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BUCKLAND Robert

If you have an idea for the Conservative manifesto in the field of home affairs, please feel free to send it to Robert Buckland at the House of Commons. As Buckland himself said during this interview: “I would positively encourage people to come forward with concise ideas that could merit inclusion in the manifesto. The exam question is: ‘What would be a cut-through Conservative policy for the manifesto?’ I’d be interested to hear.”

ConHome: “Would you say ‘Write on one side of the paper only in no more than…’?”

Buckland: “Yes, in words of no more than five syllables. I would be more than happy to take ideas. I do want this process to be a comprehensive one and one that genuinely engages colleagues and other organisations in the process.”

Buckland is in a position to feed in ideas for consideration in the manifesto because he chairs the backbench policy committee on home affairs. He is the fourth backbencher interviewed by ConHome about this process, after Graham Brady, John Redwood and Steve Baker, but the first to express contempt for economics.

Buckland’s loathing of ideology used to be a defining Tory characteristic, but has become much rarer. In this interview he also defends Britain’s membership of the EU, agrees with Nicky Morgan in rejecting “the sourness that can creep in sometimes to Tory discourse”, calls for a reduction in the use of “stop and search” powers by the police, says the party must concentrate on raising living standards for the working poor, and attacks Labour for waging class war against Old Etonians.

Buckland: “God save the Treasury from economists. A disaster. Lawyers make the best Chancellors: Ken Clarke, who I think was an excellent Chancellor. Geoffrey Howe. I am perhaps being a little unkind to Nigel Lawson.”

ConHome: “You are a lawyer.” Buckland, who is 45, practised until his election for South Swindon in 2010 as a criminal barrister and still sits as a Recorder.

Buckland: “It’s all about evidence. It’s not about theory. You can’t run an economy like the United Kingdom economy on abstract theory. It’s just a nonsense. To run an economy on abstract theory is not even the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. It’s the way to perdition. I do despair at the tyranny of economics when it comes to modern politics. It’s been described as the dismal science. I do think that it is truly now beyond dismal. It’s deadly, I think.”

ConHome: “How wonderful that you and Steve Baker can be in the same party. Because there he was when interviewed by ConHome, plucking volumes by Austrian economists off his shelves.”

Buckland: “Oh nonsense isn’t it. Ludwig von Mises! Ohhhh! Ohhhh!”

ConHome: “Who politically are your heroes, living or dead?”

Buckland: “Oh they’re all dead. Well you have to go back to Shaftesbury and Disraeli. I remember years ago watching a BBC dramatisation of Hard Times and being really annoyed at the end when they change Mr Gradgrind from being a Liberal candidate to being a Tory.  I was white with rage, because the whole point was it was a critique of laissez-faire Gladstonian liberalism, which I loathe with a passion. I am a romantic Tory. My Toryism is fundamentally, it’s not economic, it’s a romantic Toryism, it’s based upon a belief in tradition, the balance of the constitution, our obligations to help people who are in poverty, the fact that very often the free market is not enough to solve the problems of the country, and that whilst it is the least worst economic system yet found, it has its flaws which as Conservatives we are obliged to try to rectify. I’m a Tory and I love the word, I use the word advisedly, I don’t have a problem with it. I joined the party when I was 16, 17, my philosophy has not changed since then, it’s very much that philosophy shaped by those giants of the 19th century right through to Macmillan and Macleod. Those are the people that really move me emotionally when I remind myself why I’ve ended up first of all as a Tory and secondly as a Tory Member of Parliament. The party for me is in a very good position. We’ve probably got the most moderate leader since those days. The principled and pragmatic side of Toryism should be our touchstone, and if we forget that then we’ve got problems. There is that tension always within the party. Steve Baker was very nice about me and I can be very nice about him. Steve’s an interesting thinker, he’s a laissez-faire liberal, our shared sense of religion brings us together. Then we have things that make us different. I still recognise Steve as very much part of the family if you like, which is why we can easily and happily coexist in the same party.”

ConHome:  “Where does Europe fit into all this?”

Buckland: “Well my views on Europe are perhaps somewhat unfashionable, but I passionately believe our future still lies in a reformed EU. I’ve never pretended that like the institutions of Whitehall it is perfect. But I take the long view about Britain’s role. I’m much more of a Castlereagh man than a Canning man. We have to be at the Congress of Vienna if we’re going to have influence.  And the seductive but misleading mirage of Britain free on the high seas is I think for the birds. That philosophy was never borne out in reality. Splendid isolation was never the reality of British foreign policy even before the Entente Cordiale and the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty.  We are at our best when we engage with these organisations, with their manifest imperfections.”

ConHome: “So are you happy with the present policy?”

Buckland: “Yes I am. It’s not just a device to bring the party together. It actually allows pro-Europeans like me to make a robust case. The challenge set down by people like Douglas [Carswell] is don’t be frightened of democracy. I think that if the case is made clearly, the business case, the political case, the influence case, then I think the people of Britain will vote to stay in the EU. And I’m not frightened to make that case. We need to get on with doing that robustly. If we change our tone in many ways and stop whinging and start saying well actually, we’re one of the biggest countries in the EU, yeah it’s not perfect, yeah we think that certain things could be done better, yes we are worried by the activism of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Let’s stop talking about repatriation and start talking about renegotiation, I think that’s a more realistic foundation on which to make the arguments.”

ConHome: “How many Tory MPs agree with you about staying in the EU?”

