The major issue at the next general election will not just be who runs Britain for the next few years but whether there is a Britain left to run at the end of it. Labour and Liberal Democrat plans would pass so many powers to Brussels and to devolved assemblies within the United Kingdom that democracy would be dramatically changed and weakened. We believe in devolving more power and choice to individuals, families, companies and free institutions. Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians believe in giving politicians and bureaucrats more control over people's lives and in ensuring that that control is exercised to an ever greater extent in Brussels and in regional assemblies as well as at Westminster.
This is a recipe not only for over-government but for bad government. It is a strange response to the public distaste for politics in general. It is a recipe for endless clashes between the different levels of government fighting for power and for influence over people's lives.
Let's begin with tax. Put up to pay for the costs of the recession in the early Nineties, tax is higher than we would like. The recession cut tax revenues and put up the bills for unemployment benefit and income support. The proceeds from taxation will grow naturally as the recovery advances - as more people find jobs and work overtime, as companies make bigger profits and as more business is transacted. Simultaneously the costs of unemployment benefit and unemployment- related income support will fall. More money will be spent on important public services but this will represent a diminishing proportion of our national income and wealth. It will leave space to reduce borrowing and to cut taxes. The Chancellor is right to say it must be done only when it is prudent to do so. The public is right to expect a Conservative administration to reach that point as quickly as possible and to deliver on our promises.
The single most important divide on domestic policy remains the distinction between the tax-and-spend Liberals and Labour, and the more controlled approach of the Conservatives.
We have seen, elsewhere in the world, phenomenal turnarounds. Election victories have been won by Conservative-inclined politicians and parties that have had the courage to produce programmes of radical reform to reduce the tentacles of the corporate state. Newt Gingrich stormed through in the United States. The Canadian Conservatives achieved a major victory in Ontario. Throughout the Western world there is growing irritation with big government, unresponsive government, too much government.
Of course people want enough well-paid teachers in their local schools. Naturally, people want more well-trained doctors and nurses to cater for their increasing health demands. What they don't want is an ever-growing army of officials and bureaucrats from Europe, from Whitehall and from the local council regulating and prying into their every deed and word. They are suspicious of some of the high salaries and perks in the public sector.
The impatience with the quality, scale and range of government is becoming obvious with people's reactions to local government in the United Kingdom. The Islington childcare scandal has revealed how badly awry a ``caring'' department can go when the wrong political direction is set out by councillors. The decision by Mid-Glamorgan county councillors to increase their allowances by 388 per cent led to Labour MPs intervening to try to dissuade them. I naturally look at Labour and Liberal Democrat examples of bad government - and there are many of those - but, in one sense, I do so with a heavy heart because these stories help to undermine the credibility and public support for government in general.
The answer has to be for government to do less, but to do it better. The role of the regulator has to be split more often from that of the person or company delivering the service. More services must be supplied as a result of open and fair competition. Contracts must be precisely monitored; they must set out the quality expected, there must be proper complaints procedures, the public must be reassured that all has been done fairly in the best way that the talent of Britain can muster.
True devolution is the most exciting Conservative policy of the 1990s, mirroring the great success of privatisation in the 1980s. We strongly object to Labour's ideas that devolution should look backwards to the 1960s and 1970s, to the age of big government where it was assumed that politicians and bureaucrats knew best. True devolution should give power to the people, should understand that people are becoming better educated, better informed, more capable of making choices. People expect to exercise the same choice over health care and education as they do over their choice of holiday or family car. They are, after all, paying similarly large sums of money for healthcare and education through the tax system.
We are not suggesting any change in the fundamental principles of our welfare state - that health and education should be provided free for all who need it. As we take pounds 8,000 in tax from the typical family for these services we need to give them more choice within the freely provided system.
The existence of city technology colleges, grammar schools, comprehensive schools, grant-maintained and church schools means that parents in many parts of the country have a choice of where to send their children. We need to make sure there is sufficient choice and that, wherever possible, parents can get their children into their first choice of school. I do not want a world where those with money have real choice but those in the state sector have only the local comprehensive whether it's good, bad or indifferent.
Only the Conservative Party believes in keeping the United Kingdom together, without devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and at regional levels. Only the Conservative Party believes we need less, not more, government and rejects entirely the idea that the UK's problems could best be solved by the injection of more politicians and bureaucrats into government. The British constitution is unwritten and has evolved. That is its great strength. It has managed to accommodate major changes. We have seen the arrival of the universal franchise, the emancipation of women, the development of trade unions, the evolution of the lobby and protest movement. All of these have been accommodated within its flexible unwritten provisions responding in line with the general view of the day. To codify and ossify could threaten this settlement.