Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

My leadership dilemma

Why is being seen as a modern political party incompatible with holding Tory values? Shouldn't it be possible to defend what we have always believed in, but to do so in a way which strikes a chord with a wider audience than that we've attracted recently? Isn't it just a question of framing our policy motivations in a more attractive way? The now Sir John Major wrote stonking piece for today's Telegraph which I thought I would proffer a hat-tip. Almost without exception every sentence he wrote summed up the challenges facing the party and, for me at least, had particular resonance.

For the Conservatives, the penny seems to have dropped: negativity is out; aping the artificiality of New Labour is old hat; and - from the Right and Left of the party - a welcome debate on policy has opened up.

We do not have to reinvent the policy wheel. Yes, we need to adapt, but no, we do not - should not - disparage all we stood for and achieved. In 1979-90 the Conservative Party in government built a market economy out of the rubble left by Labour: our election victory of 1992 entrenched those reforms, adding low inflation and healthy growth to them. The spectre of ever-rising prices that had wrecked our economy time and time again, over the previous 40 years, was tamed.

This was a very painful exercise for our party, but right for the country. These virtuous economic developments left casualties in their wake and it would be wise for the Conservatives to revisit the effects of some of them. In the 1980s, the profligacy of Left-wing local authorities damaged the macro economy: to protect it we rate-capped councils, abolished the GLC, introduced the poll tax, and widened controls over local authorities.

Today, there is no such extremism in local government: we must acknowledge this and rebuild local democracy. Similarly, in our ambition to simplify a horrendously complex tax system, we withdrew tax benefits to families and to marriage. We should revisit this: it was, I believe now, a mistake.

We have to mould the values which in the past allowed us to craft policies which were just what was needed at that time to help us craft policies for today. To do this, however, does not require that we bleat mea culpas repeatedly about Margaret Thatcher. Let's say we stand by decisions made for a different time and look to today and the future.

But individual policies are only part of the patchwork. The key question remains: what is the thrust - the underpinning philosophy - of 21st-century Conservatism to be? In the early 1990s I advocated a "nation at ease with itself". Events, and the time and energy expended on internal disputes, prevented my aspiration becoming reality, but the instinct to ease divisions in our society is at least as valid now as it was then - possibly even more so.

Nor can we afford the indulgence of intra-party disputes. Even our most faithful supporters are despairing of these. It was a black day when labels such as "wet" or "dry" or "Euro-sceptics" or "Euro-enthusiasts" first came into use. Such terms were intended to denigrate, but soon came to be worn as a factional badge of pride. They did nothing but divide the Conservative Party. The "modernisers" and the "traditionalists" of today's debate should not allow this past error to be repeated.

Here I too strenuously agree. Too much debate today takes place not in a meaningful way, but in a seeming battle of opaque tags. Human rights, the environment, sustainability and many others are used as apparently unchallengeable shields by their standard bearers as a means of avoiding real debate. Their mere use tries to negate any meaningful questions about what agenda is actually being pursued beneath the smokescreen they create. Conservatives ought to be tackling the use of such tags and the dumbing down they add to instead of indulging ourselves in the same process. This is why I take issue with the only part of Sir John's piece I would question. That is his proclamation that "the centre ground" is the key.

Directing every policy to that purpose is right in principle, should make our strategy coherent, and is a Right-of-Centre approach around which all Conservatives can coalesce. I say "Right of Centre" advisedly: it is a simple truth that no party can win an election without the support of much of the centre ground.

The facile argument that we moved to the Right in the 1980s and won elections with ease no longer convinces: in those days, Labour were wholly un-electable, whereas today they occupy (albeit unconvincingly) much of the traditional Tory ground. We must reclaim support from the centre to win. It's tough, I know, for the ideological Right of the party to accept, but the road they wish to follow leads only to perpetual opposition.

Although I am not instinctively and necessarily entirely happy with where it comes from the Telegraph leader correctly challenges this:

The policies we have endorsed here - tax relief, small government, support for marriage, Euroscepticism - can easily be portrayed as an old-fashioned, backward-looking agenda. This is because they are integral to Tory philosophy; they are not to be forsaken because they are old. It is the responsibility of the new leader to refashion these timeless principles to suit the demands of the day. That - not a hopeless search for an illusory "centre ground" - should be the road ahead.

