David Willetts: 'We have to stop bossing people around'

From a speech by the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, given to the Social Market Foundation in London
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The Independent Online

If we believe in economic freedoms then we should believe in wider social freedoms as well. You just have to stop bossing people around and that means taking a much more relaxed view of everything from drugs to the diversity of modern families. In the old days, people used to say they were dry in economics and wet in social policy. That cliché became so tiresome that you became desperate for someone who would say they were wet in economics and dry in social policy - perhaps believing in a prices and incomes policy enforced by corporal punishment.

If we believe in economic freedoms then we should believe in wider social freedoms as well. You just have to stop bossing people around and that means taking a much more relaxed view of everything from drugs to the diversity of modern families. In the old days, people used to say they were dry in economics and wet in social policy. That cliché became so tiresome that you became desperate for someone who would say they were wet in economics and dry in social policy - perhaps believing in a prices and incomes policy enforced by corporal punishment.

Nowadays, people say they are economically and socially liberal. This strand of modernisation recognises that our culture is far more tolerant than many Conservatives appear to believe. Social liberals see that we just have to be much more comfortable with our own country as it is today.

This should be Conservatism with a smile, not a frown. Especially in today's culture, where appearances matter so much, what better way is there of signalling you are in touch, some modernisers suggest, than how you dress. Marx might have got his economics deeply wrong, but surely he understood contemporary culture when he observed that "a black broadcloth suit becomes a social hieroglyphic". Now we might translate that as "when the Conservative Party has mastered smart casual, it will once more be ready for office".

It is easy to mock this preoccupation with appearances, but there is a real social change going on. Society is becoming more individualistic. There are more people spending a longer part of their lives living on their own, moving more rapidly between jobs and relationships. They are not tied down in the old way. This is especially true of younger people in our great cities and, above all, London.

In fact, researchers have identified a part of London which has a greater proportion of single people aged under 60 living on their own than just about any other part of the Western world. It must be the epitome of economic and social liberalism and it is, of course, Kensington.

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