Hamish McRae: The next Tory leader's task is to know how to respond to the big global forces

A wise government would find out why technology graduates go to work in the US
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What is government for? David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke set out their stalls yesterday, putting their somewhat different visions for life under a Conservative government. Nothing wrong with this: it is their job as politicians. But, if you stand back and think what has really changed people's lives in the past 20 years, it does not have a huge amount to do with politics at a national level.

Politics still matters, of course. Government still matters. But whereas national governments used to have a fair degree of leeway in the policies they chose, now they are effective - or ineffective - in the way they respond to much bigger forces than themselves.

True, from time to time, there are clear political decisions to be made - to fight a war in Iraq, for example - but, most of the time, government is about responding to global trends in demography, the environment and so on. By luck or good judgment, we have responded fairly well in recent years and managed to pull our socks up a bit. Many other European countries have been less successful, but we have plenty of experience of failure and there's no reason to suppose that the run of modest success will continue.

Tony Blair understands all this, as his speech to the Labour conference last week made clear. Whether his government has been as effective as it might in responding is something people have to make their minds up about. The question for the Tories, whoever ends up leading them, is whether they are more or less nimble in the way they respond to these global forces. Paradoxically, how a government responds to the things it cannot directly control has become more important than how it manages the things it can control.

To explain: take healthcare. Britain is unusual in the degree of control exerted by central government, for the NHS is particularly monolithic. The things that affect people's long-term health and longevity, though, include lifestyle, exercise, diet, changes in family structure and so on. Of course, how the NHS develops matters tremendously - it would be absurd to pretend otherwise - but a generation hence, the health of the nation will have been affected more by our response to the threat of obesity, binge drinking, smoking and so on than the number of hospital beds right now.

The task of the Tories, then, is not just to be better managers of the chunks of public services, though we should demand that of them. It's whether they understand better the scale of these grand global forces and whether they can create an approach to government that responds appropriately to them.

So what are these forces? I would list four, others would doubtless add more. Mine are ageing, the environment, technology and, of course, globalisation. A word about each.

The consequences of our ageing societies are at least now on the political agenda, with the Government setting up the commission under Adair Turner as part of a national debate. But the test for the Tories is not just whether they can come up with better ideas about pensions. That's the mechanical aspect of this. It has to be done and, the earlier the start, the better. But the bigger social aspects are even more important.

So it would be good to know more about Tory ideas on societal change - yes, there is something called society. How, for example, do we persuade people to work longer, not because they are forced to by penury in old age, but because society can find ways of creating enjoyable and flexible jobs. Governments won't create those jobs, but they can remove roadblocks in the paths of companies, voluntary organisations and so on that can. How do we make more "good'' jobs and how do we make "bad'' ones better? How do we nudge people towards respecting all jobs?

The environment: energy is one area where the UK has done some things right, not so much by building wind power stations all over the place but by creating an energy efficient economy. We consume less per unit of output than any other G7 country. We are not even in the top 10 consumers of oil, astounding for the world's fourth largest economy. But we have to accept that what we do on energy use is not going to change the world, although it is maybe worth doing in its own right.

But the environment is not just about energy or global warming. It's about creating a pleasant total environment for people, and here we have done less well. Planning controls have left us with ugly buildings and tiny, expensive new homes. City centres are less pleasant than those of many continental cities.

So it would be great to have a Tory leader who understood that dealing with the environment is not just about replacing nuclear power stations but revitalising city centres. Here, the political leader who seems to have learned most about that - from cities such as Copenhagen - is Ken Livingstone, whatever you think about his technique of application. Why should the need to make city centres safe and pleasant come from the left, not from the right? In the past, it was the left that made the huge errors of council tower blocks and the right that realised giving tenants the power to buy might to some extent alleviate the evils the planners had created.

Technology: governments don't create technology, indeed, they are rather slow adopters of it. But there are things that governments can do to remove the roadblocks in the take-up of technology. The EU's Lisbon agenda is supposed to speed up the development of technology in Europe. But that approach is surely discredited. We are losing ground, not gaining it. What a wise Tory government would do would be to find out why good technology graduates go to study and work in the US as well as why a lot of good continental graduates come to the UK. The Tories are supposed to understand the interplay between human motives and the market mechanism, aren't they?

And globalisation? It's too vast a subject to do more than scratch the surface, though, of course, our response is of the highest importance. I suppose, in a nutshell, the advent of the two huge new labour forces of China and India on to the global marketplace means that we - in the UK and in the developed world - have to figure out what we can do that other people on the other side of the world cannot do as well or better.

What are we, deep down, really good at? The market will give some answers and politicians have to accept those, or, if the voters demand it, maybe try to resist them. The Tories' instinct would be to listen to the market, but I don't think that's enough. It would be good to see from the new leader what they really thought about the way this group of talented, interesting, inventive, sometimes unruly people who live in this place we call the United Kingdom see their role in the world. Then we would know whether to vote for the Tories or not.