Minister breaks taboo - he liked the 60s

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WHEN Stephen Dorrell, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, accepted an invitation to deliver yesterday's speech at Downing College, Cambridge, he did not know that Michael Portillo, the right-wing Chief Secretary, would have already defined his brand of Conservatism.

That, however, did not stop Mr Dorrell delivering a speech which was bound to be compared with that of his Treasury colleague. Mr Portillo, aged 40, is the right's heir apparent. Mr Dorrell, one year older, is the next in line for promotion to the Cabinet, and seen as the best left-wing leadership contender of his generation.

Both speeches quoted Shakespeare and included a cursory mention of 'back to basics'. They present strikingly different visions.

Mr Portillo warned of a 'new British disease' of cynicism which threatened to undermine institutions. Mr Dorrell said that they had to adapt to survive. 'Respect for inherited institutions and traditions is not,' he argued, 'the same thing as a commitment to preserve them in aspic.'

He added: 'A society that does not change will ossify'. Institutions, he added, 'have to earn legitimacy'.

On social policy, Mr Dorrell marked out traditional One Nation territory. Conservatives, he said 'understand that a successful defence of his freedom requires the individual to recognise a wide range of obligations to their members of society'. And he rejected the notion of a Thatcherite social free-for-all, arguing: 'The rootless nomadic vision of parts of the American mid-West is not something the Conservative Party finds attractive.'

Defending the role of 'state activity' and the need for a social 'safety net', Mr Dorrell argued that the proportion of personal wealth paid in taxation should be a pragmatic, not an ideological decision.

Family policy has been at the centre of the back to basics initiative. Mr Dorrell broke away from a rigid defence of the nuclear family. He said: 'As western countries have become richer over the last 50 years there has been a narrowing of the concept of family responsibility.

'I believe that it is impoverished as a result and that in this respect western culture needs to relearn forgotten lessons from some members of its ethnic minorities.'

While Mr Portillo argued that the chattering classes had succumbed to masochism and defeatism about all things British, Mr Dorrell defined a different form of patriotism. 'The Conservative,' Mr Dorrell said, 'is well aware of the dangers and rejects the exaggerated histrionics of flag-waving nationalists. They offer symbols in place of substance.'

This outward-looking patriotism leads on to a positive approach to Europe. Mr Dorrell carefully noted that the EU is 'certainly not perfect'. He added, however, that 'membership of that Union classes as one of the major achievements of Ted Heath's generation'.

Finally, the minister broke a Tory taboo - by praising aspects of the 1960s. Trendy education theory and concrete tower blocks were, he said, only part of the story, adding: 'The 1960s also saw other changes which we should want to safeguard. Our society became more open - the old school tie mattered less and ability mattered more. There was a greater emphasis on individuality; greater opportunity for creativity and initiative. And there was a much greater willingness to respect minority rights.'