TUESDAY 19th NOVEMBER 2013
Speech to Bright Blue: Which party should a liberal vote for in 2015?
Three years ago shortly after the formation of the coalition I called for an electoral pact between the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats at the next election.
I now see that this was misguided.
By 2010 I had spent more than 10 years campaigning for the Conservative Party to become socially and economically more liberal. I had hoped that we would win a majority as a modern, compassionate Conservative Party. But when we didn't, I saw the coalition and an electoral pact in 2015 as our best chance of achieving the broad, open and generous party of my dreams.
In my book Which Way's Up? I described the coalition's five foundation stones as a belief in personal freedom, a determination to offer greater opportunity to those born in disadvantage, a sense of responsibility for the health of the natural world, an understanding that Britain must constantly rethink how it is going to earn its way in the world, and a commitment to strong and independent local communities. I believed that if we could get the Liberal Democrats to yoke themselves to us for a full two terms in government, we would in time be able to persuade most of them to merge their party into a truly liberal Conservative Party.
This was misguided for two reasons.
I had misjudged the Liberal Democrats. Although there are some true believers in freedom in the party - and they appeared to make the running in the first year of the coalition - the heart of the Liberal Democrats beats on the left and the party's instincts are statist. In recent months we have seen their leader twist and turn in a desperate attempt to position himself for coalition with a deeply illiberal Labour Party after the next election – and render himself a principle-free zone in the process.
I had also miscalculated how our party would react to coalition and how we would be perceived. I thought that our willingness to compromise with the Liberal Democrats in the national interest would help persuade the British public that we had moderated our ideological fixations, would show that we really had changed. I did not realise that our coalition partners would do everything in their power to paint us as heartless extremists. And I underestimated the readiness of some in the Conservative Party, and the press, to play up to the caricature and thereby fall squarely into their trap.
Three years on, I am no less convinced that entering into coalition in 2010 was the right thing to do. The national interest demanded it - and we must see it through to the end.
But I now have a very different view about the right approach for our party. To put it simply, we must be our own liberals; we cannot rely on anyone else to do it for us.
Trying to outsource liberalism from another party not only does not work; it risks reversing the fragile gains of modernisation. Instead we must assert our credentials as the most consistent champions of freedom under the rule of law. And we must make liberalism a more explicit and distinct part of our political brand. For the truth about our party is this: we have never been more successful or more true to ourselves than when led by lions in the cause of advancing freedom.
Whether by Winston Churchill in freeing the world from fascism. Or by Margaret Thatcher in liberating Britain from union militancy and Eastern Europe from communism.
In most parts of the world the suggestion that someone might be both conservative and liberal would be viewed as absurd.
In countries with no tradition of freedom, like Russia and China, conservatives want to prevent the introduction of liberal ideas like free speech and democracy. So liberalism is the enemy.
But in Britain and other Anglo Saxon democracies there is no innate contradiction between the two. The essential purpose of Conservatism is the preservation of the traditions, customs and institutions that we have inherited.
In the UK there is no finer tradition, no more established custom and no stronger institution than that of freedom under the law.
To be a liberal in Russia is to oppose the entire established order and to want to overturn the country's legacy from history.
To be a liberal in the UK is to believe that the established order and the democratic institutions that we have inherited from our ancestors need to be defended, and their reach extended.
That's why in Anglo-Saxon countries conservatism is freedom’s doughtiest defender and why the advance of freedom gives conservatism its moral purpose. It is no coincidence that in Australia the main conservative party – which just won a stunning election victory - is called the Liberal Party.
Although there are some proper liberals in its upper echelons - Jeremy Browne, David Laws – in the last year the Liberal Democrat Party has shown that it is not a liberal party but a statist party of the soft left.
It believes the state should determine who can be hired to teach in schools not head teachers.
It believes that the state should stop the private sector from playing a bigger part in the provision of free NHS services, even though they have a record of delivering better quality at a lower cost to the taxpayer.
It believes that the authority of the European state should not be questioned by a referendum in which the British people are invited for the first time in 40 years to affirm or withhold their consent for our continued membership of the European Union.
In these fundamental areas affecting British society and our national interest, the Liberal Democrats do not support freedom but state regulation and control. We need to confront reality. After their merger the old Liberal Party lost and the Social Democrats won. And having been pushed out of its ancestral halls, liberalism is now wandering the streets of British politics looking for a new home.
While the Liberal Democrats have revealed themselves to be liberal in name only, the frustrations of coalition have at times led the Conservative Party to sound apologetic about its commitment to the expansion of freedom.
