A certain kind of Conservative

BOOK REVIEW; THINGS TO COME The Tories in the 21st Century John Patten Sinclair Stevenson, £17.99
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The Independent Online
John Patten, admirably, has chosen to write a book which looks forward. He might have been tempted to write about the past by way of memoir and apologia. He had the combination of talent and unabashed ambition to be the first of the 1979 Tory intake to be made a minister, and was in and out of the Cabinet before he was 50. The loss of office must have been deeply painful, but there is no bitterness here (unless we count a teensy reference to cones hotlines).

Things to Come eschews gossip: the publishers have not provided an index, but if there were one it would, I think, contain only one entry for Thatcher, none for Major and two for the President of the Board of Trade. Notwithstanding the claims of the blurb, it is not a work of political "philosophy". It is a canter along, in one of his favourite phrases, the primrose path of the author's preoccupations: the constitution, the family, education, and planning.

For a man so assertively clever in his personal dealings and so fastidious in physical style, Patten writes plainly. He resists the temptations of wit. He spares us the cricketing and military metaphor, though he does use other imagery of playfulness and command. The Tories must "dominate" politics. We are to take the issue of renting "by the scruff of the neck". It must be an "iron rule" for the 21st century not to have big planning ideas. But there is no "iron political law" guaranteeing one party perpetual power. Organisations that are not "under the lash" of delivering a "healthy bottom line" are wasteful. Many of the jobs of the future will be "brand spanking new". Extensive sections, however, are bland to the point that one suspects a parody of the Central Office word processor.

Patten talks good sense about the exigencies of a global economy, and the imperative of sound education. He writes feelingly and well, as an economic geographer, on the problems of both urban and rural decay. He passionately denounces divorce and warns against making it easier.

His Manichaean view and the sublime confidence of Patten's Conservatism will be provocative to some within his party. "To limit government means to benefit families and the community." Was it then a mistake that a Conservative government introduced Family Credit, now the fastest growing item in public expenditure? This is a book, however, that dwells on the moral high ground and not in the technical undergrowth. "Ownership of property ... is a good thing because it instils a sense of responsibility." Can we be quite so sure as we survey the two nations of an increasingly polarised society? "At all costs to reduce taxation is an enduring feature of Conservatism." So was it a Conservative government that we supported when John Patten was a minister? "Allowing the free interplay of market forces is a guarantee of individual freedom." Does it feel like that to 10 per cent of households which have not shared in the growth of the nation's wealth since the "heroic days" of 1979? "Competition ... is the automatic generator of quality and value." Can quality and value be so mechanistically assured?

The book is hardly an exercise in confession, though the ex-minister charmingly acknowledges: "Some of us were so bemused by foreigners with interesting formulae and the sheer fashionability of it all that we entered the Exchange Rate Mechanism." He considers, impenitently, that the "disestablishing of the state must be a great part of political things to come". Grant- maintained schools, neighbourhood watch and housing associations are "points of light", an approach that "releases people from the worst effects of dependency culture, and frees them from the iron grip (phew!) of bureaucratic state welfarism". John Patten believes that the conclusion to be drawn from the evidence of opinion polls and local elections is that we have not gone far enough. Like a Bennite in drag, he waxes millennarian on privatisation. "We should ... dispose of everything that remains by 1999, so that the new century can begin with a clean slate." Private ownership must be a "bastion against 'them', interfering ministers or demented local authority officials". Unless "we really wish to go hard for minimal government ... we will simply rest an our historic laurels."

John is entitled to rest on his. Conservatives to whom certainty comes less easily can at least agree that the Tory party must always be "the thoughtful party".

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