'Modernisation' is widely misunderstood. But who can doubt Heseltine is the true Tory moderniser?

The former Deputy Prime Minister's weighty report into economic growth is a bold challenge to the laissez-faire orthodoxy which still holds the Tory leadership in thrall


The true moderniser of the Conservative Party turns out to be a 79-year-old. Agree or disagree with Michael Heseltine’s weighty report on economic growth, there can be no dispute that that it challenges the laissez-faire orthodoxy of the past three decades, an orthodoxy that still holds the Tory leadership in its thrall.

Not that Heseltine’s proposals are surprising. His report is almost a memoir of his consistently held and passionately expressed views. He is calling for a huge transfer of cash from the Treasury to local institutions and the establishment of a National Growth Council. He challenges the idea that sweeping deregulation and tax cuts will almost alone generate growth. While reflecting Heseltine’s familiar ideas the proposals still stand out as being strikingly distinctive. In the UK we are not used to senior Conservatives putting a case in this robust way and have not been since Heseltine left frontline politics.

Yet although the proposals seem almost like an act of insurrection, the relationship between Heseltine and the Conservative leadership is nuanced and complex, as it was when he became a dissenting voice in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet. Thatcher was wary of Heseltine for several reasons, but she gave him some space to be a hyperactive minister. In the early 1980s, he did much to revive bleak inner cities, most prominently in Liverpool and East London but in other areas, too. Conversely, while he was critical of her leadership, and became the instrument of her fall, he worked with her fairly harmoniously at times.

Big tent

Fast-forward three decades and the children of Thatcher – David Cameron and George Osborne – deserve some credit for commissioning the report from Heseltine. Like her, they have given him some space. Indeed, they have a tendency to ask those who are not ideological soulmates to come up with ideas. The left-of-centre Will Hutton is another who has been called upon. Partly, their political generosity is an attempt to construct a Blair/Brown style big tent. The New Labour duo often commissioned counter-intuitive figures to review policy. But Blair and Brown always made sure that the subsequent recommendations would chime with what they wanted before the review had taken place. Cameron and Osborne are either more politically inept or less controlling, perhaps both, when they ask those with strongly unswerving views to review policies.

Having been so generous, the Tory leadership will not dismiss his recommendations. After all, in theory they are supporters of robust localism, although in practice (like New Labour) they are less so now they are in government. Sporadically, they show an interest in rebalancing the economy away from dependence on London. In principle, at least, they recognise the benefits of capital spending. In his first Autumn Statement, Osborne said impressively that it had been a mistake in the recession of the early 1990s to cut capital spending. Unfortunately, the more detailed figures published as he spoke outlined cuts in this specific area. Even so, they have been bold at times with capital investment, and recognise the need to be bolder still.

Meanwhile, Hesletine is broadly supportive of the Coalition, supports the deficit-reduction strategy and public-service reforms. Whereas he never thought that Cameron would secure an overall majority at the last election, he thinks and hopes the Conservatives will win next time. This is a subtle dance with some noisy moves.

His report is a noisy move. The proposals would not cause much of a stir in other equivalent countries. Judged by the standards of Germany, Sweden or France, his ideas are modest. In the UK, where deregulation, tax cuts and vaguely defined “markets” are still the fashionable solution to virtually every economic challenge, he is a revolutionary.

The contrast with the proposals put forward recently by some of the more self-confidently vibrant Tory MPs from the new 2010 intake is especially marked. In their recent book, Britannia Unchained, a group of them call for welfare cuts, sweeping labour market deregulation and laud countries such as Singapore that regard public spending as even more of a sin than it is perceived to be in the UK. They are the continuing link with the 1980s. Heseltine offers an incomparably more balanced and sensible route, not least against the background of a financial crisis caused by too little regulation.

“Modernisation” is one of the most over-used terms in British politics, but if it is to mean anything it must surely signal a break with the past. Since the 1980s, the Conservatives have become a more dogmatically anti-state party and supporter of a purer version of free market laissez-faire economics. Heseltine moved from being a mainstream Conservative in the 1970s to becoming a partially dissenting voice. He is still in that position, acknowledging openly at the end of his report that he expects opposition from within. “I would be naive if I were not already aware of those who are resistant to some or all of what I suggest,” he says.


In his interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he suggested that opposition might come from Treasury officials reluctant always to give away power from Whitehall to local institutions. But he knows resistance is much wider than that. He states in his report that the Government does not have an adequate programme for economic growth. This omission is not a terrible accident. Senior ministers arrived in power with a view that government should not being doing as much. They sought to intervene less before and after breakfast, lunch and dinner. Famously, Heseltine has always wanted to intervene between every meal.

So do Labour. Some senior Labour figures were not only making mischief when they declared support for a lot of the Heseltine proposals. One ally of Miliband’s noted that Germany, with its powerful devolved institutions and more balanced economy, is a model for some of those advising the Labour leader, and is to some extent the model for Heseltine, too. Although it should be noted that there are also considerable internal tensions within Labour about how realistic it is to transplant the German model to the UK. Perhaps a new divide in British politics is forming between those who turn to Germany for guidance and the varying figures that seek to breathe fresh life into the Anglo-American alternative.

Heseltine insists that, at the very least, he hopes to start a debate. The insistence reveals that he does not have excessively high expectations about implementation in the short term. He has cause for pessimism. A fatal flaw in Heseltine’s report is that there is no Heseltine in the Cabinet to implement it. It can be lonely being a genuine moderniser.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

It isn’t a proper rock gig if you don’t leave with your ears ringing

Chris Maume

Bubble or no, it's a great time to be an estate agent

Mira Bar Hillel
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?