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Sunday, October 19, 2003
Diary - 2003 Conservative Party Conference: Tuesday, 7 October
I began Tuesday morning with an Institute of Directors fringe meeting, again on the EU Constitution, with John Redwood as the speaker. The room was packed, especially for that time of day, but I did in the end find a seat.
Redwood has become more polished and populist in his approach in recent years, speaking with real conviction and passion in place of the cold mannerisms that got him labelled a Vulcan. He started off by shouting out, as if he were introducing a circus act, "Good mooorrrrrning, Laaaadies aaaaand Geeennnntlemen!", before launching into what was undoubtedly a fantastic speech. He briefly went over the history of recent Prime Ministers' relationships with Europe, from Harold Wilson's promise to renegotiate better terms for Britain after she joined the Common Market to Thatcher's initial (if now almost forgotten) pro-European approach, from Major's determination that Britain be at the heart of Europe to Blair's stated aim that Britain should never be isolated within Europe. Each Prime Minister had begun his term of office believing that he could make a difference to Europe and reform it in a way that would suit British interests, and each had become slowly more eurosceptic as time went on and they saw this would not happen. But sadly Blair had not quite lost the desire for a federal European superstate, even when the diplomatic nightmare of earlier this year came to pass.
The threat to Britain now was a Constitution that would remove permanently our right to self-government. He made a point Lamont had made the day before: eurosceptics were winning the battle of ideas and the hearts and minds of the British people. We had ensured that Blair was too afraid of losing a referendum to dare to hold one either on the euro or on the European Constitution. But if we were to stop the Constitution, entry had to be conditional on just such an endorsement.
Blair had no right to hand over Britain's right of self-government to Brussels, Redwood stressed; it is a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy for any leader to believe that the powers entrusted to him between elections were his to do with what he wished. When the next election comes, he should be able to hand them back to the people to dispense once again. Blair had no democratic right to give them away permanently, taking them out of the hands of the British people for good. This was a message very closely echoed by Iain Duncan Smith on Thursday: "Mr Blair: the powers you hold are not yours forever. You hold them in trust. In trust from the British people. Powers not yours to give away."
Redwood explained some of the ways Britain's right to make her own decisions in the world would be extinguished, giving particular attention to the claim that we would have an independent foreign policy even if we agreed to the Euro Constitution. Tony Blair's statement to the House of Commons that Britain would not lose her seat on the UN Security Council was not, technically, a lie. But what it disguised was the fact that the EU would have its own foreign minister entitled to go to the UN at any time and speak and vote on Britain's behalf, irrespective of whether we agreed with him or not. He was now trying to get this loss of Britain's voice on the Security Council across to the press, who were more interested in reporting obviously symbolic differences like this than the less eventful gradual destruction of our constitutional freedoms.
Redwood made an appeal for people to carry on campaigning to highlight the enormity of what was being proposed and to "take to the streets" in protest. By the time he sat down, the audience was warmed up in patriotic fervour, and the first questioner was literally in tears.
As with Monday's Bruges Group meeting, the focus was less on how to fight the Constitution before it became the supreme law of the land than on what should occur later. One man hinted at a role for the royal prerogative in preventing the Constitution. Redwood dismissed the idea that the Sovereign could be relied on to initiate a constitutional crisis in this unprecedented way - the pressures on her would be too great.
As for what would happen if a Conservative government were elected after our constitutional rights had already been surrendered, Redwood also favoured a referendum to put the question to the British people of whether or not these rights should be held by people they elect. If they then said no to what Blair had signed us up to, it would be a matter of extricating ourselves from the constitutional arrangements so undemocratically forced upon us. Legally, there might be some dispute over whether the people's voice mattered any more, given that the EU Constitution would be then already have supremacy over British law.* Redwood said that in this case the Prime Minister's job would be to dismiss and replace any judges who were disloyal to their country and did in their interpretations attempt to suppress the democratic will of the British people.