Too many of those known as "modernisers" seem to believe that we have to abandon everything the party has ever believed in to seem like we're at the centre; a "Blue Labour" thinking. Too many of those on the right of the right, who I will characterise as "Davis backers" seem to think we need a more vigorous and forthright defence of our traditional policies by the right person ie. David Davis. My concern is that they both miss the point, or rather they both get part of it.

Yes, the centre is a mythical place and, yes, the best politicians bring what is called the centre to them rather than trying to chase it. Equally, however, there is some validity in thinking the public perceive a journey to better represent them and their views; this could be seen as a journey towards the public and to embodying their hopes, aspirations and fears. The Party undeniably has to do this, but the sad fact is both of the developing factions, as far as I can tell, are missing how it can be done. It's done by publicly beating yourself up and wearing a pink open-necked shirt as you defend Labour-lite policies. Equally it's not done by keeping down the same-old path but with slightly more obviously Tory policies. The only way to do it is to defend policies motivated by traditional Conservative values, but to frame the way we justify them and why we desire them in a way with which more of the country can empathise.

People see the party as self-interested and a little creepy. That has to change if people are to listen to us, just see the poll about support for our immigration policy during the election which showed fewer people backed it when they were expressly told it was our's. It won't change by denying who and what we are, though. Neither will it change just by being a little harder about it all. We have to justify our principles and even our existing policies, in a way which suggests we are not only motivated by self-interest. Jane'>">Jane Nuffin touches on a similar point, in an interesting article at Conservativehome, talking about an electoral centre and a political centre. A party can have popular policies (the electoral centre) but the electorate fails to believe the party is in the political centre (of moderation). Surely this is the Conservative problem right now? She goes on to enunciate my response to the Major article and the current "discussion" about the new leader. The arguments of modernisers and traditionalists and their associated factions talk past each other. The party is at the heart of the electorate in many policy areas, but is not seen as being at the country's political centre or wanting to tackle the country's problems. This puts off potential voters.

What some talk of as the political centre is not just an issue of policy but of rhetoric, innovation, framing and leadership. A new leader must be seen to embody moderation while remaining astute to the traditional right-leaning electoral centre of public opinion. Nuffin says, the answer is not to either remain faithful to traditional Conservatism or be seen to modernise, but to do both. If by modernising she means being seen to share modern aspirations and concerns she is right.

Isn't this what Sir John was saying, you might ask? I actually think it probably was, which was why I saw so much sense in it. Sadly, however, it seems he wanted to use his piece to marginalise David Davis, who he seems to have decided against.

My vote, if I have one, is up for grabs. The problem is neither Davis nor Cameron seems to enunciate that we don't have to choose between being proud of Tory values and communicating to the public that we're in touch with Britain. With the right leader we ought to be able to do both. Believing in a small state which trusts individuals and families to take responsibility for society is not and need not be incompatible with showing we're not crooked second-hand car dealers. My leadership dilemma is deciding which candidate is best-placed to do both. My big concern, from what I've seen so far, is that neither will come close.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Ban, ban, ban, ban...

So Nanny Blair and Comrade Clarke are determined that smoking shall be "banned in public places". I may be putting myself at odds with some of the more strident wing of the Tory Party with this article, but I feel much needs saying against the latest Labour reaction to a problem by banning one of its symptoms.

