MACMILLAN LECTURE 2013
Keep Calm and Carry On Reforming
By Rt Hon Damian Green MP
The previous occasion I delivered the Macmillan Lecture was in 2005, just after a disastrous election result for the Conservative Party which saw us make little progress even though Tony Blair’s Government was visibly crumbling.
“Why aren’t we thinking what they’re thinking” was the rather gloomy title, prompted by the thought that the lack of progress made it much more difficult to obtain an overall majority in the subsequent election—a sadly prescient point. One thought I was keen to make then is equally true in the very different world of today; that if the Conservative Party does not like modern Britain it is unlikely that modern Britain will warm to the Conservative Party.
Of course there is much that needs to be changed, and much that is changing because of this Government. As I say in the title of this lecture, we must carry on reforming. But we should not let the long recovery from recession, or individual horrible incidents such as the Woolwich killing, leave us gloomy or grumpy as a country. It is less than twelve months since the world admired the best Olympics of the modern age. They admired not just our national organisational skills but the character, warmth and openness of the British people. We should not just keep calm, we should cheer up.
I should move from the national to the party. The same injunction applies.
Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to fulfil the duty of all who deliver this lecture to quote Harold Macmillan; “It is the duty of Her Majesty’s Government neither to flap nor to falter.” Admirable advice which is both timeless and timely. For centre-right politicians there are significant reasons to be both calm and cheerful , the most notable of which is the public’s reaction to the financial crisis and subsequent recession. It was the fond hope of those on the left, perhaps particularly those who grew up at the feet of Marxist philosophers, that this would be seen as a crisis of capitalism. The people would throw off the shackles of false consciousness and realise that free markets had failed, and that state spending, borrowing and control was the route out of recession.
Fortunately the British people have more sense than that, and tend to prefer the analysis that state spending and borrowing was precisely the route into recession. There is no spin in this analysis. Successive poll findings have shown that even when Labour is enjoying a significant lead the Conservative team is markedly ahead on managing the economy. This is true even over the past few weeks, where calmness has not been the prevailing emotion.
The most recent Ipsos Mori poll showed a 14 percent lead for David Cameron on managing the economy. Truly, if it still is the economy, stupid, that sets the political tone we are winning the most important argument. British Keynesianism failed in the 1970s, and enough people know that to ensure that its modern enthusiasts have little credibility. The world has not gone left since the crisis. Where right wing Governments have been ejected, as in France, the left-wing alternative is already in trouble. The economic facts of life are still Tory.
So keep calm. But also carry on reforming, and more particularly carry on reforming in a Tory way. There is gathering strength to the argument that the reforms we are seeing to, for example, immigration, welfare and education address exactly the issues that people want Government to concentrate on.
These key reforms have three significant features. The first is that they are as important to the success of the Government as the central economic policy. The second is that all of them are dependent on Conservative ideas and energy to drive them through. The third is that they are precisely on the Common Ground originally identified by Keith Joseph as the proper target for successful Government, rather than the centre ground.
So as well as winning the central economic argument we are reforming in the areas where the country needs changing, and we are doing so in a Conservative direction. This message cannot be sent too often or too loudly, particularly to traditional Conservative supporters. They want lower immigration, an end to abuse of the welfare state, and higher standards in schools. Conservative Ministers, drawing on Conservative principles and our Manifesto promises, are delivering this.
On immigration, the latest figures show that net migration is down by more than a third since June 2010, and is now at its lowest level for a decade. At the same time as seeing this dramatic decline in overall numbers, which is the main requirement, we have continued to support economic growth by welcoming the brightest and best to the UK. Higher numbers of skilled worker visas were issued over the last year, as were university student visas. So we have lower immigration, and more selective immigration: both good Conservative policies.
On welfare, we have introduced the biggest welfare to work programme the UK has ever seen to get people back to work. We also believe it must always pay to work – which is why we have capped benefits so that no one can get more on benefits than the average person earns in work. We want to help people escape poverty, not trap them in it. This reform is squarely in the tradition of which Harold Macmillan would have approved.
The same is true with our education policy. We are making sure that every parent has the choice of a good local state school for their child, teachers have the powers they need to keep discipline in the classroom and the exam system is rigorous, respected and on a par with the world’s best.
We have a programme to improve the quality of teaching, including scholarships to attract the best graduates, higher literacy and numeracy requirements for trainee teachers and a network of ‘Teaching Schools’ across the country. 79 Free Schools and more than 2,000 new Academies have been delivered already. Many of them are in areas where most people have not been able, up to now, to gain access to an excellent education for their children. We are restoring discipline to the classroom with new search powers for teachers, an end to the ‘no-touch’ rule, and higher fines for truancy.
All of these essential reforms have been delivered by Conservatives working in a Coalition Government.
Which brings me to a theme which is particularly important for the Tory Reform Group, and all moderate Conservatives. There may be areas of policy where we agree with Liberal Democrats, but we are not the same. We believe in change and modernisation , and we recognise that what modernisation means changes over time, but we are first of all Conservatives. We have principles which are not shared even by the most orange of the Orange Bookers. We also do not regard ourselves in any way morally deficient compared to Liberal Democrats.
I get on very well with many of my LibDem Ministerial colleagues, but I am entitled to challenge their thesis that this Government can only be kept compassionate by their presence. There is a long and honourable tradition of decent Conservatives who want to help those who need help, and Macmillan himself was of course a prime example at all stages of his political career.
