WEDNESDAY 12th DECEMBER 2012
Speech to Bright Blue: What will Modern Conservatism mean in 2015?
Some of the most resonant phrases which encapsulate deep truths come from obvious sources: the Bible, Shakespeare or the great novelists. Others come from less elevated sources. I have always admired the anonymous advertising copywriter who devised the phrase “Traditional Values in a Modern Setting” for one phase of the Daily Telegraph’s Evolution.
Conservatism is about preserving the best traditional values: love of country, family and place. The desire to enable each individual to make the best of his or her talents, while giving that individual space. The nurturing of neighbourly feelings to create genuine communities. The building of a state which is effective but not intrusive. The release of the economic energy of the private sector. A positive engagement with the rest of the world.
The Conservative Party, when it is successful, is about finding ways of making these values relevant and popular in a modern setting. Modern Conservatism is not an oxymoron. It is the ideal to which the Conservative Party should always aspire.
Clearly modern Conservatism changes with the times. From Disraeli to Thatcher great Conservative Prime Ministers have been modernisers, but their battles have been fought and (mostly) won, and we have moved on to new terrain. Indeed even in the seven years of David Cameron’s leadership, modern Conservatism has evolved significantly.
In the early years it was necessarily about showing that Conservatives were not just hard-hearted economists, but also cared about communities, public services and the environment. We still do, and we always should do. Since 2008 though we have also had to show how our values work in a bleak economic climate. There is a time to be cuddly and a time to be gritty. These are gritty times.
In the post-Olympic euphoria I pointed out that the Conservative Party needs to pass the Danny Boyle test of showing that we are at home in modern Britain. I was taken to task by one pundit for fighting old battles which have now been won. I disagree with him because although the form of modernisation changes over time, as I have said, the battle to keep the Conservative Party modern is a continual struggle.
That is the background to the exam question I have set myself. “What will Modern Conservatism mean in 2015?” This is, it is important to realise, not the same question as what will it take to win the General Election in that year, although the two are obviously related. But I am not saying that these propositions will be the central battleground at the Election. We all suspect that it will be, as ever, the economy, stupid.
I would put forward five propositions which will make up contemporary modern Conservatism in 2015.
The first is that it needs to spread out beyond the comfort zone of the South East of England. There are natural Conservatives all over the UK, as has been shown by the recovery of the party in Wales over the past decade. The 2010 Election spread Conservative electoral success to places where it had not been seen for many years, and I believe that the instincts and insights of MPs from these non-heartland seats is particularly valuable. The fact that in the recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, in mid-term and with Independent candidates banging hard the anti-politics drum, Conservative candidates won in Humberside and Cumbria shows that the caricature of a Party uncomfortable beyond the Home Counties is as unfair now as it ever has been.
The second is that it needs to be influential beyond the comfortable middle class. In many ways the most potentially exciting of the new groups being formed inside the party is Blue Collar Conservatism. Without much fanfare it immediately attracted supporters from all ideological wings of the party. The group itself makes the point that in 2010 the strongest swings to the Conservatives came from skilled and semi-skilled manual workers. Taking low- paid workers out of tax by increasing personal allowances is a very Tory idea, and if my Liberal Democrat colleagues support it as well that’s a bonus. But it is still centrally a Tory idea.
Inevitably in the current age promoting the universality of Conservative ideas will involve pointing out the incredibly wide background of current Conservative MPs—in flat contradiction to conventional wisdom. As someone born in a terraced house in a small town in South Wales I am entitled to feel that the tired accusation that I, or anyone, only becomes a Tory because of a privileged background is a substitute for reasoned argument. This variety of background of its members has been true of the Conservative Party for most of its history. It is certainly true today.
The third proposition is that the party must not just be for those who have already achieved, but for those who are trying to make their way at any socio- economic level. Strivers is the current word of choice for people we all want to encourage, and it is a good description in tough economic times. The Government ‘s Welfare Reform measures are designed precisely to help those
who are keeping themselves afloat, and not assuming an entitlement to a way of life which in the past could be better on welfare than in work.
