At Greshams School, Holt
WHAT IS THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY FOR?
The title of this lecture is intended to be a little provocative – what is the Conservartive Party for? And I don’t mean in the sense of – it’s for hanging, or it’s for low taxes, I mean what is its purpose, why does it exist? And I hope by the end of this evening you will have a better understanding of the Party and why I wish to be its representative in North Norfolk in Parliament after the next election.
Now, it is a well know political saying that Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. By and large that is still true, but I think todays’ electorate is much more sophisticated than in times past and expects an opposition Party to have a positive agenda for the country, rather than just indulge in what Charles Kennedy calls Yah Boo politics.
And I think that’s partly what lay behind Michael Howard’s recent statement of beliefs which has been in the national press over the last week. It was apparently the first positive national newspaper advertisement the Party has taken out for about 10 years, and I applaud it. It shows we have a leader with a positive agenda, a leader who wants to show the electorate he has some core values. Our opponents sought to decry it – as indeed was to be expected. I particularly enjoyed the letter in The Times which read,
Sir, I was most disappointed and surprised to see that Michael Howard forwent the opportunity to declare he believes in Motherhood and Apple Pie.
But this whole episode helps us to answer the question posed by the title of my lecture today – just What is the Conservative Party actually for?
And that is the question which has bedevilled our Party ever since Margaret Thatcher’s inglorious removal from power in 1990. Since then the Party has been so riven with factional infighting, first over the Thatcher legacy, then over Europe and finally over the so-called ‘modernising’ agenda, that we were in danger of losing sight of our core values – the values which made the Conservative Party the most successful political fighting force in the western world.
Tonight I want to talk about the modern day Conservative Party, what it believes in, and how I believe we can win the next election. To win we need to have
- A Leader who the electorate believes is a realistic alternative Prime Minister. We didn’t have that with IDS, we do have that with Michael Howard
- A positive policy programme of ideas which remain true to our heritage but relate to modern day Britain, all sections of society and all age groups
- Five or six eye catching policies which show a clear difference between us and the other parties. The turnout at the last election was so disastrously low, partly because people believed we were all the same. Our challenge is to show we are not
- A media which is not biased in our favour but is not biased against us – by this I mean a media which gives us a fair crack of the whip
- A vision for Britain which strikes the right note with the British people. Not all political leaders are visionaries, but those that are tend to have the greatest electoral success.
I wonder how many in this audience could tell me what happened on May 3 1979. It was the day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Twenty five years ago. I was rather shocked the other day when a 23 year old friend of mine told me he couldn’t remember Margaret Thatcher being Prime Minister. Why would he? He was 10 when she left office. I’m 41 years old. I was 16 when she became Prime Minister so it’s doubtful whether anyone younger than me remembers that far back. Indeed, for anyone under the age of 30, Margaret Thatcher belongs to political history. But it’s important for any student of modern day politics to realise that today’s Britain is still powerfully affected by her years in office. Indeed, some say that her greatest legacy is that she made Tony Blair possible. I wouldn’t say Tony Blair was a Thatcherite, more of a Thatcher-lite politician.
And that’s what makes him such a difficult opponent for Conservatives today. Unlike Neil Kinnock he doesn’t frighten the electoral horses. To most voters he looks like a Conservatives, acts like a Conservatives, sounds like a Conservative so they think, well he must be one and is therefore safe to vote for. It’s very difficult to paint him as a loony leftie – John Major tried that with the demon eyes adverts, and look how far it got him.
So part of our strategy must be to say to people. If you want a Conservative Government you have to vote for one. Why vote for Tony Blair when you can vote for the real thing?
What made Margaret Thathcher the most successful PM the Conservative Party has ever had? Why did she win 3 elections? It was because she connected with the British people. People may not have always agreed with her, but they knew where they stood with her. She had an appeal across the classes, across the political spectrum, an appeal which Tony Blair has emulated. By dint of her words and policies she demonstrated that her aim was to - as Tony Blair might put it – benefit the many not the few.
Labour would like you to believe that the 1980s was a selfish decade, which only paid homage to the individual at the expense of the wider society. It is our failing as Conservatives that we have let this myth stand. Yes we did incentivise individuals because we believe that individuals who are successful provide the wealth which pays for our public services. For the first time council house tenants were able to benefit from home ownership. For the first time the share market was opened up to ordinary people. By the end of the 1980s more than a quarter of the adult population owned shares therefore boosting the economy. These weren’t elitist measures – they were designed to help people escape from the concept of The State Knows Best which had bedevilled us for years.
Empowering the individual is a good thing. We are all responsible for our own actions. We can't blame society if we disobey the law. We simply can't delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others. Political and spiritual leaders should strive to bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but they can't create the one or abolish the other.
