Damian Green: New ideas, new idealism - Davis has what it takes

In other countries barriers between the public and private sectors are much less rigid

The most powerfully symbolic of these was David Davis's speech on an Opportunity Society to the IPPR--practically the in-house New Labour ideas machine. It showed that Conservatives have recovered the nerve to take on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the political ground they have colonised for the past decade. To be on this ground, where the British people want their government, requires a politician to admit that universal public services available to all regardless of income are essential to the quality of life, but also to admit that the old centralist models are failing.

So the political courage shown by Blair in moving Labour away from its old insistence on the state providing everything must be matched by a Conservative. The equivalent Tory courage means to say that allowing people the freedom to buy their way out of inadequate schools or healthcare is not enough. Conservatives must offer a new model of universal services which fits the Tory belief in a smaller state and decentralised delivery, but at the same time offers first-class services to the poor.

Which is where think tanks and ideas come in. In his IPPR speech, Davis insisted that the state should be a universal guarantor of healthcare and education, but should not be the universal provider. In other words, Blair has not been wrong in allowing non-state-run schools to be set up, or private companies to offer certain routine operations, but he has been much too timid.

It is possible, from a Tory perspective, to sympathise with him in fighting the forces of conservatism among the unions and his own party, but he admitted at his own conference that he had never been able to go far enough. The central Davis idea is that a government run by him would take ideas produced by right-wing thinkers on health and education and use them to ensure that the weakest in society have a chance of enjoying the best of our public services.

It is at this point that conventional bien pensant opinion snorts and mutters that school vouchers and social insurance for healthcare are typical of the impractical ideas that excite policy wonks, but which would prove disastrous in practice. My recommendation to those making this type of argument is that they should get out more. Specifically, they should travel around the world and look at the way other countries organise their schools and hospitals.

In many other countries the barriers between the public sector and the private and voluntary sectors are much less rigid. The effect in many of these countries is that better services are available to everyone, and in particular the poor find that they are not left with the worst services. Sweden funds parents so that they can exercise school choice. In Holland, 70 per cent of children attend schools that are not run by the state, even though every child is funded by the state and there is no private sector of the type we have here.

France and Germany offer healthcare which beats the NHS on almost every measure, even for the least well-off, using a mix of private and public provision. The Swiss system also has more diverse funding, but equally importantly it is decentralised. In the US, the ability of New York's voters to hold their local mayor and police chief accountable through the ballot box helped to drive through a style of policing which led to big falls in crime.

So this is hardly the politics of intellectual Tory Boys. Looking at the examples I have given, you see mainly countries whose whole political spectrum is to the left of ours. I hear few voices railing against the Thatcherite Swedes, the Hayekian French, or those mad Dutch in thrall to Milton Friedman.

Instead we look across the Channel or the Atlantic and see many different types of political culture, united only in their acceptance of mixed provision of public services, in their pursuit of excellence. Britain is marching out of step, and while Tony Blair recognises this, he has never convinced his party (or his successor), and so his efforts at reform produce fabulous rhetoric but only a trickle of change.

This is the opportunity for new Conservative ideas, and indeed new Tory idealism. David Davis has grasped this point, and it is now up to the Conservative Party to decide whether to embrace it as well. I hope we do.

The writer is Conservative MP for Ashford

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