One woman in a bright red jacket began by explaining that her clothing indicated not her politics, but her sport: it was her hunting red. This drew a great enough burst of applause that she repeated the point to the main conference hall that afternoon. She suggested that a protest march should be organised to get the message across. John Redwood thought the idea a good one, and encouraged the questioner to be the one to get the idea off the ground, adding that he would be most keen to come along.
The next meeting was also on the EU Constitution, run by Vote2004, a new all-party group bringing together eurosceptics and europhiles who believe a referendum is necessary on the EU Constitution. I may have just about had my fill on the topic, but I was keen to hear Boris Johnson speak. He really is a witty speaker and I knew he'd give a good performance. First up was Catherine Meyer, a French eurosceptic who became a British citizen. She strongly challenged the notion that opposition to shared government and shared law imposed on ther nations of Europe by Brussels was all about xenophobia, an idea now captured by the bigoted term "europhobe" creeping into ordinary political discourse.
She was followed by David Heathcoat-Amory, who went over the points again and showed how the constitution would affect and diminish British democracy.
Boris Johnson spoke in his usual style, mocking the more intricate parts of the constitution, for example, its demand that the EU have a common policy on space exploration. He went on: even if it were decided that it might be a good idea to put a Frenchman on Mars ("Giscard D'Estaing!", suggested one heckler, to laughter and applause), why should it be something determined by the European Commission or qualified majority voting because national governments were not to be trusted to decide for themselves on this venture? In a way, the desperate grasping of the EU for every little trace of power, even in such obscure areas of governace as space exploration, is as threatening as its determination to control the big areas of economic and foreign policy.
The next meeting was a discussion on Pensions and Prosperity by the high-brow think tank Politeia. Professor Tim Congdon gave perhaps the most thought-provoking speech. His main thrust was that the state as we had known it since the 1940s was dead. No one any longer really believed that it could best run anything, from telephone lines to schools, so the only thing we really wanted it for any more was redistribution. It seems a strange point for a right-winger to make, given the usual conservative distaste for any openly redistributive politics. But give it a little thought and it is exactly right. That is what education and health vouchers are, after all - handing over the role of provision to the private sector while using the redistributive powers of the tax and benefits system to ensure a good measure of access to all. This form of redistribution combines all the quality of the private sector with the (sole?) virtue of the public sector - that at least in theory it ensures a form of access to all.
On pensions, he also warned ominously that unless mainland Europe did something fairly soon it could face serious trouble expecting its economy to grow even in the best economic circumstances. This was for the simple reason that in many places (I believe Germany was one) productivity had and was continuing steadily to increase by a mere 1% per year. But in a couple of decades, he noted, the working population will decrease by more than 1% per year, ensuring negative growth.
Maurice Saatchi made some very revealing observations about the economy and how a party's economic competence related to success at the ballot box. The landslide defeats of the last two elections were mirrored by opinion polls showing the party's usual lead of +20% over Labour had been reversed - a drop of 40 points. For all the importance of other issues in determining how voters viewed politics, it was this fact which overshadowed actual voting patterns. He noted that the party had already more than shown itself to be turning the corner, with some opinion polls already putting the Conservatives slightly ahead in the economic competence ratings. Key to overturning Labour's landslides was to remain the party willing to allow people to keep more of their own money.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary David Willetts spoke last, and made a very convincing case for his new pensions policy. When I first heard of the proposal to link pensions to earnings, I was more than sceptical: I thought it made little sense either economically or in the context of conservative convictions and Tory policies. However, as time went on I came to wonder whether I should not adapt my view more to modern circumstances. Mrs Thatcher had certainly been right to fend off the coming pensions crisis in 1981 by breaking the earnings link. The aggregate of that few per cent a year difference had, a quarter of a century later, left Britain in a fantastically better state than our European partners when it came to pensions. Because our pensions had not risen so fast, we did not face the huge costs relative to people in work that they now face. But with this crisis largely averted, I reasoned, perhaps the circumstances were now right for a measure like this?
