"the blogger whose youthful effusions have won him bookmarks all over Whitehall ... horribly compelling" - The Guardian
Monday, October 27, 2003
Diary - 2003 Conservative Party Conference: Wednesday, 8 October
Wednesday morning looked a bit barren of good fringe meeting debates, so I made my selections with difficulty. Euthanasia, like the environment, has never been an issue that interested me, although as with environmentalism, I am against it. But the meeting did have Ann Widdecombe as speaker and could be better than I thought, so there was where I headed. It was better. Widdecombe discussed just how close we may be to legalised euthanasia in this country, with a bill now proposed before the Commons that would effectively license not the denial of medical treatment but of food: euthanasia by starving someone to death.
She answered the claim often put about that euthanasia should not be feared because "it works in Holland". In fact, many elderly Dutchmen now fear for their lives so much that they flee their country for Germany, so afraid are they that if the stay in their own country for treatment they will never awaken from it.
Widdecombe stressed that she respected the views of those who believed that ending a life was always wrong. But she did herself sympathise with those who felt immense pain in their lives when they wished to end it all, if there was no realistic prospect of anything but death doing so. The reason she opposed any bill to allow euthanasia was the conviction that she did not believe it would ever stay at that stage once permitted. When abortion was legalised in this country in 1967, people were assured that it would be limited to cases of severe disability, where the baby would surely not live in any case and that no one in a medical role would find it an essential part of his job to cooperate with abortion, religious objections being respected. Now none of this is true, and we have effectively abortion on demand and whole professions like consultant gynaecology in which opposition to abortion eliminates almost any real hope of doing the job. It only showed how easily euthanasia could go from a very select set of circumstances to the horrific cases in Holland or worse. Echoing her prediction last year that within ten years of the first bill to allow euthanasia in Britain "no granny would be safe", she said she did not want to see British pensioners fleeing to Germany for treatment in terror of what might happen if they stay here.
The next meeting I attended was a few hours later at midday. The Freedom Association's meeting was unrevealingly titled Whither Conservatism?. I have heard a mixture of messages about the FA, but I did know it has a rather good journal, Freedom Today, and thought it was the best of those on at the time to attend. I was rather bemused by what I saw when I got there. I thought the choice to have a town crier complete with horn and booming voice introduce the meeting was very eccentric, and the speech was more than a little extreme. Sir Christopher Gill was good on the threat to British liberties such as habeas corpus posed by the European Constitution. But I thought he made very little sense in arguing that it was illogical to oppose the EU Constitution while wishing for Britain to remain in the European Union. Why? "They [the constitution and union] are two sides of the same coin". That settles that one, then. I soon left to head to the Telegraph/CPS meeting.
The Daily Telegraph had gathered a large range of speakers for its joint fringe meeting with the Centre for Policy Studies. Alice Thomson, Janet Daley and another Telegraph journalist were on the panel along with Charles Moore himself who was chairing it. John Redwood represented the Tory party and the CPS had its representative.
Most of the messages were very positive. The Conservatives had the right policies: now what was needed was time to get their message across and show people how they could do better under them. Questions varied, John Redwood winning particular and justified applause for his explanation of his visits to Sixth Form colleges around the country. He would enter and ask them if they had any trouble buying their CDs, or whether they thought it would be difficult to book a hotel room in France for the next evening. No hands would rise. Then he would ask what difficulties they might face getting a hospital appointment or operation at a time and place of their choice, or what freedom they have to take or leave it in the education system. Just about every hand would be in the air. What was the connection between all those services which did create problems for their users? They were all run by government. What connected those which did not have such problems? They were all outside the hands of government. And through such simple means he would explain the virtues of capitalism. By the end of such lectures, he would have young people approaching him asking their his autograph, or where they can find out more on this, telling him that they had never heard such a case made by their teachers. It is a very impressive response to hear. A few hundred school visits like that could hopefully make a huge difference.
In the main hall, my new MP Bernard Jenkin was good in his defence of the armed forces and the Iraq war. It was during his speech that I also realised who it was he reminded me of: Peter Mandelson. Their voices are uncannily similar.
Michael Ancram later performed well, getting a premature standing ovation (a rather debased currency twenty-four hours later, it must be said) for his determined call for the Tories to consign the Blair government to the history books, before he had even finished his speech.
Michael Howard made a similarly convincing speech on the harm Labour was doing to the economy, an address helped in no small part by the presentation behind him listing Labour's 60 tax rises and a picture of Tony Blair's expanding nose under his infamous lie that his party had no plans to increase taxes at all.
He was soon followed by Tim Yeo, whose most interesting and encouraging pledge was aimed at relieving the burdens the state imposed on businesses.
Last March, I wrote a column for the conservative journal Electric Review, allegedly very well-read by those within the party. The site is temporarily down, but the original text of my column can be read here. I proposed a new attitude to policy-making in general, with two specific policy recommendations for the Conservative Party. The first was elections for judges to ensure a criminal justice system more democratic and responsive to the popular will. The second was to scrap government regulations on all businesses with fewer than twenty employees. By Wednesday of conference week, we had been told of Tory proposals for elected sheriffs to increase accountability and responsiveness to the public will in our criminal justice system, and to eliminate regulations for small businesses of under twenty employees. Coincidence? Probably, but you never know.
The final fringe meeting I attended that week was a discussion of the BBC. John Redwood (I seem to have spent the week just following him around) hosted the discussion between Shadow Culture Secretary John Whittingdale and Kelvin Mackenzie, probably the best editor in the Sun's history.
Interestingly, as I went in, one woman was telling Redwood how sorry she was he failed in his 1995 leadership bid. He defended his actions in a very relaxed fashion: "I was the only member of the cabinet not briefing against [Major] and then I suddenly find out he's resigned and told his critics to put up or shut up. So I did." He laughed: "No one's done it since!".