They can only see that the laws encourage the best instincts and convictions of the people, instincts and convictions which I'm convinced are far more deeply rooted than is often supposed. The State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility. What is certain is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.
So Conservatives believe in the individual, but contrary to popular myth we also believe in Society. No Government can do anything except through people. It is our duty to look after ourselves and our neighbours. It’s what our society is built on. And a politics of society can rescue our nation’s ideals.
Everyone has ideals, especially people of your age. Yet society has failed to nurture idealism and this has led to the pessimism and cynicism which infect all parts of modern day society. Ideas of social justice or environmental sustainability are ones whose time has come and as politicians we must rethink our political boundaries. A new politics, built around active support for the free citizens of a value-based society offers the basis for a renewed idealism. It offers the possibility of repairing the damaged relationship between an unimaginative and unresponsive political system and a totally hacked off, disillusioned, electorate. What matters most in a free society cannot always be counted or measured. Society’s institutions and values are difficult to measure and are therefore often taken for granted.
Few things matter more than the professional judgment and freedom of nursing and teaching staff. Few things matter more than a parent’s instinct to protect and provide for his or her children. Few things matter more than the good neighbour who gives more than is required or noticed. There IS such a thing as society and the Conservative view is that we should nurture, protect and champion it. Some of those words I have just spoken were Margaret Thatcher’s, some were Iain Duncan Smith’s. Our belief in the good of society is constant and unwavering, and Michael Howard’s 15 beliefs reinforce that.
The can-do society of the 1980s has been replaced by the can’t, won’t, shan’t society of today. We have to reverse that trend by displaying the kind of vision with which President Kennedy inspired the 1960s generation of Americans when he famously declared “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Society is not just made up of individuals, of course, it is made up of families, who provide mutual support to each other. The Conservative Party has always prided itself in being the party of the family, yet in recent years it has failed to cope with changes in lifestyles and become hooked on harking back to a golden age of the family, which, maybe, just maybe, never ever existed.
It has blamed the advent of the permissive society for deteriorating moral standards, where abortion is freely available, where 50% of children are born out of wedlock, where gay couples can adopt children, where one in two couples end up in the divorce courts. Well, as someone once said, we are where we are. And we’d better accept it. As a party we must not get hung up on issues like gay adoption or single mothers. Single mothers and gay people are just as likely to vote Conservative as anyone else and we need to address their concerns and problems as much as Mr & Mrs Perfect with their 2.4 children and Volvo Estate in the drive. We need to be a much more inclusive party, and again, under IDS we started to move in that direction.
Just by way of example, we have selected 100 candidates for the next election. 25 of them are women. 7 are single mothers. 5 are openly gay. 6 are from ethnic minorities.
It may not sound a lot but we’ve done this without any form of positive discrimination, merely an acknowledgement by the local Conservative associations that we need to reflect society as it is rather than that which some of them might wish it to be. Contrast this with Labour’s selection gerrymandering and all women shortlists and the fact that the LibDems have virtually no women in safe or marginal seats, and certainly not any gays or ethnic minorities. We have a long way to go in these areas but a new generation of Conservatives will see to it that the path to social liberalism will be a short one.
Because social liberalism – and you know, I wish the Liberal Democrats were a truly Liberal Party in the old traditions of that word - because social liberalism is vital if we are to achieve true freedom for the individual and families.
Traditionally it has been in Labour’s interests to keep people poor. Trap them in the industrial working class. Deny them any chance to control their own lives. Tell them where to live and where to send their children to school. Deny them choice over pensions or healthcare. Force them to belong to a trade union. Force them to work for the Council because there are no other jobs available. And while you’re at it make sure that people’s whole lives are enmeshed in a dependency culture: dependent on the union for their job, dependent on the council for their home, dependent on the state for what income they were left with. Make sure there are always dependent, never independent, never free. For never let us forget that it was a Conservative Governments who gave people the freedom to take their own decisions, to run their own lives, to keep more of what they earned, and which gave them the right to own their own home and own shares. That is the Conservative achievement and we should never stop being proud of it.
Freedom was our battle cry then. Freedom needed a Conservative Party then and it needs us now. In Thomas Jefferson’s famous words, ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’. Two hundred years later we have got to be vigilant against a Government whose every instinct is it be boss, to meddle, the interfere, to control, to fine. It is no always as easy job. There are times when you have to give freedom those who you fear may abuse it. There are times when you have to give freedom to those who have values with which you profoundly disagree. That is part of the price of freedom. We are the only party in Britain which believes in freedom as a birthright to be protected, rather than a concession to be handed down.