In his speech, Willetts convinced me that they certainly were. He pointed out that through Gordon Brown's determined means-testing, the poorest pensioners would now have to go through twenty-five page forms - and very complex ones at that - to claim their means tested benefits. Putting elderly people through the stress and humiliation of such a procedure was beneath any government. Restoring the earnings link would increase the incomes of these pensioners without them needing to claim such benefits. Just as importantly, it would as the years went by gradually water down the means-testing that now pervaded the pensions system and threatened to remove all disincentives to save for one's retirement. Why bother when each pound saved would only correspond to another pound lost in benefits that those who blow their money on other things will receive? He would not end the means-testing already in place - it was neither desirable not politically feasible to take benefits from the poorest pensioners - but by restoring the earnings link the effect of means testing would be reduced every year as every pensioner received an increase, not just those who, for whatever reason, had no savings. It would have to be a long-term policy, however: already means-testing was so endemic it would take ten years of an earnings link to end its distortion of natural incentives.
In paying for it he said most of the cost would come from scrapping the New Deal.
The other day Paul Richards smugly went through Tory plans for evidence that they could not be afforded. He didn't do a very good job. "Scrapping university tuition fees would cost £700m, and that could only be afforded by rationing university places," he warns. Yes, and that is the Tory proposal! We need more people taking vocational training and fewer doing Media Studies. Already one fifth of those with degrees are doing jobs that do not actually require a university degree, and Labour wants to increase university places by nearly another quarter, to 50%. Only Labour seems still to deny that these people would be better off doing other things. Adds up so far.
"The cost of 40,000 extra police over four years comes to £2.1bn. The Tories say this would be met by cutting the number of asylum seekers". Yes, and that is the trade-off. We can be flooded by Labour's 100,000 or more asylum seekers a year (a population twice that of the city of Cambridge) or we can accept a fifth of that number and spend the money the Labour Party spends on the other 80,000 on getting thousands more police on the streets every year fighting crime. Why not? We are so densely populated already that twenty thousand every single year still has to be above our fair share. Still adds up.
So getting back to the Politeia meeting, what about pensions? Any holes there? "Restoring the link between pensions and earnings would cost £500m after four years, and the Tories would pay for this by scrapping the New Deal for the long-term unemployed. There is no mention of the costs of having an increase in long-term unemployed people as a direct result."
But Willetts noted that there was no evidence whatsoever that the New Deal cut unemployment. If you saw any graph of the total numbers without jobs in the last decade, he went on, you'd be unable to point to where the New Deal took effect: there is simply a steady decline since the time we left the ERM. More than that, it may actually have a negative effect on employment because the training it gave raised expectations more than it raised actual skill levels, meaning people would pass up job opportunities they would otherwise have accepted (and the on-the-job training and experience that goes with them) in the hope of something better. So people whose worth to the average employer had risen by, say, 15% would believe themselves to be 25% more useful, and spend much longer on the dole waiting for the right job than if the New Deal had not fostered such unrealistic hopes. By abolishing this scheme and putting the money into pensions, people would be far better served.
Questions were varied, but one in particular was interesting. Someone queried Professor Congdon's statement that the state should only redistribute. What about public goods such as health and education? He answered that education and healthcare were not public goods - they could be supplied by the private sector perfectly well, and certainly better than by the state. He was obviously sceptical of the general idea of public goods. The classic definition of a public goods was a lighthouse. Textbooks would note that individual ships could not be excluded from the benefit of a lighthouse if they refused to pay, and nor could the exact benefit of a lighthouse to each who used it be assessed. Therefore it had to be state funded. But in fact, he continued, someone had done a long study into how lighthouses were in fact funded. Unfortunately for the theory they were historically funded exactly the way theory said could not work: merchants and others who owned or sailed ships would get together and work out amongst themselves a funding system for lighthouses without any need for state involvement. I suspect this is why the latest economics textbooks now use street lights as their example of the public good.
