Hague: `There is such a thing as society'

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WILLIAM HAGUE last night retreated from his party's Thatcherite "obsession" with economics and joined Tony Blair in putting community on to the new Conservative agenda, writes Anthony Bevins.

Mr Blair used "community" as one of the key elements of his Labour leadership back in 1994, deliberately exploiting Margaret Thatcher's perceived repudiation of society as the spring-board for an attack on Conservative selfishness and social breakdown.

The new Conservative leader told a convention of the Australian Liberal Party in Brisbane: "I am immensely proud of what the British Conservative Party and its leaders achieved for my country and for the world."

However, he added: "Like many centre-right parties around the world, the Conservative Party came to be seen as being a party obsessed with economics. That was not surprising since so many of the challenges of the 1980s were economic challenges.

"But British Conservatives also understand that society is more than just a marketplace of atomised individuals where the only relationship is between buyer and seller. There are ties of family and community and nation that mean more than prices on a shop counter will ever do."

Mr Hague said his party would work to strengthen those ties. "Over the coming years," he said, "the Conservative Party will develop policies that help families, that support parents who are trying to bring up their children to be decent citizens, that reinforce local communities and local institutions, and that preserve our democracy and national identity".

A recognition that the country's sense of community had been lost, if not destroyed, and needed to be rebuilt, was one of the distinctive selling points of Mr Blair's leadership.

In his first party conference speech as Labour leader, at Blackpool, in October 1994, Mr Blair said: "Families work best when the members of it help and sustain each other. The same is true of communities and of nations.

"Community is not some piece of nostalgia. It means what we share. It means working together, it is about how we treat each other... The Tories despise such principles."

Against that benchmark, last night's political shift by Mr Hague was remarkable enough.

But he stood firm on Europe, repeating the warning that there was no question of the Tories allowing Britain to become part of a European superstate - a threat that the pro-Europeans in his party dismiss as dangerous fantasy.

Mr Hague said: "Asserting the importance of national identity is not the same as being little Englanders.

"We believe Britain has a leading role to play in the future of the European Union. But we also believe Britain has a global role that goes beyond the confines of Europe."