As the meeting began, Whittingdale said he could not justify the BBC's current funding, and thought that at very least it was on its way out. Startlingly, he said he thought BBC bias was not a common feature of the organisation, save for a few well-publicised cases. He is probably too busy to watch it much, but this is still rather an alarming thing for the Tories' Culture, Media and Sport Spokesman to say, equivalent to Oliver Letwin saying there is very little crime in Britain or Michael Howard saying modern tax rates are no particular burden.
He examined very critically the expansion of the BBC into all sorts of commercial areas - its magazines and its new CDs now essentially meaning fully-fledged nationalised magazine and compact disc industries in this country, hardly hallmarks of an advanced society.
Kelvin Mackenzie was rather less reserved. He hated the BBC, he said, for the way it destroyed any chances of small commercial operators who didn't cost the taxpayer anything. He couldn't stand the lefty-pinko political culture of its news, which he encapsulated in the phrase "racism under every stone", which really was priceless in its accuracy. He didn't believe the taxpayer really loved the BBC. Give people the choice between the licence fee money and all the rest of the revenue that could be made selling it off to the private sector and they would say "Sod your Eastenders! I'll take the 500 quid."
Some of the BBC's keenest critics seemed to be present in the audience. Some fiercely denounced the corporation and the way it was funded and existed. One BBC journalist bravely stood up to defend it, pointing to a programme called Blue Earth or something as proof of what coercively funded state broadcasting could do. He waxed lyrical about some David Attenborough types waiting eighteen months in the Arctic to film a whale eat a seal or something, before being interrupted by an unimpressed gentleman asserting how little he cared about such things, and how hostile he was to being forced to pay for it. John Redwood congratulated the BBC journalist for his courage in speaking before such a hostile audience. Whittingdale answered that it was questionable whether a commercial producer really could not have made a Blue Planet style programme. He also asserted one of the great problems with that sort of defence - that every few years BBC produces another undoubtedly great show and then uses that as proof of its need to exist for as long as it takes until the next such programme came along. But most of its output was nothing like that: it was drab, ordinary, commercial style programming with no visible public service value.
One questioner spoke of just how damaging the BBC's use of public funds was to rival companies and the ordinary ideas of competition one would see in any other market. For example, a television company could not expect to produce anything with the BBC unless it also took on many of its underling staff, irrespective of their talent or the cost. If they refused, the 'Beeb' just wouldn't co-operate.
As the meeting broke up, Redwood told McKenzie he thought he was probably to the left of most of the audience. And the hostility to the BBC was very encouraging, even if the audience was relatively small. It is good to see a fair number of people who really feel passionate in their opposition to such a regressive poll tax that grants one left-wing producer such a monopoly - something unthinkable in any other area of business or government, but somehow still existing in the twenty-first century.
At the Imperial later on, much interesting discussion followed. Telemachus, another friend and I got chatting to a very well-informed Tory councillor from Berkshire - one who had read my blog, no less. We discussed marriage and the state's involvement, Telemachus making a very strong case in highlighting the downside of this: that marriage was now the only contract which could be broken at will without it being legally a breach of contract. At least getting government out of marriage would hopefully end this. I still remained unconvinced that allowing a whole range of "lifestyle choices" free and equal legal parity with that relationship which is essential to the production and raising of the next generation would do anything but help destroy an already troubled institution. In times when social mores are particularly weak in inducing people to behave in a less harmful, more responsible way, the force of law is ever more important. This is yet another reason why the theoretical dichotomy beloved of certain people on the left and the right between authoritarianism and social conservatism on the one hand and social liberalism on the other is so mistaken in practice: it is social liberalism that breeds authoritarianism. Social conservatism by contrast stresses internalised restraint, minimising the need for external repression.
We also discussed taxation, in particular the way progressive taxation can be so unfair in its various operations. Imagine working for five years straight on a book and getting no income until year six, when you put the book on sale and all the cash starts rolling in as your effort pays off. And then imagine hitting the income tax ceiling very swiftly because it has all come at once. But someone who made just as much money in that same six years, but at a more regular per annum income, would not any face such problems. When I pointed out that in a way regressive taxation (ie. a system where the more you earn the less tax you pay on each extra pound) would be preferable to taxing people more at the margins, I received strong confirmation from the Tory councillor we were talking to. In his other job, he just didn't bother working for three months of every year, because doing so would only push up his income to the 40% bracket. He would go from taking home 78p from every pound he earns to taking home just 60p - a near doubling of marginal tax rates. Such perverse ways of taxing people destroy the incentives to work as hard as one wants, incentives that any sensible government should hope are strongly in place.
In general, it was also agreed that ad valorem taxes like VAT were preferable to the direct taxes on income and earnings. The former can at least be avoided when one hits a bad patch by consuming less. But when it comes to direct taxation, there is very little choice in the matter.
We then went to a drinks reception run by a mental health charity, where a number of people with histories of depression or schizophrenia lamented the NHS's concentration on those with physical injuries at the neglect of those with equally debilitating mental difficulties. I think this is just a natural consequence of any government run health system. It is almost impossible to define any meaningful cut-off point in this day and age between healthcare and non-healthcare (cosmetic surgery to heal scarring? to heal a mis-shapen nose? psychiatry to handle someone's feeling of life's meaninglessnes? a sex 'change' operation?). So naturally politicised targets and rationing have to be enforced, and it is those with the less obvious problems who suffer. It is unfortunately a problem inherent to the system by which much healthcare is funded in this country. Until a consumer-based, bottom-up service is its replacement, such injustices will continue.