Certainly, Professor Congdon went on, the state should defend the realm and run the police - he did not think multiple armies or police forces within one country would be very desirable. But when it came to anything else, the modern state should be about redistribution, not direct provision. Once it got its oar out of the provision side of things, we could hope to see tax rates fall to 25% or so of GDP, and have less to fear from certain tax havens which were now becoming global depositories of the brightest and best.
Heading to the main hall after the Politeia meeting closed, I arrived in time for the home affairs debate. The head of the Evangelical Alliance gave a good speech on bringing communities together against crime, with his own experiences after the January shootings of two teenage girls in Birmingham adding a personal touch. I nipped out of the hall to get a drink in the middle of the debate, missing the well publicised hang 'em and flog 'em speech. But I did catch Letwin's address. It reinforced the general feeling I had as the week went on that Britain would overwhelmingly be a better place if the Tories got in. The existing policies are so sensible, radical and necessary that they could do a power of good. This is the case over home affairs as much as anything else.
David Davis also gave an impressive address. Perhaps the most memorable moment came when he talked about his own council estate. He had grown up there and had fond memories of it, but was now fearful of going back. What if it had degenerated into an awful state in that time?
But he did go back, and what he saw was a clean and impressive part of the country. Things had, however, once been as bad as he feared they would have been now. The change, local residents assured him, came with the right to buy. When people were able to buy their own stake in society, their own property, they felt determined to keep the surrounding area clean. 60% had chosen to buy their own homes, he noted, and 40% had not. But it wasn't just the 60% who benefitted from the clean and tidy environment that the right to buy had ensured - everyone did, whether they owned their home or not. The Right to Buy benefitted everyone, and he was determined to preserve it against Labour's attacks and extend it to housing association tenants.
The early evening fringe meeting I attended was on how people can get their voices heard in between elections. It had a large panel that included Ann Widdecombe, John Bercow, George Osborne and Sir George Young from the Tory back benches and Melanie Phillips from the press.
The debate soon turned to low turnout. John Bercow said he supported internet voting in general elections and claimed it was very fuddy-duddy to believe that voting should be a serious matter which involved active and decisive participation of the traditional 'walk to the polling station' sort. It shouldn't be up to people to adapt to the system, he said: the system should adapt to them. I find this argument difficult to accept. I just don't believe it would do anything but lower the esteem in which MPs and the democratic process are held to have elections determined by internet polls. Nor do I believe that, even given the security perhaps available ten years from now, it would be possible to preserve the secret ballot as we know it if elections were to be held in this way. All those people who do not seek to argue with their spouse's politics would lose the privacy of the voting booth in which they can secretly support their preferred party, and would instead have family looking over their shoulders as they voted. For what have they to hide? For that matter, what would stop the main householder casting all the votes himself as soon as the security password or whatever came in the mail? He would know they aren't going to shop their own father or husband.
It isn't PC to say so, of course, but it also cannot be ignored that there has to be a very serious question about whether the votes of people who cannot be bothered to walk a few hundred yards to their local polling station, or arrange a postal ballot, is really so important that we should go to these lengths. If they aren't that interested, perhaps their views shouldn't be given equal weight as someone who can make that effort. It's not as if such people are being disenfranchised if we do not put this much weight on their decision - they are free to vote, as always. They just need to walk a little distance to do so.
There is nothing inherently wrong with low voter turnout, anyway. The United States has done rather well in recent decades, even as barely half of Americans bother even to vote for the President. The right not to vote should be respected just as should the right to vote.
All the MPs agreed that web sites were important for politics in the future, and some statistics came up that showed a large number of voters would not bother to contact a party if it did not have an online presence and email - a telephone number on the web site they would just ignore.
