Hurd maps a course between left and right: The Tory conference opens tomorrow. Donald Macintyre reports on an insight into its dominant issue

Click to follow
DOUGLAS HURD is in his element in the old library of St Edward's School, Oxford, giving A- level politics students an elegant history of the ebb-and-flow of British political ideas between the 1832 Reform Act and last week's Labour Party conference.

Answering some sharp questions, he says no, he doesn't think the Tories would have a better chance now with Lady Thatcher than with John Major, an 'honourable, likeable and effective Prime Minister'. And no, he didn't think in 1990, and doesn't now, that a secret ballot of MPs, as opposed to a general election or a vote in the Commons, is the right way to get rid of a British Prime Minister.

Between the Second World War and the late 1970s, he argues, many of the dominant ideas of politics, public ownership and the continuing power of the unions were Labour's. And the Conservatives had embraced many of them, finding them almost impossible to resist, even when those ideas had gone to the bad. He can remember, as Edward Heath's political secretary of the time, how Sir Edward tried, and failed, first to reform industrial relations and then to stand up to the miners.

And then Mrs Thatcher 'bounced onto the stage,' and succeeded where Ted Heath had failed by 'changing the debate'.

So what was the meaning of Tony Blair's repositioning of Labour last week as a force for the market? Just as the Tories had accepted a post-war consensus, so Labour were clearly not going to 'put the clock back'. As a result, the parties were likely to move closer - as they had in the 1950s. He said: 'I don't think my party will be going off and creating a whole lot of new ideas just because the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, is trying to capture, re-label and re-paint ideas which we have fastened on to the British political system over the last 15 years.'

This is rather a privileged moment for the St Edward's sixth form. For Mr Hurd is giving them an advance glimpse of his thinking on an issue which will overshadow this week's Tory conference, and goes to the heart of the debate within the party's ranks over how to respond to Mr Blair - an 'intelligent and likeable chap'.

On the one hand, there are those on the neo-Thatcherite wing who want the party to put more 'clear blue water' between itself and Labour by shrinking the state further - for example by privatising some elements of national insurance - distancing itself from the inner Europe, and cutting taxes faster and deeper than ever. On the other, those such as Mr Hurd believe that Conservatives should not rewrite their political map just when Labour has started to use it.

Later, in the headmaster's drawing room, he explains: 'If you believe that Tony Blair is trying - whether he succeeds or not is a different matter - to move in onto our ground and re-label it, re- christen it as socialism . . . then I don't think we're going to abandon that ground; and therefore if that's true, then the parties will move closer together.' That isn't to say there aren't clear differences.

For a start, Mr Hurd argues, Mr Blair hasn't begun to solve the problem, encountered by Hugh Gaitskell in the 1959 election, of saying how it proposes to find the money to achieve all its goals. Neverthless, the Tories have to be careful of committing what he calls the 'Michael Foot error' that Labour made in the wake of the 1979 election - the judgement 'that people aren't voting for us because we aren't extreme enough. Commonsense should be our guide'. For instance, 'privatisation has been a great success - what is Tony Blair going to re- nationalise? But we shouldn't privatise just for the sake of it'.

If Mr Hurd is sending out a coded signal that it would be best to shelve privatisation of the Royal Mail, he certainly isn't admitting it. In fact, he thinks there 'is a very strong case' for the 'preferred' option of a 51 per cent sell- off. He is simply saying that each case should be taken on its merits.

And, of course, it would be 'absurd' to contemplate leaving the European Union. The Government had already set out its stall on Europe, which is clearly different from the other two parties', with its emphasis on flexibility, subsidiarity and intergovernmental co-operation.

It is six months too early to say how formidable a Labour leader Mr Blair will be, he suggests. Being leader of the Opposition is a gruelling job. Mr Blair has at least two years of it before the election. And one of the 'penalties' any party pays for 15 years of opposition is the 'theoretical' nature of its approach. On Europe for example, Labour's views are 'entirely abstract.' Mr Hurd leaves every impression that we shall be hearing a lot more of the Tories as 'doers as opposed to talkers'.

So the Tories have to establish the clear points of difference, whether minimum wage or Europe or tax. And, 'for the rest, we have to show that we are not in favour of privatisation for the sake of it. We are not in favour of the state withering away'. Significantly, Mr Hurd cites the handling of the Civil Service White Paper and the BBC as two 'good examples of Conservative government in action'. On the former, ministers had let 'fresh air' into Whitehall; they had set about removing unnecssary 'layers of bureaucracy'; but they had not tried to destroy the concept of a public service. Similarly the BBC had undergone change. But it had survived as a licence fee funded, publicly owned organisation.

The National Health Service reforms were certainly right, Mr Hurd says, but the presentation of them - not by Virginia Bottomley but by the managers themselves - has been 'quite clearly wrong'.

What they are doing is 'perfectly sensible', but the NHS managers explain it in 'management jargon' which the 'patient regards as unsympathetic.' 'They're too close to the management coalface. It's quite right to have management objectives but . . . they are not an end in itself.'

On law and order, the other issue on which Tory vulnerability will be exposed this week, Mr Hurd, an ex-Home Secretary, says it was 'entirely justifiable' to push through such reforms as institutions for persistent young offenders and the right to silence. 'What governments shouldn't do is to pretend that governments alone can cure crime. I don't think the Prime Minister or Michael Howard have been doing that. But we shouldn't' 'Wisely' Mr Howard had not trumpeted a great victory over the most recent fall in crime figures. Government had an important role in ensuring the police were more effective, in improving penalties, and in building the right number of prisons and 'encouraging' the trio on which the fight against crime depends - parents, teachers - frontline troops in the Burkean 'little platoons' which underpin Mr Hurd's Tory notion of community - and possibly the media.

Last year is remembered as the conference of 'back to basics' - a theme which was later derailed. But Mr Hurd never saw it quite in the way that the right had: 'I've always thought of back to basics as a displine for politicians, that we should act in ways that correspond to the basic needs and wishes of the people. Not to be ideological and not to privatise anything for its own sake, but after 14 years to discipline ourselves to be very practical.

'It all got caught up in something quite different so it got lost in various amorous comings and goings. Which is a pity because the idea was a sound one.'

In that, faintly heretical, sense Mr Hurd clearly believes that this week's conference should indeed get 'back to basics.'

(Photograph omitted)