Freedom demands that the government get out of our lives, yet we have a Government that introduces 15 new regulations every day and whose every instinct is to let the public sector expand. Yes, unemployment has fallen but only because of the massive expansion in public sector jobs, paid for by the taxpayer. The number of people employed in the private sector is falling due to the burdens of regulation and red tape which this government thrives on but which strangle small businesses. The cost of running government departments has gone up by 50% to £21 billion since Labour came to power. An incredible figure. All of this shackles our natural entrepreneurial spirit and threatens to do to the economy what the trade unions did in the 1970s.
Ask policemen if they want Whitehall to get out of their lives? To catch one criminal takes about eight hours of paperwork and form filling. Ask a nurse whether she would rather be caring for patients or filling in government forms. Ask a teacher whether they would rather spend time teaching or reading the latest daily missive from the Department of Education. I could go on. We truly need a bonfire of red tape and regulations to set us free again. That’s something Michael Howard has promised this week.
At the beginning I asked, What is the Conservative Party for? One thing we have always been for is a strong defence both of our nation’s independence and its interests. This year sees the 60th anniversary of the D Day landings. Many of your grandparents fought in that war against tyranny so that we might live the lives we lead today. As a nation we lost hundreds of thousands of our finest young lives so that others might live in freedom. We bankrupted ourselves in the process but we were right to do so. We fought alongside our ally, the United States, a country which has sacrificed its own men for the defence of freedom and liberty in Europe.
We should never forget that. Our alliance with the USA and our membership of NATO has been the cornerstone of our defence and diplomacy over the last 50 years. Because of this alliance the West was able to resist the Communist threat of the Cold War and eventually bring freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe. I still remember to this day the tears which stained my face as I watched the Berlin Wall come down in 1989. None of this, the velvet revolution in Prague, the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania, the battles in the Polish shipyards, none of this would have been possible without the resolute leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
But the world has moved on. There is no longer a Cold War, but this threat has been replaced by the terrorist threat. And a very real one it is too. I don’t have time to go into it here, but I firmly believe that this country’s place in the war against terror is exactly the same as it was in the Cold War – alongside the USA in an unbreakable alliance. I just wish our European allies saw things that way.
Which brings me to the subject of Europe, where the Conservative Party has a key role to play in deciding our nation’s future. Tony Blair has done a very effective job of painting my Party as a party of little Englanders who are xenophobic, racist and God knows what besides. All because we wish to retain our independence, sovereignty and our currency.
I want to see a Britain which has the self respect and pride to say, yes, we’re the fourth largest economy in the world and under no circumstances will be give up our currency, our sovereignty and our history to become some fourth rate province in the Greater Belgian Empire. I have never understood why a British Prime Minister would willingly give up our national independence by abandoning our currency.
Because if you give up your currency you are giving up the right to set interests rates and set taxes. And that’s after all what government is – saying what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay for it. And if people don’t like it they vote you out. In the euro our interest rates and taxes would inevitably be set by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, and who on earth elected them to anything? I accept that if you want to see a Federal Europe then a single currency is an inevitable consequence, and I have no problem with people who genuinely believe in that. But if they do, then they should be open about it and say so. We Conservatives do not fear an open debate about Europe and the euro. Far from it.
We also, unlike the Prime Minister, do not fear a proper debate about the European constitution. The British people don’t want to sign up to this and never will. The PM is quite happy to have referenda on whether to have a mayor in Hartlepool but is afraid of one on such an important issue as this. Why? Because he knows he’ll lose it and therefore lose face with his European counterparts.
We want to play a positive part in a Europe of freely trading nations which respect each other’s national sovereignty. We’re not anti Europe – many of us have lived and worked in Europe and have made lifelong friends in France and Germany. But we are against a Brussels dominated bureaucracy which is undemocratic and takes power away from the people.
In defending the sovereignty of our parliament, we defend the sovereignty of our people. We defend our right to live under our own laws.
So we must appeal to all those people who may not have voted Conservative before, but who believe in an independent Britain. At the coming election, we must say ‘Vote for us this time, so that your vote will mean something next time, and the time after, and the time after that.’
Many of you in this room will not be Tory supporters, but you know people who share our concerns about the way in which powers are draining away from our Parliament. Good, patriotic people, who may be lifelong supporters of another party, but who are not willing to watch their country being handed away.
They are people we must reach out to between now and polling day. And we should carry this message to them: we are the only Party that believes in an independent Britain. We are the only Party that has confidence in the character of our people. We are the only party that will articulate their instincts.
