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Winning the Battle of Ideas

April 12, 2010

Winning the Battle of Ideas In the weeks ahead we can be sure that commentators will be ever eager to draw comparisons between today’s domestic political scene and that of 1979 when the Conservatives were last swept to office.

Contrary to the myth that has since grown up, at that momentous General Election Margaret Thatcher presented a distinctive and radical offering to the electorate. I was a fourteen year old schoolboy at the time and recall the keen consensus that this was a crossroads election which had the potential to change not just political personnel of the day but our entire national direction.

We all fervently hope for a similar, sweeping victory after polling day. Indeed I passionately believe that a convincing result is not only what our Party needs but is essential for our nation’s future well-being. However, I fear that this time the political backdrop is markedly different.

For one, the economic backdrop in 2010 is considerably more serious. Three decades ago we inherited a rocky economy, for sure. But we should remember that by the time we took control of the public purse, the country had been subject to monetarist policies for two-and-a-half years, courtesy of the IMF. In essence, the toughest decisions on public spending had already been made.

Second, the public was ready to embrace change in 1979. Today it seems the electorate has still to grasp the seriousness of our national economic situation. The hyperbolic media coverage of the past two years, charting dramatic stock market swings, house price crashes and global turbulence, has probably convinced many that the worst is behind us without the headlines having ever truly translated to the situation on the ground. This makes it all the more difficult to persuade a complacent public that an era of financial reckoning lies ahead.

Finally, the spirit of this age is uncompromisingly ugly for those of us who instinctively support capitalism, free markets and global trade. There is open hostility to banks, bankers, big business, the wealthy, private education, private health and the profit motive. This is in stark contrast to 1979 when the case for empowering people, the smaller state and individual responsibility had already been made.

Today, we are poised for electoral success without having needed to convince the public of the superiority of our case. Indeed domestic politics continues largely to be defined by New Labour’s rhetoric, with our commitment to cutting public spending sold on the grounds of necessity rather than our natural instincts for a smaller, more efficient state. Conservatives have yet to challenge conclusively the contention that a government which devotes huge swathes of taxpayer cash to tackling ‘social inequality’ through a lumbering welfare system is more caring than one which believes in empowering the individual. Nor have we sufficiently defended ourselves against our opponents’ class war politics. We acquiesce in higher taxes on the wealthy without making clear the very practical reasons why, in an age of global mobility, the brightest and best of our young people will simply leave these shores if their plans to create wealth and promote enterprise are stifled. As the election approaches, we must now make the political weather, dictate the terms of debate and set out a distinct, positive pathway to a prosperous future. The tough times that lie ahead are sure to be infinitely more hazardous without such an underpinning.

To be tempted into a tussle for the centre ground is to rob the electorate of choice – which in part explains the sense of so-called apathy that continues to beset political debate in spite of our living in such tumultuous times. The floating vote slips with the tide and our task as Conservatives is to seek to influence the flow of that tide. If, as we widely believe, the electorate is repulsed by the politics of spin and illusion, then surely I am right in suggesting that authenticity and candour are the most effective weapons in the Conservative armoury?

Going along with the consensus that public spending and current living standards were sustainable even before the financial crisis took hold also robs the young of hope. Let us be clear: the political class has managed to avoid conflict over the past decade with older voters, home owners and those using unreformed welfare services only by consuming today and borrowing against future generations of taxpayers. A failure to grasp this nettle and secure an explicit mandate for the rapid administering of strong economic medicine, risks generational conflict and public disorder of a sort not seen on Britain’s streets for a generation.

This is more than a mere academic debate. The global economic and political outlook is shifting so fast that any incoming Conservative government will need also to strike out urgently with a distinctive and convincing vision of the UK’s place in the world in the decades ahead.

Let us be under no illusion, by the end of this tumultuous decade it is quite conceivable that our status internationally will have diminished considerably. First, our reduced military capability means we may soon no longer enjoy the prestige of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Moreover, as the geopolitical shift to the East gathers pace, the UK may find itself excluded from the top table of economic nations. The Centre for Economic and Business Research recently suggested that Britain may no longer be one of the world’s top ten economies by 2015 and even if we do maintain our relative position amongst European nations, by 2050 we shall account for just 2.5% of global output (roughly where Benelux stands today in world rankings). Who is to say that in the coming years a G5 or so of the largest economies will not be instituted, with the UK’s role confined to appearing as a bit-part player at occasional G20 summits? This readjustment will have a deep psychological effect on us all. No doubt it will reshape the way in which we look at the UK’s multilateral obligations and should certainly inform a Conservative view on the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review.

I do not say these things to be unremittingly gloomy, merely to underline the importance of Conservatives having a consistent, resolute plan for the forthcoming election. The consequences of the political decisions taken in the next few years for the future prospects of our country cannot be overstated. We must make the UK a place of possibilities, enterprise and entrepreneurship; a place that inspires young, bright people, not drives them away.

Let us not lull the electorate into thinking that their choice in this election is not an important one, just a matter of swapping one lot for the other. No, this is a defining moment for our nation.

The forthcoming election must not be framed simply as a clash of personalities. It is far too important for that – it must be a battle of ideas.