It is a Conservative Prime Minister who gave gay men and women the freedom to share in one of our greatest and most cherished institutions: marriage.
It is a Conservative chancellor that has fulfilled Maurice Saatchi’s dream and liberated millions of low paid workers from the burden of income tax.
It is a Conservative education secretary who has given parents and teachers the possibility of setting up free schools. Who has offered all state schools the freedom to employ the people they want on the terms they want, and to teach the subjects they want in the way they want subject to complete transparency about results and rigorous inspection of their performance.
And it is a Conservative communities secretary – my boss, Eric Pickles – who has given local councils much greater power to shape the future of the communities they represent.
In the last three years David Cameron's Conservative Party has held the torch of freedom up high and shone its penetrating light into new areas of our national life.
Now I am not going to pretend that liberalism is the only strand of thought in modern conservatism.
My own liberalism is tempered by an understanding that freedom is only worth anything if it is underpinned by security. I believe that we must sometimes compromise individuals' civil liberties in order to defend our free society, that we must protect children from the evils of violent and exploitative pornography, that we cannot maintain a decent system of social security or free healthcare if we allow unlimited numbers of migrants to move here from around the world.
Others in our big Conservative family would give greater priority to other strands of conservative thinking:
The traditional values of family, faith and flag.
The interests of business and Britain's wealth creators.
The preservation of our heritage and glorious countryside.
The restoration of respect to our classrooms and civility to our streets.
I believe these are all essential parts in the song a modern Conservative Party should be singing.
But I wonder if we allow sufficient space for these different voices in the Conservative harmony to sound distinctly and be clearly heard.
Modern Britain is a place in which people prize their individuality and define themselves by their interests and pastimes, likes and dislikes. Yet when they look at the Conservative Party they see an old fashioned monolith.
Big retailers and consumer brands have found that they cannot rely on a single brand with one undifferentiated message to attract and hold the attention of all the customers they need. They have turned themselves into loose but coordinated collections of brands and product ranges, all operating from a common platform but free to express themselves individually and craft a more targeted appeal to particular consumer niches.
There is no group in society to which a monolithic approach is less likely to appeal than the generation of men and women under 25. And recent polling by Ipsos Mori and research by the Social Attitudes Survey have revealed this age group to be markedly more liberal - on both social and economic issues - than their older brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents. This new group of voters represents a fantastic opportunity for our party. But we have no hope of securing their support if we approach them with the same proposition that we use to woo our stalwart supporters.
The Conservative Party will only rebuild itself as a national party which can win majorities on its own if it understands that it cannot do so by making a single undifferentiated pitch to every age group and in every part of the country. If we are to avoid being pushed back into rural and suburban redoubt in the south of England, we need to redefine ourselves as an alliance of distinctive political forces which work together to produce a common election platform and programme of government.
There would be no better place to start this strategy of differentiation than in our appeal to the rising generation of economic and social liberals.
Since 1927, the Co-Operative Party has been a sister party of the Labour Party. It does not put up candidates for election separately from the Labour Party but offers Co-Operative Party endorsement to a proportion of Labour councillors, candidates, MPs and peers. 32 Labour MPs currently also represent the Co-Operative Party. Their number includes some of the left's most interesting new talents like Stella Creasy, Luciana Berger and John Woodcock.
In 1947 the National Liberal Party (previously the Liberal National faction of the gradually disintegrating Liberal Party) merged at constituency level with the Conservative Party. Until 1968 it continued to maintain a distinct political profile and national brand. Candidates who were associated with this new affiliate stood under a variety of labels: 'National Liberal, National Liberal and Conservative, Liberal and Conservative'. Michael Heseltine stood as a National Liberal in Gower in 1959. And John Nott began his parliamentary career in 1966 when he was elected as National Liberal MP for St Ives.
My question is this. Is it impossible for us to contemplate reviving the National Liberal Party, or something like it, as a an affiliate of the Conservative Party, which only puts up candidates for election jointly with the Conservative Party? Existing MPs, councillors, candidates and party members of liberal views would be encouraged to join. And we could use it to recruit new supporters who might initially balk at the idea of calling themselves Conservative. In three-way marginals and the key target seats that we have to take off the Liberal Democrats, an explicit National Liberal pitch might make the difference between victory and defeat.
In speaking today I know that I have posed more questions than I have answered. It is not for me to decide whether the solution I have proposed is workable – although I hope that people will not rush to judgment. But I am sure of one thing. The Conservative Party will only win office on its own when it has established beyond doubt its commitment to the advance of freedom. And found the courage to stake its claim as the party that all liberals should vote for.