Buckland: “I would say there’s a hard core of about 30, but there’s a wider penumbra you know of people who if push came to shove would stay in. The better-off-outers are a rump of about 30 or 40. Then you’ve got the better-off-inners, who are actually a very large majority of the party.”

ConHome: “As chairman of the backbench policy group on home affairs, what sort of ideas are you hoping to feed in for consideration in the general election manifesto?”

Buckland: “Well on a range of issues, as you would expect. On issues such as drugs policy, crime prevention and police reform I’m very keen that colleagues have their say and come up with a range of innovative ideas. We’re also working with a range of outside organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice. They could be individual pressure groups that work with victims for example. I’m already speaking to a number of groups that represent victims and their interests, and I’m inviting them to come in and make presentations to me and to other colleagues to promote ideas they have for the manifesto. For example I had a meeting the other day with the Restorative Justice Council. My worry is that we’ll end up with lots of wonderful sky-blue thinking but nothing really tangible. We have a lot of the dialogue about tough versus soft on crime. I want to try to move it on to smart versus stupid.”

ConHome: Rachel Sylvester reports a very strong difference of opinion between the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister about stop and search. What’s your view?”

Buckland: “Just speaking personally, I do think we need to reform, on the basis that we should be the party that is helping the police to do its job more effectively. In Tory-controlled London, the Metropolitan Police are already turning the tide and reducing the amount of stop and search encounters, and actually the results are very interesting. The number of stop and searches has been reduced, the number of what we call Section 60 searches relating to weapons of violence has been dramatically reduced, and there has been no concomitant rise in knife crime, and I think the stats suggest there continues to be a decline. If we take it from a Tory point of view that we want to see the police using their time as efficiently as possible, then reform and refinement of stop and search is a logical conclusion.”

ConHome: “Do you agree with what Nicky Morgan said about the party’s rhetoric sometimes being too negative?”

Buckland: “Do you know, I’m a sunny optimist. I do think it’s important to be positive and optimistic about the future. Because we owe it to our children, we owe it to those who look to us to provide leadership. I look at it as a rejection of the sourness that can creep in sometimes to Tory discourse.  I don’t think the public respond well to a sour approach to politics, that often doesn’t chime with what they aspire to. Being sour doesn’t really represent aspiration. We are at our best as, I hate to use the American term, but you know, the happy warrior. Most people are what I call quietly aspirational for themselves and their families. They want a decent home, a decent health and education service, local services they can rely on, quality time when they’re not working. For a Tory, those are admirable and valuable aspirations that we forget at our peril. Not everybody wants to be a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, admirable though those people are. The majority of people are in a very much more contented frame of mind. The sort of politics I espouse I think is not just more comfortable for them, it is genuinely more reflective of their aspirations.”

ConHome: “How does immigration policy fit in to that?”

Buckland: “We’re in a phase of the debate where we’ve almost lost a couple of important distinctions. The vital distinction between EU and non-EU migration, and it’s not just a question of labels. It’s all about the reasons for that migration. And the vast majority of EU migration is economic migration of a temporary nature. Whereas migration from the former Commonwealth and the wider world is either political migration or it’s familial migration, and that involves rights of citizenship that of course don’t accrue under the EU directive. Responsible politicians need to make those distinctions and get the mechanisms of enforcement working rather than have increasingly theoretical debates about the law. The British public will be reassured when they see the system is working efficiently, speedily and well, and with the best will in the world, I don’t think we’re there yet. There’s this gap between the theory and the reality.”

ConHome: “What would it particularly help you in South Swindon [a marginal seat won by Buckland from Labour at the second attempt] to have in the manifesto?”

Buckland: “I think what Swindon is looking for is a steady as she goes government that will help deliver a growing economy, that will help the town to become the sort of economic powerhouse it was in the Eighties and Nineties, though having said that, we are now to a position where people on Job Seeker’s Allowance is down to about three per cent, which is good, though historically a bit high for us. Swindon residents are looking for a competent government that follows through, doesn’t start chopping and changing on the economy, and also is able to deliver an economy where the incomes and the take home pay of people are  becoming an increasing proportion of their pay packet as opposed to a decreasing proportion. And that sense of slowly but steadily rising prosperity cannot be underestimated, it’s a very important part of the way that not just Swindon residents but residents across the country will be thinking come the election.”

ConHome: “How should the Tories deal with UKIP?”

Buckland: “Don’t pander. Don’t be frightened. Don’t be fearful. Be bold. Be straight. Say it as it is. Tell the truth. And people will reward you for authenticity. What they don’t like is fake. They don’t like being taken for idiots. They know a fake when they see it. My party’s at its best when it speaks with a direct voice.”

ConHome: “How does the Tory party deal with being seen – quite wrongly, quite unfairly – as a party of the rich?”

Buckland: “It’s a question of emphasising the excellent policies we have on raising income tax thresholds. If Conservatives are about anything in the next Parliament we’ve got to be about raising standards of living for the working poor.”

ConHome: “There was a mischievous piece in the FT suggesting the manifesto was going to be written entirely by Old Etonians.”

Buckland: “Well Harold Macmillan was an Old Etonian and he built more houses than Nye Bevan ever did.  I don’t think we’ll take any lectures from inverted snobs about Old Etonians. I’m the sort of person, when I arrived at my college up at Durham, I’d never met a public schoolboy, I was a boy from South Wales. I don’t care about that sort of thing. All this inverted snobbery doesn’t wash with me at all. The politics of fear, the politics of division is very Old Labour. And if I was Tristram Hunt I’d be very uncomfortable.”

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