This week's big questions: What is conservatism? Is Lords reform necessary? Does Qatada belong here?

One of the leading conservative intellectuals of his generation provides the answers


Does it have any significance that the current Prime Minister, Mayor of London and Archbishop of Canterbury all attended Eton?

Only as a conspicuous instance of the painful but unblinkable reality that so many of the leading roles in politics, sport and show business are now effortlessly appropriated by alumni of public schools. The right-wing answer is to bring back the grammar schools. The left-wing answer is to spend more money on comprehensives. The least bad answer is to invigorate the new free schools with the old pursuit of excellence.

Is House of Lords reform necessary?  Is it possible? And if so, what form  would you suggest?

The best cure for being soppy about the House of Lords is to go and look at it. (I thought I’d invented that, but it turns out that Walter Bagehot got there first.) I would not mind if its slack and self-indulgent proceedings were harmless, but I cannot help noticing that most of the harmful ideas like press censorship and euthanasia come from unelected life peers. Whatever sensible work is done is performed largely by the derided former MPs. Nothing would be easier than to set up a senate elected regionally and proportionately, but the House of Commons still can’t abide to be second-guessed.

Is it possible to strengthen or weaken the institutions of marriage and the family through government policy? If so, what could be done? And are the Coalition’s policies helping?

Yes, of course it’s possible to support marriage through the tax system, as most other countries in Europe have never ceased to do. It is a peculiar and unsettling novelty that marriage in Britain seems to be increasingly a middle- and upper-class habit, at a time when all the sociological evidence suggests the overwhelming benefits of it, not only to the happiness and life prospects of children but also to the self-esteem and sense of purpose of young working-class men.

We take it for granted that the Government should use the tax system to nudge people to do things we approve of (buy their own homes) or to abstain from those we don’t (fags, booze, junk food). Why should marriage be the only exception? And no, the Government isn’t helping by loading all the subsidies on childcare. The whole point is to give mothers of young children the choice whether to go out to work or not.

What is Conservatism?

Conservatism can mean turning the clock back, or stopping it, or slowing it down, or even, in a crisis, fast-forwarding it. The only guiding principle must be to respond to what Michael Oakeshott called the “intimations” of reality. People who go on about “getting back to traditional conservatism” usually want to get back to the conventional wisdom of the day before yesterday.

Who is the most talented Tory MP of the 2010 intake?

I haven’t a clue, though Jesse Norman (Hereford) is clearly a sharp one. Why not put a few pennies on Jo Johnson (Orpington), the only member of the Johnson family you haven’t heard about? Boris may have his faults, but at least he hasn’t forced his brother to leave the country.

Does Abu Qatada belong in Britain?

I wouldn’t presume to pronounce on the individual case, but I do think that the Home Secretary should have the right to deport people whom she has strong evidence to regard as dangerous. The right to stay in a foreign country does not sound to me like a plausible human right. And I thought Jordan was supposed to be an ally of ours.

Should Cyprus leave the euro?

Yes, she should, however painful it will be in the short term. The long-drawn agony of the euro has proved one thing clearly: that the Germans have no intention of playing the proper role of the rich partner in a currency union, which is to support the poor regions in the way that South-east England supports the North and West of the UK.

Do we need a new Dangerous Dogs Act?

The old Dangerous Dogs Act held the gold medal for the worst law produced by Parliament since the war, though the new press law looks like overtaking it at speed. All MPs should be told on their first day: legislate in haste and the country usually has to repent at leisure.

Do the critics of Michael Gove’s education policies have a point?

His fumbles are redeemed by his endearing willingness to confess them instantly, not unlike his predecessor Keith Joseph. But both of them have done their bit in the 30-year route march to provide decent schools for the worst-off. Education is one of the things I’m really quite optimistic about, and Gove deserves at least two cheers.

Ferdinand Mount’s book ‘The New Few, or A Very British Oligarchy’ is published in paperback this weekend by Simon & Schuster at £8.99

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