Michael Howard has said that he believes every parent wants to see their children get a better education than they had. And that’s why most of you are here today, getting that education. But education has for too long been a party political football. It started with Labour’s comprehensivisation programme in the 1960s, the first sign of political correctness gone mad. Successful grammar schools were abolished and became, to coin Alastair Campbell’s phrase, bog standard comprehensives.
That’s not to say they were all bad. They weren’t and aren’t. I was educated at a large comprehensive in Essex and I survived to tell the tale. But you don’t encourage weaker pupils by penalising the strong. In the 1980s we started moves to decentralise our system of school administration while retaining control over the curriculum.
We didn’t go far enough. Parental choice is important. In some rural areas it’s just not possible to give parents a choice – in North Norfolk there are only 7 High Schools and travelling times almost dictate which school your child goes to. But in many other areas this is not the case and parents must have the right to choose where their children should be educated. There should be no limits to our ambitions in education. If a child who has the capability to go on to university fails to do so we have not only failed that child but society as a whole. And that’s why I am appalled at the Government’s plan to impose tuition fees for university education. My first reason for being against them is that I don’t think I would have gone to university had I faced a bill of £30,000 at the end of my course. I was the first member of my family in history to go to university. Mr Blair would have taken that right away from me. He’s hitting the very people he claims to want to help, the poorer students, and he should be ashamed of it. No amount of government statistics or spin will ever convince me that that tuition fees will widen access in higher education.
The whole raison d’etre of tuition fees is to finance a widening of higher education to enable 50% of 18 year olds to go to university. Let me make it quite clear. I do not believe that 50% of 18 year olds should be going to university or will benefit from it. At the moment 43% do so and the drop out rate is fantastically high – higher than it ever has been. I believ universities should be centres of academic excellence. Many are but some are not.
The worst thing we ever did in the 1990s was to reclassify the polytechnics as universities. The former polytechnics now feel a pressure to compete with the older universities on the same terms. They shouldn’t. Their reason for existing was to provide something the universities could not – more of a technical, vocational higher education. I woulf far rather invest more money in vocational training, which is far more relevant to the needs of the country and society in general than waste millions on mickey mouse courses such as media studies, whose degree certificates might as well be written on loo roll for all the help they will be in getting a job in the media.
So this is one of those clear blue water areas between us and Labour. If you vote Conservative at the next election you will be voting for a free higher education. If you vote Labour you will be voting for debts of £30-30,000. In the end it comes down to what you believe is the State’s responsibility and what isn’t. Conservatives believe the State has a key role to play in funding higher education – especially tuition fees.
I would love to go on to talk about crime, law & order, transport and many other things besides, but we can talk about those issues afterwards if you have questions. I want to finish by talking about the political process itself.
Politics only works when people have an underlying respect for the system and those who work within it. I don’t think there has ever been a time when people have not been cynical about politicians and their motives. But I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of people who go into politics, whether as parish, district or county councillors, or as MPs or MEPs, go into it because they think they can do better. That they have something to offer. Sure they enjoy it, but they don’t go into politics for what they can get out of it. If that were the case no one would do so.
The biggest danger to democracy is that people shrug their shoulders, don’t turn out to vote and yet constantly moan about what happens afterwards. If you can’t be bothered to vote you have no right to complain. We’re almost moving beyond the age of the political party. Nowadays many young people feel that their energies are better directed at single issue pressure groups. It’s up to us in the mainstream parties to convince people that we can address those issues to. My message to you here is that if you have strong views, join the party which you feel most affinity with. You’ll never agree with any one party 100% of the time. I want to be a Tory MP and I can’t stand here and tell you I agree with my Party on everything. But our democracy is precious. People down the years have given their lives to protect it. By getting involved, even if it is only by joining a party and turning out to vote at least you’re doing your bit.
So in conclusion, I’d like to say what a privilege it is to be the Conservative Candidate here in North Norfolk. It was the seat I wanted to be selected for and when I won the selection in September I could hardly believe my luck. I don’t need to tell you what a wonderful place it is. My task over the next 18 months is to convince 80,000 people that I am fit to be their MP. I’m not going to do it by slagging off my opponent, Norman Lamb. He may be a Liberal Democrat but he too wants the best for this area – we’ll just disagree on the way to go about it. I have to demonstrate that I am on top of local issues and am part of the local community. I promised to buy a house here and next week I move into it. It’ll give me the base to carry the Conservative message to all parts of the constituency. What is the Conservative Party for? It’s there to
- stand up for the individual
- to trust the people
- to lower the tax burden
- guarantee a decent and free education for all
- protect our national sovereignty
- encourage wealth, happiness and prosperity
Over the next 18 months we’ll find out if we can get that message across both to the people of Britain and to the people of North Norfolk.