Melanie Phillips stressed some of the points she made in her Spectator column this week. As the main parties moved closer on issues like economics, the main passions people held were for moral and cultural issues. But these were issues on which politicians were increasingly fearful of expressing any view at all in case it offended someone. So no wonder people were looking at pressure groups and other means of exerting influence besides elections.
She also made a point that crops up a lot in discussion of modern politicians - that they are in so many cases completely dependent on their party, on their party whips. They have never done any work outside politics and they rely entirely on their party for promotion, and so they are naturally too loyal to inspire voters in the way more independent and free-speaking voices might. Her message to such one-dimensional people was to "get a life!".
John Bercow perhaps didn't do anything to help the case of 'lifeless' politicians by launching into a speed-recital of a long and rude politician's letter from the eighteenth century which he had memorised in full. He topped this off with an impression of Tony Benn giving one of his speeches. Despite it rather proving Melanie Phillips' point about some modern politicians being absolute political obsessives, the impression was certainly very convincing, and made me keen to hear Bercow's famed impression of his old hero Enoch Powell.
George Osborne said sometimes asking people their views could be very positive. He wrote a regular column for his local newspaper in Tatton, and received about three letters per column relating to it. But then with the proposal of water flouridation coming before the Commons, he concluded that as he had no strong views one way or the other, he should present the case for both sides in his column and request letters from constituents, asking what they thought. The response this time was over one hundred from people arguing the case one way or the other.
He also said he doubted there was ever a golden age of the sort Melanie Phillips suggested when politicians were held in very high esteem by the general public and could be sure of a general respect.
She retorted, somewhat exasperated, that she couldn't understand why anyone who now suggested that anything was once in a better state than it presently is, is accused of believing in a faultless 'golden age'. That was not what she was saying, she said, just that politicians have in her lifetime had more respect in times past than they do now, and that changes since have eroded that, to politicians' detriment.
At the Imperial later, I got the chance to speak to a number of people, including Colleen Graffy, former Chairman of Republicans Abroad UK, and David Trimble. I asked Trimble what he thought the prospects were that "our two parties" - the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists - could one day unite, something I have long thought a good idea. I said that one of the best steps towards Ulster becoming a more normal part of the UK would involve people voting not along the traditional lines of the province, but more for the main parties of the UK, as is the case with England, Scotland and Wales. Trimble seemed to agree with this and obviously welcomed the recent admission of Ulstermen into the Labour Party for these reasons. He said that he would generally be supportive of moves to combine, but it would be more difficult for his own party to support it than for the Tories to do so. After all, he noted, most of the bad things done to the Unionists were by Conservative governments in the 1970s and 1980s. And for all Labour was nationalist in opposition, they actually had a tendency to be more unionist in government. From Trimble's point of view, I can understand why he might see Blair that way. Equally, there is no denying the excellence of Roy Mason when he was a Labour Northern Ireland Secretary in the 1974 Parliament. So it is understandable that unionists might be reluctant to tie themselves so firmly to the Tory flag. But nonetheless, he would be willing to support moves to bring the two parties closer, with unity as a possible end objective.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, son of William, arrived to co-host an impressive reception for Chinese Conservatives: Chinamen living in Britain who supported the Tory Party. It was amusing to see Telemachus challenge Rees-Mogg to defend the Bill of Attainder he passed against Iain Murray in the days when they were Oxford Union contemporaries. "It was quite a long time ago ...", he said.
At the reception itself, Rees-Mogg came within an inch of claiming Confucius as the first Conservative before Michael Ancram himself praised Chinese Britons and the growing new group for those of them who supported Conservative principles.
*See, for example, Brian Hindley's recent column, which highlights a passage of the Constitution's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states in no uncertain terms that "Nothing in this Charter shall be interpreted as implying any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms recognised in this Charter or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for herein". It is hard to imagine a stronger hint that not only a referendum on the restoration of British democracy, but even making any arguments in its favour, could be illegal.