Michael Ancram: We must stop talking to ourselves

Even the rather regrettable Tory blame-games have failed to raise a flicker of public reaction
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The Independent Online

Rarely can the British public have been subjected to such an outpouring of political philosophy as in the last three months; and rarely can they have been so uninterested. Even the rather regrettable Tory blame-games of the last few days have failed to raise a flicker of public reaction. Quite simply, "the political game" is turning people off.

Democracy used to be about which brand of politics offered people the best. Today, it is about whether politics matters to people at all. It is about falling turnouts, maverick votes in referendums, and a general cynicism that suggests all politicians are the same - not to be trusted.

People are not switched off from politics, as the demonstrations about the war and about hunting, and the groundswell of feelings about global poverty, clearly show. People still care about politics with a small p. They care about the issues that affect their lives and the wider world.

The fact is they are switched off from politicians, from the so-called political class - and we have only ourselves to blame. For too long we have talked among ourselves, oblivious to the feelings of people beyond. And by we I mean not only elected or aspiring politicians, but commentators and academics alike, coming together in an ill-defined but nevertheless real Westminster-centric clique. A clique which is increasingly seen to be writing and speaking chiefly about itself. We feed off each other, drawing often questionable conclusions from our own internal dialogue.

If the Conservative Party in the 21st century is to show that we actually stand for real principles which are rooted in the natural instincts of the British people, we first must show that we are no longer a part of that political class. We need to show that we are talking to people leading real lives in the real world and not just to ourselves. We need to show that we trust people more than we trust political systems. We failed to do so at the last election, just as we had failed to do so in 1997 and 2001. We must do so now.

Regrettably that cause is not advanced by a party which, when it should be broadening its appeal and its franchise to attract a wider potential membership, seeks to disenfranchise its members, leaving core party decisions to its MPs regardless of the fact that in opposition they are hardly geographically or socially representative of the country as a whole. That is not breaking out of the political class; it is reinforcing it.

The same goes for the assertion that politics will become more publicly acceptable if the political parties agree with one another more. I agree that the days of Yah-Boo politics are over. What I do not buy is the theory that it is somehow "more grown up" to seek consensus with our opponents. Contrived inter-party consent is what fuels public hostility to the political class.

Of course it is wrong to oppose simply for opposition's sake. Of course it is right to support a government when it is "doing the right thing" - and that must include on national security in times of danger or grave threat. It is a very different matter to reach artificial political agreements behind closed doors, bypassing the main duty of opposition to test legislation and to hold the Government to account.

We must dispel the notion that consensus politics wins hearts and minds. European examples of coalition government or "cohabitation" demonstrate that contrived consensus is increasingly seen by the public as synonymous with the sort of cosy self-serving political freemasonry they suspect and instinctively mistrust. It diminishes political choice, which in turn undermines political freedom. It lacks any sense of vision or idealism.

We need unequivocally to be clear in our own minds as to what we believe in and what we stand for. Then we must acknowledge and reflect the structural, attitudinal and aspirational changes in Britain of recent years in the way we rearticulate our beliefs and principles.

As Conservatives we should believe in people, not systems; in individual freedom and the right to choose; in the smaller state, in value for taxpayers' money, in being the "good neighbour"; in the family; in protecting and conserving our environment; and above all in the resolute defence of our sovereignty and our country without which none of the foregoing can be assured.

And then we should dream a little - "of things that have not been and ask why not", in the words of George Bernard Shaw. Why not a Britain strong but kind, resilient but tolerant, outward looking but true to its instincts and values? Why not a Britain where people are free to control their own lives, free to enjoy the fruits of their own efforts? Why not a Britain where low taxation is an established objective and regulation is the exception? Why not a Britain where being the good neighbour comes naturally? Why not a Britain where caring for our environment is instinctive?

And finally why not a Britain where defence of our sovereignty is paramount, where pride in our country is encouraged, and where Great Britain becomes a source of stability and of hope in our increasingly turbulent world?

And if all this means dismantling the Nanny State, if it means the eradication of "political correctness", or renegotiating the treaties of the EU, so be it. This is not the stuff of the political class, but it is the stuff of clear democratic choice and political will.

The writer is deputy leader of the Conservative Party