Major puts a tiger in his think-tank

The Tories: after a week of PR disasters the party unites around a drive to make Britain competitive with the Far East
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN July, when an ex-Cabinet minister published a pamphlet called "Easternisation: The rise of Asian power and its impact on the West and on our own society", he was not aiming for the bestseller list. But last week the author, David Howell, had run out of copies, having given his last spare one to the Foreign Office.

Suddenly the Conservative Party and Whitehall have been gripped by "tigerism" - the notion that Britain faces a tough battle for survival in the next millennium against the tiger economies of the Far East, and that only a deregulated, low-tax, free market economy can save it. After years of ideological in-fighting, both right and left of the Tory party show signs of converging around a new political message.

The first evidence emerged in the Prime Minister's party conference speech in October. "If we are to compete with America, Japan and the Pacific Basin," John Major argued, "we must be the unrivalled enterprise centre of Europe. It means high spending and high taxes are no longer an option."

In subsequent speeches the message was echoed by Brian Mawhinney, Conservative Party chairman, and Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health. In his Budget the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, talked of the threat of the "tiger economies of the Far East" and referred on no fewer than four occasions to Britain as "the enterprise centre of Europe".

For the Tories the beauty of "tigerism" is that it provides a concept which binds together many of the central aspirations of the Conservative Party and differentiates it from Labour. Enterprise, low tax and opposition to the costs of the European Social Chapter have long been Tory preoccupations - what they have lacked is a way of articulatingwhy they believe them to be important. Now they have an argument: in order to compete with the emerging Far Eastern economies, Britain needs to have a low-tax, low-wage economy that only the Tories believe in. By contrast Labour is signed up to the European social market model, with higher costs, a commitment to join the Social Chapter and to implement a national minimum wage.

Without taking policy off in a new direction, "tigerism" fills a central Tory void. Senior Conservatives have, for some time, contrasted the success of Tony Blair's "project" to modernise Labour and Britain, with the perception of a directionless government lurching from crisis to crisis. Here was an opportunity to give Mr Major's administration a raison d'etre.

One senior Tory said: "We believe it is crucial that people view the Conservative Party as one with a sense of mission. All Labour's campaigning over sleaze etcetera is designed to makes us feel as if we are serving our own interests. Our aim is to make it clear that we are saving the country."

Nowhere is this battle to beat the charge of opportunism more important than in the debate over tax, where broken promises have sapped the Conservatives of much credibility. "Tigerism" gives a philosophical justification for a low-tax economy, and hence for prudent reductions in direct tax. In Conservative Central Office they adapt an old RSPCA slogan to make the point: "We need to show the public that a tax cut is for life, not just for Christmas."

The origins of the emerging Conservative consensus lay in John Major's leadership campaign in the summer. Although John Redwood resigned from the Cabinet to contest the election, his campaign failed to produce substantial policy differences. True, Mr Redwood wanted a slightly more sceptical line on Europe and large spending cuts to offset bigger tax reductions. But Mr Redwood (a champion of inward investment from Asia to Wales where he was secretary of state) agreed with Mr Major on the fundamentals of economic management.

Then in the summer Mr Mawhinney appointed a new director of the Conservative Research Department. Danny Finkelstein is a former adviser to David Owen who defected to the Conservatives then headed the Social Market Foundation, a free-market think-tank. In his new post Mr Finkelstein has been instrumental in the dissemination and development of "tigerism" as a concept.

Late in October the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place when the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, made a speech to the Conservative Political Centre. Mr Patten, one of the leading Tory wets, argued that to compete with the Far East, Britain had to reduce the state's spending below 40 per cent of gross domestic product. This made the welfare state affordable, he argued.

One right-winger observed: "Patten provided a crucial endorsement from the left of the party. Because you believe in a strong state, he was saying, it doesn't have to be a large state."

The governor went further. His speech, which was issued by the CPC as a pamphlet last week, argued: "We in the West could learn quite a bit from them [Asian societies] about the values that help produce orderly and harmonious community. I hesitate to suggest, as some have done that family values are at the heart of this ... but what Asian societies can point to is a driving belief in the values of education, thrift and hard work."

The ideas of social responsibility flagged up here fed into traditional Tory themes such as law and order, self-reliance and a welfare state reformed to discourage dependency. Naturally this philosophy leaves much unresolved. All can agree on an anti-federalist approach to Europe and to enlargement of the EU, but the prospect of a single currency still divides right and left of the Cabinet.

Yet many Tories think that "tigerism" provides one of the best hopes of a recovery in their political standing. If, with tax cuts and rising disposable income next year, the Government can make up some of its huge opinion poll deficit, then the makings of an effective election campaign can be seen.

That, however, is a very big if. Stephen Pollard, research director of the leftish Fabians, believes that the Tories have lost focus and thinks that, "if they can crystallise things in a catchy way - like the enterprise economy - that will help them. But I think people simply do not trust them - they think they are old and corrupt."