But this proposition is not only relevant in the area of welfare reform. As Liz Truss has pointed out, one set of potential strivers who are being failed by the system are mothers who want to work. Since the 1980s one of the strengths of the British labour market was that it made it easier for women to work. In the 80s and 90s mothers in the UK were more likely to work than their counterparts in Germany or the Netherlands. This position has now been reversed, and we now have a lower percentage of working mothers than Germany or Holland, and even France. The reason is not a change in desire to work. Half of those non-working mothers surveyed wanted to work, but a key reason preventing them was the cost of childcare. This is therefore another key policy area where helping those who want to help themselves to get on, that key Tory principle for centuries, is directly relevant today.
The fourth proposition is that we need a balanced portfolio of policy interests to show that Conservatives are not one-dimensional. There is no contradiction in doing some things that our political opponents see as desirable, and therefore surprising for a Tory-led Government, and some things that they find typical. We should only care that what we do fits with our values and beliefs. Therefore I am proud to be a member of a Government that is meeting its targets on overseas aid, and equally proud to be a member of a Government that is cutting immigration numbers. The first is a policy that shows we care about the most unfortunate people in the world, in line with the principle of engaging positively with the world beyond our shores. The second is a policy that promotes social cohesion, in line with the principle of supporting genuine communities. As it happens, cutting unskilled immigration in particular helps those who are striving at the lower end of the jobs market, so these propositions reinforce each other at crucial points. Only Tories, rather than Liberal Democrats, will recognise that these policies are mutually reinforcing.
The fifth proposition is that our long-term economic interests must remain at the heart of Conservative policy. This sounds obvious but it is not a platitude as it impinges hugely on the debate both party and country are going to have about Europe in the next few years. The central point which needs to be stated calmly and clearly is that we are better off in.
It is true that the old pro-European arguments, which bought into a vision of inexorable progress towards a United States of Europe, no longer hold any appeal for Conservatives. There is though a hard-headed pragmatic economic argument that our membership is to the advantage of the British economy, and therefore the British people, and that this remains the case even with the enormous current problems faced by the Eurozone.
One of the key growth levers the Chancellor is pulling is to rebalance the economy so that it is no longer over-reliant on financial services. This rebalancing is helped hugely by global manufacturing companies coming here to sell into the European market. The British car industry is probably the biggest visible symbol of how inward investment, enormously helped by our membership of a wider single market, can create long-term prosperity and jobs for tens of thousands of British workers. Taking a risk with that prosperity by saying we cannot negotiate a more comfortable way of remaining in the European Union would be folly.
What has been true for the car industry is true of other industries, whether in services or manufacturing. Major companies invest in the UK because they want access to the Single Market. The problem with the Single Market is that it does not go far enough, and removing the remaining barriers, particularly in the digital sphere, would be an enormous benefit to entrepreneurial companies of the type which abound in Britain.
There is a fantastic vision of an EU which remains a single market, including the UK, but which in all other respects allows the UK to be outside. This is a fantastic vision precisely because it is a fantasy. What is in this for those on the other side of the negotiation? Ask yourself the simple question. Would we be more or less likely to negotiate a good deal for UK-based companies wishing to trade with Europe if we had pulled out of the EU? And ask yourself another simple question. If you were a company in China or India wishing to set up a base in Europe, would you be more or less likely to choose Britain if we had withdrawn?
The EU is imperfect, irritating, and needs to change badly. There are a number of areas where this Government is fighting to achieve this change. Staying in and fighting is the best way to meet our economic needs.
These five propositions show that Modern Conservatism is not only flourishing but is capable of addressing the latest problems that face the country. Everyone is aware of the great steps we have taken in modernising our schools and our welfare system, and similar radical reforms are taking place in our policing, and in other parts of the public sector. Even in a Coalition Government we can achieve significant progress in a direction with which Conservatives can be comfortable. I believe that relentlessly pursuing an agenda which applies our permanent values to new challenges, and which recognises how fast those new challenges arise, gives us a Modern Conservatism of which we can be proud, and which incidentally is the right route towards a majority Conservative Government after the next Election. I am sure that Bright Blue will play a significant role in helping us towards that goal.