Edward Leigh is a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and is MP for Gainsborough
These elections, local and European, are a wake-up call. Enough is enough. Isn’t it obvious that the whole “modernisation” agenda has been a disaster? Our base has been tested to destruction. All this self-hate about allegedly “nasty party” views has nearly destroyed the voluntary party, and left people wondering what we stand for. It’s also clear it’s time to end the coalition in order to start rebuilding our base.
Modernisation didn’t start after 2005, it started way back in 1990. In reality, it is creeping self-doubt about a simple Conservative message that has served us well for generations. Let’s go through the sorry list and see what we can do to reverse matters. They come in no particular order of importance but one by one have left our supporters bemused.
First, let’s make one thing clear: there is no mystery about Conservatives’ traditional path to Government. It is through respect, not popularity. Our victories in the 1980s and in 1992 were based on the fact that people trusted us more than Labour to run the economy. I don’t think Margaret Thatcher or Ted Heath in 1970 were elected because people liked them more than their opponents. How significant it is that the modernisers themselves have now given up on the gimmicks to make us “liked”?
Have you noticed our strategy to win the election? It’s the economy – the long-term strategic plan. But not enough people are listening, because over the years they’ve been irritated by all the other guff. Too much talk of same-sex marriage, HS2, and wind farms. Too little on law and order, immigration, and tackling the court-based human rights regime.
So yes, concentrate on the economy. But keep it simple on that, too. We’re still devoting too much energy on a little tax relief here, or on beer and fuel there. People should understand that our aim is to simplify and reduce taxation. Every measure we take should aim towards flattening the tax system, getting rid of anomalies and perverse incentives. Ideally our aim should be a flat tax system, with a single rate – or, at most, two rates – of income tax and simple, low capital and business taxes.
- Grammar schools: why are we not letting them expand? Because that’s what local people want. But there is an even simpler way: give state school headteachers the same powers that independent school heads have: setting their own curriculum, hiring and firing teachers, selecting and de-selecting pupils. Such freedom would result in few super-selective state schools.
- Education vouchers: why should parents pay twice if they opt to take their children out of state schooling? Give them back the average cost of state education. And if you’re concerned about the dead weight cost, start with reception year by year.
- Railways: scrap the absurdly wasteful HS2, a project designed by Labour to carve a destructive path through Conservative constituencies. Plough the money back into commuter and rural lines which are a nightmare of delays, underinvestment, and slowness.
- Health: stop worshiping the NHS. It is the last bastion of centralised socialist planning: you pay in all your life, and have no rights. The French spend only one per cent more of GDP on health, and have a much better system. And, as the French do, means-test incidental costs. Bring in social insurance, charge for those incidental costs and for GP visits. Labour has nightmares of libertarian free-for-alls but, with small contributions from patients, both Sweden and Germany deliver far better results with vastly lower investment from taxpayers’ pounds.
- Defence: reverse the decline, meet our NATO obligations to spend 3 per cent of GDP on defence, allow the Navy and its remnant of nineteen important warships to join in the products of returning growth. Accept that reserves cannot take the slack and stop the most unpopular battalion destructions and amalgamations.
- International Aid: scrap the economically illiterate commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP. You should spend on aid what you need to spend, what you want to spend, and what you can afford to spend – as in every other department. Spending money on aid makes sense if it relieves poverty and extends influence. Explain it in these terms, not by arbitrary numbers that infuriate our own natural supporters.
- Same-sex civil marriage: what possessed a Conservative government to do it? Eventually a “progressive” Labour government might have brought it in anyway. Well, it’s done now – but at least we can apologise to our supporters for having trampled upon their belief system.
- Wind farms: where can all this greenery get us? The green deal is a joke. Massive windmills infuriate our natural supporters. Go for fracking, when locals agree – look at how it has turned around American production.
- Human rights: our own supporters grit their teeth in despair every time a terrorist pleads “family life” to evade deportation. Repeal the Human Rights Act. Put the original Convention created by the likes of Winston Churchill, which no one can gainsay, into a new British Bill of Rights. Make the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights subject to the supremacy of our Parliament. Russia has established that you can invade another country and not be expelled from the Council of Europe – so there is no chance of being expelled from this worthy body that we set up in the early 1950s.
- Immigration: It’s still a farce. Take on the businesses and higher education community and let in people who we want and need. Keep students informed and enforce the fact that only those we need will be allowed to stay on after their course.
And if you’ve got any spare money left over, why don’t we do what even John Major’s government managed to do, give tax relief to pensioners on their private health insurance? Why, in this parliament, are we dragging another 1.5 million people into the higher tax rate? These are hard-working, middle-class people: police sergeants, senior nurses, experienced teachers. Why have we scrapped child benefit for these people? Mostly because we cannot afford to do anything else. Why have we fallen for the liberal policy of taking people out of paying tax altogether? Aren’t we all in this together? Doesn’t paying tax give you a stake in society?
And I don’t mind ‘staying in the EU’ to stop the fear factor if it means effectively being part of a customs union and little else – that’s what people want. A real re-negotiation needs to take place. Say we will leave if we don’t have a completely different relationship – a common market, not an ‘ever-closer union’. In truth, the French are desperate not to be left alone with the Germans, and the Germans want us in even more. They really would have no allies for any kind of economic rigour, and would end up footing an unnecessary bill. We, unlike the French, have actually insisted on a budget cut, and delivered. And yes, we should run our own fisheries which Ted Heath disastrously signed away in the last few days of negotiations over entering.
But – important also – cut out the politically correct posturing, the liberal viewpoint of society. And that brings us to the Coalition.
It is hurting the Liberal Democrats – sending support from them to Labour in marginals we hold. Get out of it. Let them do their thing and let us do our thing, Conservative things. Let’s start rebuilding our base and our support. It’s time to cut both partners free.
Politicians love talking in concepts. They like to talk about exchange rate mechanisms and the balance of payments. We should start talking in the language of people. What do they want? Less regulation of lives, lower taxes, acceptable public services, but they would above all like a home to live in. We are building far, far too few affordable homes. Labour has touched a nerve by reaching out to Generation Rent.
I can’t see the point of pumping more money into the mortgage market just to add to a house price bubble, and the Governor of the Bank of England is correct in expressing his concern. Macmillan had the right idea for his generation with the offer of 300,000 new homes every year. No one wants to build that many council houses any more. But why can’t we fund housing associations to build tens of thousands of new flats and small houses with shared equity schemes to help our young people get on the housing ladder?
Keep it Conservative, keep it simple, and help people get on. None of this is “modernising” – and it’s not arch-reactionary. It’s just the common ways of the Conservative party from 1950 onwards: the year I was born, and the start of the Conservative half-century.