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11 June 2001

How to avoid a strange death

Election Night - John Patten, a former Tory minister, reflects on a disastrous result

By John Patten

That apathy should have a better general election than my party shows the enormity of the task that now faces us in preventing the centre left from running away with the first half of a new century.

So I don’t care much who leads the Tories now, provided they think. We stopped thinking a decade ago. And look at the result.

First, we must re-establish where lies our visceral dividing line from Labour. The real distinguishing feature of the Tory party is that the centre of its political gravity is the individual and the family, while for Labour it is always the state. Second, we have to reinvent some enemies. The most obvious possibility is overtaxation, but that is not sufficient. At a time of economic well-being, based on a cocktail of the pre-1997 Tory economic success, technological advances and globalisation, the real enemy is Labour’s growing interference and blatant bossiness. Business has woken up to the red tape of Labour. We need to wake up the country to its growing interference in our lives: hunting first; shooting will be next; diet will follow; and then dotty “beware of sunbathing” messages. Nationalisation of behaviour is coming: the N-word threatens the individual and society. Labour wants to homogenise individualism, and to persuade us to forget as much as we can of our history, our traditions and our culture. To suggest that there was anything of merit before 1997 undermines the rationale of Labour’s “modernisation”.

Both the popular manifestations and the deeper waters of politics scream out for cerebration by the Tories. It is no good us bleating about Labour’s constitutional changes. The constitutional process now has a momentum that we cannot stop. What is our grand plan instead? And what next for “society”? What is now the Tory view on all those ties that bind us, on what active citizens should be active about? Was there ever a lost civic generation that was involved with the community?

Our foundation should be the pledge to allow people to keep more of their own money to spend in the way they wish. Real tax cuts should be described in terms of value to people, not “leaving money in your pocket” or “giving it back”. That is not only the morally correct approach, but also absolutely practical, because no state will ever be able to meet the voracious demands of the political consumer. In the public finances, there is a black hole looming that no government can fill. Private and personal funds will have to replace state provision. People should have the choice of what to spend, not just on consumer goods, but towards better healthcare, pensions, social services and education.

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Labour can never face up to dealing with the welfare state. Only thoughtful, pragmatic Toryism can do this. The welfare state is not modern in any sense. It is not efficient – the past 50 years prove that. The only reason left for its existence is old-fashioned egalitarianism, which is now redundant. It needs to be replaced by proper Tory compassion for those who cannot contribute.

This calls for absolute transparency in taxation: no more stealth taxes, and an end to the mare’s nest of income tax, national insurance payments, myriad allowances and all those other Treasury tricks. Full-scale reform of the tax system is what we need.

From this thinking flows the rest. First, we must consider how much should be reserved by the state to spend on law and order at home, and on defence abroad. And then we must give control of schools to parents, control of general practices to GPs, and give people as much choice over welfare services as they do over consumer goods – always looking after those who cannot make those choices.

What used to be a frightening thought will become a political necessity in a generation’s time. Only Tories will have the courage to think this. There will be a huge backlash against both political spinning and the way vacuous newscasters report, as fact, events that have not yet happened. Saying what you mean will once more be seen as a virtue. I suspect that the Tory idea of responsible freedom will then triumph over Labour bossiness and regulation.

But if the Conservative Party does not start to think again, the results will be permanent – not just damaging the size of our party, but maybe killing off a whole political generation, or even worse. I, for one, do not wish to see the strange death of Tory England.

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