Firstly, as a Tory, I find the definition of public place which has been used throughout the "debate" the Government has half-heartedly tried to promote almost offensively loose. In what way does a building I own become public just because I decide to start selling meals in it? I cannot understand why we have as a country dumbly walked into a mindset that views somebody else's property from which they operate a private business as public. It's far from it - it's a private place of business. Now, council car parks, council and government offices and libraries are all enclosed public spaces over which the Government in Westminster rightly exercises power as to what goes on, but to suggest that Tony Blair in any way has any right of ownership to my local country pub is absolutely bonkers. So, first thing, they should be honest about what they are doing. They're restricting what many people can do in their own land and their own buildings.
Now, I'd better be up-front about where I'm coming on this. I'm in no way a smoking sympathiser, and I hate being doused in the stink of smoke the day after a night out as much as the next man. I'd be quite happy to go to non-smoking pubs and bars. What has enraged me about this is how we are sleep-walking to yet more Government interference with the minutiae of our lives when they could do a lot worse than butting out and making people take responsibility for their own lives - thereby offering an incentive for us to behave in a more positive manner - and ensuring our children have a decent standard of education to rationally weigh up decisions about their lives. If the Tory Party stands for anything it is freedom, something which this Government has no qualms about whipping away at the drop of a hat.

Indeed, what this represents is nothing more than banning the symptoms of poor education as a response to its failure. What's really needed is teaching, by parents and schools, for our young people so they make informed decisions, about smoking and many other issues. Will it even solve it? Most likely not.
Now, many say they don't want to be plagued by other people's smoke. I heard one gentleman on the radio this morning who said he didn't want to be "forceably exposed" to other peoples' smoke when he'd gone to a nice restaurant. Excuse me, but if the chef is so good and smoke is a problem doesn't his word, and that of the proprietor count for something? He's quite free not to go, and the owner and chef are quite free to make it smoke-free, either off their own bat or as a response to customers refusing to take their money there. Is he not exposing himself by his own decision to go to that restaurant? At university, I spent many a pleasant evening, when I wanted to dodge the smoke of other pubs, in the smoke-free and mobile-free Free Press. They do a flourishing business and are a great example of the sort of flexibility and choice which the Conservatives have to instinctively be seen to champion. In the past every pub had a smoking room, where those who smoked or didn't and didn't mind the smoke could go and enjoy sociable company and a beer. Why is this market-led flexibility impossible under the elective dictatorship of Blair? We should be proud to encourage a choice amongst the public and one which responds to genuine desires of customers not just those with the loudest and most organised political voices.

What's more, whereas the restaurant gentleman has an option to go elsewhere, those who live in households with smokers have no such freedom. All such a measure will do is mean more smoking takes place in smokers' homes and cars where these people are even more exposed and will suffer even more. If we are to look to the nanny state to look after our every problem and ailment why are those who have no power and no choice cared for less and after those who choose to go to private pubs, bars and restaurants?

Without even starting on the absurd complexities of whether somewhere is enclosed (Are football stadia? Outside on a balcony?) and whether someone is smoking one metre of one and a half from a bar, this debate and the level of discussion about it has really worried me. On the same weekend we hear members of the army are being deployed to deal with late night shenanigans I worry about how easily we restrict the freedom of others with barely a thought. I worry at the extent to which we are all so keen for the state to cure every ill, rather than facing up to what we can do ourselves.

If the Conservatives are to regain power, I believe we have to be seen to stand for freedom. We have to be seen to stand against a Government whose every instinct is to dictate through diktat from the spinning hordes in Downing Street. Freedom to succeed and make the most of all of our potential and the freedom to do things with which not every Guardian-reading, Muesli-swilling bleeding heart would agree. To cast ourselves in this mould there will be a number of reactionary measures with which we may instinctively agree, but which we must oppose out of principle. There will be hard calls to make, when we see freedoms we don't really want people to exercise but have to say they ought to not be banned from using them anyway. We must hold our course, however, and explain how the way forward is to help persuade people not to do what they may by means other than the monopolistic coercive force of the state. This ban on smoking on many private properties is one such call.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Once more unto the breach...

There is a brand new Conservative blog which has recently been set up by a fairly distinguished group of right-leaning bloggers. At Once More, a group of British political bloggers, determined to carve out a bigger online presence for the Conservative Party, have decided that we can come together to help shape the perception and direction of the party on the blogosphere and maybe (well, blindly hopefully...) have a bit of an impact in the real world. I am honoured to have been invited to get involved, but with my move back to the UK have been a little busy.

Anyway, now I'm back I shall be dipping my toes into the less time-intensive world of group blogging but I shall also continue to update the soon-to-be-revamped Englishman in Philly/Trust People for my loyal readers (yes, both of you...)

