September 14, 2003

ROOM TO THE RIGHT (via Mike Daley):

Can the Tories learn to trust the people? (Alice Thomson, 12/09/2003, Daily Telegraph)

By saying nothing, they have let the Government damage itself. They're no longer the "nasty party"; that honour has been taken by Labour.

The Opposition held a party this week, in a foyer, and this is where the Tories are stuck, neither in nor out. Where is the great idea, the road map, the narrative?

Yesterday the Tories announced it. For two years, their best brains (they have more firsts than any other party, if less common sense) have been working away on a new vision. Their big idea: decentralisation.

The idea is great. Britain is now as overcentralised as the Soviet Union once was, bogged down by targets, audits, inspections, terms and conditions. The problem is that it's such a good idea, it's been thought of several times before.

Labour has tried its own version: a Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, regional assemblies and independent mayors. It has cost billions and just added another layer of bureaucracy. It came up with the slogan "The People's Party" and talked about "communitarianism".

David Blunkett, in his book Politics and Progress, discusses decentralisation at length, as does Peter Mandelson in The Blair Revolution Revisited. The Liberal Democrats were founded on small is beautiful. Tories from William Waldegrave to David Willetts have floated the idea.

So how will IDS succeed when so many have failed? In yesterday's new pamphlet, Total Politics: Labour's Command State, the Tories give an excellent analysis of how over-centralisation has caused too much waste, bureaucracy and rigidity, leading to paralysis. But in 100 pages, they devote only four to discussing their great plan.

The most important issue they need to address is how far to devolve. Do they want to give power to local authorities, to schools and hospitals, communities or individuals? To give an example, in education are they going to give more power to the LEAs, to schools or to parents?

If they give greater autonomy to councils, are they prepared to stand by and watch if the money is hijacked by Left-wing radicals, as happened in the 1980s? They're going to have to be brave enough, where possible, to devolve to the individual. [...]

If they are serious about their big idea, the Tories will need guts. Like Margaret Thatcher with the unions, they will be taking on huge vested interests: inefficient LEAs, hospital trusts, and many of the extra 600,000 public servants that Labour has employed. They will need to take on Whitehall and the mandarins who instinctively mistrust the provinces. They will need the doctors, teachers and police on their side. And they must sort out the funding; there can be no second poll

I suspect the public is already on their side; it's the pen-pushing public servants who will complain. Labour has done the Tories a service by proving that chucking money at health and education doesn't work. The public may be ready to take back control of their own lives, but are the Tories really ready to let them?

This is a moment of great opportunity for the Tories. The War on Terror has exposed the contradictions in Tony Blair's Third Way--a conservative Pm trying to lead a socialist party. He is going to be forced to tack Left, at least rhetorically, which leaves the Right open at long last, if only the Tories can get themselves back there.

There are three issues that are absolutely pivotal to this but their track record is too spotty to give much hope. The plan above is a fine start towards a seriouys devolution of power and privatization of the welfare state. But they need to grab onto the issue and not let go.

Second, they need to come out forthrightly against the EU. Their policy should be unlimited national sovereignty in all foreign and legal affairs, plus trade and military alliancea with the rest of the Anglosphere.

Third, they need to pass up the chance to question Mr. Blair's case for war against Saddam and not quibble over the post-war situation. These are minor issues where they can score partisan points but only at the cost of getting themselves on the wrong side of the war, as Democrats are currently doing in America.

In short, they need to make themselves once again the party of Thatcherism and they need to do so while her natural heir, Tony Blair, is distracted.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2003 10:32 AM

I don't know if it would work, but I'd love to see it shake things up: the Tories should come out loudly for the traditional (but now lost) English right of self-defense against criminals. Future Tony Martins should get rewarded, not prosecuted.

Posted by: PapayaSF at September 15, 2003 1:00 AM