but in the absence of the overarching framework of principle we need to build, it was misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

Planning, which affects so many people's life, is almost entirely outside parliamentary control. Most major changes in policy have been implemented with no legislation, and almost no democratic approval or scrutiny. The density of new housing, the numbers required in local plans, and the nature of new developments are determined almost entirely by ministerial whim.

In the social sphere, many teenagers respect nobody in authority, and through family breakdown, lack of educational achievement and the consumption of drugs are expected to do less well than their parents. This growing phenomenon signals the risk of areas of Britain becoming decivilised. This whole field of social justice should fire up our sense of politics and purpose.

I believe - and I believe the Conservative party should recognise - that this social disenchantment has been caused by an increasingly unwieldy and uncaring state. Labour takes deprived teenagers for granted and thereby keeps them dependent. In many areas of Britain, especially in the urban north, the state as good as owns the life of every man, woman and child.

I firmly believe that the Conservative party should reaffirm the central role of Parliament in our country's political life. Let's face it: parliament is nearly dead. We are, as it were, going through the motions. The notion that we can easily hold the executive to account is proving more and more worthless. We have archaic procedures, almost no topical questioning, and most MPs have no idea what they're voting for.

Fundamental principles and decencies in the way we make law have gone. Law should not be retrospective, it should not be passed without any debate at all, and it should be designed for justice, not gestures. Malign procedural changes which benefit the government are invariably retained by an incoming government when they should be repealed.

Disillusion with Parliament is caused principally by the utter saturation of the country with so many layers of it. Europe, Westminster, devolved, regional, county, borough, parish, to which add a quango at every turn. We are over-governed. Take the EU. Each year about 100 directives and 1000 regulations emanate from the EU and are passed into UK law. As far as I know none has ever been either amended or repealed. Those who say that the EU has kept peace in Europe need to appreciate that we have peace because Germany is a democracy, not because we have an ever-more-powerful pan-European government.

Finally…

Many others will contribute to the thinking we need. In doing so, we should all pitch our thinking high, stop talking in simplistic labels, avoid copying New Labour, respect each other, and have confidence & courage.

Tony Blair once said that his political ambition was: "To destroy the Conservative Party". I don't want to destroy the Labour Party - I want to destroy socialism, and thereby extend to all the benefits socialism pretends it can deliver but invariably cannot.

At issue for us is whether the New Labour project is a permanent realignment or a temporary phenomenon which will not outlast the unique combination of the Blair persona and a seemingly benign economy.

If the Conservative Party is to revive it has to stop looking in on itself and start looking out at the country we want to govern.

This may be our last ever chance to do so. Take it and the next leader will be the next Conservative Prime Minister. Flunk it and we might as well all go back to the day job."

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