Here is Once More's mission statement:

"We come from all walks of life. We have flirted with various political beliefs and ideologies. We have been party members and we have torn up our membership cards in disgust when we disagreed with Westminster machinations. Some of us have even threatened to vote Lib Dem, but never have (having thus avoided a dirty feeling that might have remained with us for some time afterwards). We do have principles.

This blog will bring together the best and the brightest of political writing talent from the Right-wing of British blogging. We share a common goal, although we may well often disagree about the details: we want the Conservative Party to win elections. You know, like they used to. By a landslide or even a full-blooded avalanche on occasion. Like that.

Some of us want to brutalise criminals, slash taxes, and rule you like a king (hat tip: Sideshow Bob). We are not modernisers; we are not One Nation Tories; we are not hang-'em-and-flog-'em Blue Rinsers. We come from different factions, but we all share the belief that we can only win if we unite. To that end, we'll be writing about whatever is topical, from policy and personality, to tactics and strategy. We'll be delving deep into the detailed depths of political life like the geeks that we are, and we'll be soaring over it all to discuss broad brush Utopian (well, maybe not too Utopian...) dreams of a better world all in equal measure.

We're not connected to the Conservative Party, although some of us are members. We'll be totally candid about them - when they screw up, you'll read it here in gory detail, as we agonise over setbacks and frustrations. All we ask of you is that you add us to your favourites, put us into your RSS aggregator, read and comment, however you like, and help us to shape the Tories into an election winning machine, ready to govern. Your Party needs you.

The name? Well...

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood...(Act 3, Sc 1, Henry V)"

Some of my, how shall I put this, 'Tory-sceptic' readers may wonder why, after my own recent scepticism and unhappiness prior to the election, I am committing to such a blog. The truth is this: I know my political instincts and I know which party ought to be promoting them. That is the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party is best placed to embrace them and I also strongly believe that it can and should do so to provide a real and present threat to Blair's reign. To distance myself from such a debate, at a time when the direction of the party can be set and influenced to such a degree as it can now, would be irresponsible. For evil to triumph, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Divided he falls

The Democrats like to accuse George Bush and the Republicans of dividing America - indeed Kerry ran on the tag that he would make the US "united at home" - but the fact is Kerry himself is continuing to use his prominence as a divisive influence. It seems that the only way the Republican administration can avoid being tagged as divisive is to agree with a Democratic Party which is in a state of disarray and which, no matter what your political affiliations, has suffered a devastating and total national defeat on so many levels.

John Kerry's latest email missive is entitled "Their arrogance, our patience". How can such an intentionally divisive email hope to heal America and make it "one nation". The fact is it can't and it is, most uncharacteristically, underhand behaviour from Senator Kerry suggesting his election-time rhetoric on this was just a grab for votes.

"Their arrogance, our patience...

Their arrogance may have no limits, but the American people's patience does.
We're going outside of Washington - to the hometowns of people like Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, Trent Lott and Rick Santorum - asking American families to demand that those who control Congress' agenda put Kids First.
Help reach more people and put more pressure on Republicans in Congress to act.

Click Here to Help Fund the Ad (link removed for ethical reasons!)

Repeated polls are revealing that the American people are fed up with the Bush White House and the Republican Congress refusing to lift a finger on vitally important issues like health care for America's children.
With your help, Keeping America's Promise and the Kids First ad can help turn the tide. Act now to help build a groundswell of public pressure that forces Republican leaders to stop blocking action on the initiatives that matter most to America's families."

What does divide is any cheap and unnecessarily partisan publicity efforts such as this. One almost wonders whether Kerry may try for another run on the White House... V-P Kerry anyone?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

An Englishman in Philly...just!

Today is my last full day in Philadelphia. I really can't believe it. I have had such a fantastic experience living in such a fantastic city, and tomorrow I fly back home to Britain. I have many musings to make on the last year and the last few weeks which will follow when things settle down again. I also hope to get up to some "travel blogging" about it in the coming days. For now though, with a potential blog rebrand coming up, this is a final farewell post from the great city of Philadelphia.

Thank you, Philly, for the memories.