Macmillan was alive to the difference. As he put it; “As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound.” We do have practical differences, as I discovered on a regular basis when I was Immigration Minister.
There are similar debates about key issues such as childcare. All of these debates can be, and are, resolved within Government, as they would be whether it was a Coalition or a one-party administration. But they illustrate that the moderate Conservative tradition is a vital part of any Conservative mix, and is distinctive from the instincts and habits that the LibDems bring to politics.
This distinction is key for those who worry that in the Coalition the tail is wagging the dog. We are reforming and we are reforming in a Conservative direction. Every Conservative policy is about promoting opportunity and social mobility. We know that making Britain succeed globally and allowing people to achieve their aspirations are the two keys to a successful society. Economic growth and individual growth need to go hand in hand. This is the basis for economic and social policy under this Government and I cannot understand why any Conservative, whichever tradition they adhere to, would object in principle to this approach.
There will always be disagreements about tactics and day-to-day priorities but these must not be allowed to divide the right, when the only beneficiaries will be the left. All of us who campaigned so hard and so successfully to preserve a first-past-the-post electoral system must accept the consequences. Under first-past-the post a serious party that aspires to Government has to be a broad coalition. This in turn requires a degree of self-discipline and capacity to compromise. If we Conservatives forget that, our opponents will be the beneficiaries.
This means that the tone of the discourse between Conservatives is important. If we sound as though we dislike each other, others will draw the obvious conclusion. I love Twitter, but its general tone should not be a guide to how Conservatives address each other. Disagreement on an issue, however emotive, does not mean treachery, or not being a proper Conservative. Politics is a team game, and mutual loyalty is vital for a successful team.
The biggest and longest-running cause of Conservative discord is Europe. Every Conservative should have a high regard for the lessons of history, and the party’s history on this issue since the 1990s is terrible. The effect of this has been, ironically and yet predictably, that Britain’s fate in Europe has been in the hands of those who have no sympathy at all for the Eurosceptic viewpoint. Surely we are all able to learn this lesson of history and not repeat it.
I am not just lecturing others. We must all learn lessons. For years pro-Europeans opposed the idea of a referendum. But the strategy of negotiating a new settlement, and then putting that to British people, is clearly the right one for current times. Most British people want it to happen. So much has changed since the 1975 vote that it is time to put the argument again. I hope and expect that the outcome of this process will be to renegotiate, reform, and revalidate Britain’s place in Europe. The Prime Minister has made clear that this plan will be central to Conservative policy up to and beyond the next election. It is time for the whole party to get behind it. And it is possible for those who hold the whole range of views on Europe to do so.
For those of us sympathetic to the European argument this is an opportunity to make our case, and the Prime Minister’s case, that a properly reformed EU will be hugely to Britain’s advantage. For too long only a few lonely voices in the Conservative Party have made the case that we are better off in. Those of us who hold that view cannot wait for the few weeks before a Referendum to argue our corner. There is a hard-headed Conservative case for Britain’s membership of the EU, for all its imperfections, and it needs to be heard.
The core of the argument is economic. All sectors of industry agree that we are better off in. Let’s start with manufacturing. Five out of every six cars made in this country are exported, and 700,000 jobs depend on the industry. How many of those firms would invest long-term in Britain outside the EU? No wonder Ford’s European Chief Executive, Stephen Oddell, has said that “Leaving a trading partner where 50% of your exports go… would be devastating for the UK economy.”
Then there is the City, often seen as the part of the economy most hampered by EU rules. Goldman Sachs are unlikely to be sentimental about the economic effects of leaving, and they have concluded that departure would be a loss/loss scenario, in which the loss would be greater for the UK than the EU. In particular they argue that “The UK’s ability to conduct business in financial services across the European Union is likely to be severely compromised by a departure from the EU.”
Then there is the argument that we should concentrate on the fast-growing economies in Asia and South America rather than sclerotic old Europe. I have never understood how you make it easier to export to China by making it more difficult to export to Germany, and indeed the German example is surely one to follow. Last year Germany exported $804bn worth of goods to Europe, and another $519bn to the rest of the world. They are complementary markets, not alternatives.
Finally there is the argument that our businesses have to obey all these petty rules that hinder them. Does anyone imagine that the rules would be less onerous, or indeed less of a hindrance to British business, if they were made without any input from Britain? Since Britain will need to trade with Europe, we would be putting an added burden on our business, not removing one. And we would have to pay a large fee for access to the Single Market, as Norway does. The idea that we can remove all the irritations, but retain all the benefits, is not worthy even of the saloon bar.
Of course there is need for reform, not just for Britain’s sake but for Europe’s. We need a Transatlantic Free Trade deal. We need a single market in a number of new areas, including digital services. Above all, we need a reform deal which will deliver benefits to every country in the EU, so that others will be as keen as we are on reform. This will show how beneficial it can be when Britain plays a leading role in Europe.
This European reform will be consistent with all the other hard-headed, unsentimental, pragmatic, Conservative reforms which the Government has embarked on. It will fit in with a wider modernising agenda which is nothing to do with party image and everything to do with making Britain (and Europe) fit to compete in the modern world. All these reforms, taken together, will change Britain for the better. So the job of all Conservatives at this point is neither to flap nor falter, but to get on with the job of persuading people that Conservative principles in action give all British people the chance to succeed. We should be proud of our record so far, and we know there is much more to come. We have an important job to do. We should devote all our energy and time to doing it.