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Monday, October 13, 2003
Diary - 2003 Conservative Party Conference: Monday, 6 October
The first meeting I attended at conference was a fringe discussion, with Oliver Letwin as the main speaker, on family policy. The speech was typically sensible and rather forgettable (to me, anyway). "In 1830, many children could not eat one meal a day. Now their chief problems are crime and drugs ..." kind of stuff. Questions focused on personal responsibility, with one man registering his concern that marriage had not been mentioned once. Letwin noted that the state could actually do very little to promote successfully the sort of culture that emphasised such values. However, he also lamented the way the tax and benefits system now actively discriminates against those couples which ensure the most stable relationship - marriage - for their offspring. He continued by saying that although government can do relatively little to promote the right culture on such matters, and up to a point should not seek to, at very least this sort of discrimination should be ended. So even if the government were not to incentivise marriage fiscally, people should at very least not face state-imposed disincentives to getting married - a point echoed by David Willetts the next day. I'd agree with Letwin both that this is an important step, and that it is also approaching the limits of what government can do in such areas of life. For those who believe in traditional moral values, it is an important lesson that the state can do far more harm to the tenets they hold dear than it can do good for them if policy were to be swung the other way.
I left before the end to attend a Bruges Group fringe meeting next door on the EU Constitution. David Heathcoat-Amory and Norman Lamont were the main speakers, and they were both better than I expected. Heathcoat-Amory mocked the idea that the constitution, which he showed extended into almost every area of government, was a "tidying-up exercise". How could it be a tidying-up exercise when the 170+ paged EU Constitution had a more pages than all of the treaties it incorporated put together? He said that despite his euroscepticism, he was not in principle opposed to a constitutional treaty for the European Union. In theory he could well support one which let national governments make their own laws and take their own decisions, reversing decades of eurofederalism. But this clearly did the reverse, enshrining a new constitution for this country which gave supremacy in law-making to a continental body over which we had almost no control.
Norman Lamont added some focus on the treaty's most comical provisions, showing that the EU Constitution was as much about enshrining in supreme law as beyond argument the dogmas and prejudices of the age, as the proper job of any constitution - the securing of a democratic battleground where argument and debate about such ideas can go ahead.
Questions were generally pessimistic, focusing on what eurosceptics should do if Blair does commit us to the EU Constitution because a referendum cannot be forced upon him. The general consensus was that a post-election referendum should be held by the next Conservative government, much along the lines of Harold Wilson's 1975 vote on the Common Market.
Andrew Dodge asked how Brussels could ever achieve its aim of a common security and police force tackling international crime when it had proved itself so consistently incompetent at tackling millions of pounds of fraud just a few corridors away. Lamont unsurprisingly agreed that the prospect was an unlikely one before explaining that few things in politics made him especially angry. But one thing really did: that every time fraud and corruption was uncovered in the European Union it was the whistleblowers, those who had done the right thing and put a stop to it, who suffered most, often losing their jobs and livelihoods.
I headed to the main hall in time for Theresa May's speech. Anyone who read my account of the 2002 Conference will know I clapped and defended her address last year, even as she gave the 'nasty party' jibe much wider currency, something still hurting the Conservatives today. I regret that now, and would much rather have said what Iain Murray then did. So I entered the hall keen not to be as charitable towards a repeat performance. Thankfully, she gave a much better speech this year. The press made much of the simplicity of her comments, but she got a good reception for other points, those on the Liberal Democrats most of all.
People want a government that will know when to act and when to stand back.
The education debate was nicely rounded off by Damian Green, a largely unnoticed member of the Shadow Cabinet (and unjustifiably so). Green is sometimes described as a sort of Mini-Me to Ken Clarke, but I see in him a skilled and decent politician with whom every Conservative should be able to do business: he could go far. His call for more grammar schools was unexpected, but very encouraging to hear.
The health debate was better. The anger of numerous speakers, especially David Gold, a PPC whose mother has been failed by the NHS, formed a good prelude to Liam Fox's address. Fox's speech repeated the points made in the last year about healthcare being naturally better when patients are given choice, but also stressed a new - and I think essential - tack of the Tories claiming the moral high ground in such matters. His comments on the horrors Labour's bureaucratic targets have created deserve further emphasis:
In the Thames Valley we have had the ridiculous sight of ambulances loaded with sick patients queueing around hospitals. Why? Because if Accident and Emergency Departments don't admit the patients then it doesn't count for their four hour waiting target. So not only do sick patients have to wait in ambulances instead of the hospital but the ambulances are not available when other patients may require them in an emergency.
His conclusion in particular was stirring in its content and delivery, and very welcome in its determined political incorrectness. It may just have given a little kick to some within the party who revere the BBCdian perspective far too much, and that is no bad thing either.
I want Iain Duncan Smith to take the party into the next election, and would loathe to see the leadership election for which some Tories inexplicably pine. But should IDS fall under the proverbial bus, I have for some time hoped Oliver Letwin would seize the reigns. His reluctance to be leader combined with his recent rather embarrassing gaffes has, however, compelled me to examine the alternatives. After Liam Fox's speech, which received a very long and warm ovation, I concluded that he could be the one. Apart from him being probably the Shadow Cabinet member whose views most closely match my own, he certainly has the political skills, the looks and the ability to hit the right notes and make good arguments, a fair degree of charisma but also the down-to-earthness of a GP. The influential Electric Review webzine has been predicting his ascendancy for some time; it could happen, and it would be no bad thing if it did.
I left the hall before the conclusion of the Transport debate to attend more fringe meetings, missing Tim Collins' always impressive contribution.
The fringe meeting I attended next was hosted by Francis Maude, with Kenneth Clarke, Andrew Tyrie, David Trimble and Michael Gove as the speakers. The topic was US or EU? Who best understands the New World Disorder? Andrew Tyrie, a Tory intellectual and apparently very much on the left of the party, spoke first. He said that the Bush administration had severely overreacted to the events of 11 September 2001 and that this overreaction threatened order and stability in the world. The rest of his not particularly well received speech built around that argument. The trouble I had with it was that it assumed much of what it sought to prove: that the UN has special moral authority, that the present world order - rogue states arming and all - should be marked "Do Not Touch", that we need to prepare for a world in which the leading superpower is not of Western civilisation rather than fight to prevent the emergence of any such thing. If you happen to believe there is no moral equivalence between the torturing tyrannies of the United Nations and the free democracies of the Atlantic Alliance, for example, it is very hard to accept an argument that Bush and Blair going behind the UN's back was a bad thing.
Michael Gove was next, making a case very familiar to anyone who reads his columns or those of most right-wing supporters of the Iraq War: the world is better without Saddam and any weapons he was developing, and his removal may lead to a slow-motion democratic revolution in the Middle East.
Ken Clarke followed immediately afterwards, and to be fair to him, his speech was overwhelming. He really did launch into the case for war, doing his best to demolish it by making an anti-war speech more convincing than any amount of "No War for Oil" gunk. He thought the principle purpose of terrorists was to win support for their cause by forcing their opponents to crack down in an extreme and unjust way. Referring to Northern Ireland, he noted that the IRA was very small and insignificant until the internment of 1971 gave the Catholic population of Ulster a renewed sense of injustice. America should above all not aim to do as the terrorists wish, as he believed they had so far been doing.
One observation I could not fail to make was how much better a speech can be if it does not go on too long. Had he ended about five or ten minutes earlier, he could have really gone out with a bang. As a barrister, Clarke will know the rule of always ending on a victory. In this case he didn't, and his argument suffered for it. Nonetheless, his was about as compelling a case can be without me agreeing with it.
David Trimble - standing in for Richard Perle - came last, supporting much of what Michael Gove said and stating why he believed the war was right. He did best in questions. One man cheekily asked him what message he had for Al Qaeda from the Northern Ireland peace process. His answer was that Al Qaeda showed no prospect of setting any objectives that could be considered reasonable: one of their principle demands, he explained, was the restoration of all land that was ever Muslim back into a Saudi style Islamic government. The IRA, by contrast, "we must never forget", came to the negotiating table because they knew they could not win. That is the time to be magnanimous in victory: when the terrorists acknowledge that victory, however tacitly and reluctantly.
Someone asked a very Fisk-esque question about whether the war was simply between two fundamentalist faiths of Islam on Al Qaeda's side and Christianity for the neocons. Trimble retorted sharply that a great number of neo-conservatives were in fact Jewish.
Daniel Hannan, the up-and-coming Euro MP, asked the panel why they believed that the United States seemed so keen to promote a united European Army. Trimble answered that this priority was one now dying fast in Washington, but none of the panel gave much of an answer. Telemachus was helpfully introducing me to various people he knew in the Conservative Party for the whole week of conference, and mentioned introducing me to Daniel Hannan. We didn't bump into Hannan again, though, leaving me unable to recommend to him Robert Kagan's Paradise or Power, which I think handles the questions surrounding American and European military power very nicely. The short answer I would give, based on Kagan, is that the United States has defended Europe for decades, an expensive and largely thankless task which she has often been keen for Europe to undertake for herself. But with the individual nations of Europe far too fond of generous and bulbous welfare states to increase military spending, some Americans have seen in European military cooperation the solution of increasing military spending en masse and consistently in a way that individual European countries have so far shown themselves unwilling to do. Britain and France are Europe's only significant military powers, and many Americans have believed that will remain the case until Europe combines to defend herself with one army. That the idea would almost certainly quash the independence of the United States' greatest ally and create a rival rather than a complement to her benevolent power is a lesson Washington is thankfully now learning.
Drinks at the Imperial until late then followed.