The almost extraordinary and extremely competent assault right across the policy spectrum at the Labour Party conference, not to mention Tony Blair's speech itself, shows us what we are up against. We are going to have to react soon on so many fronts that we have little time to lose in deciding what sort of party we are. The temptation will be to go to the right, to create a difference, to establish "clear blue water". Should we elect to do this, we should realise that Labour is now occupying the political centre in the best One Nation Conservative tradition. "New Labour" has expanded into "New Labour, New Britain" and the message is getting home.
Labour is the Government, has the policies, sets the agenda and has the political strength to see it through. In the face of all this our Conservative position is sad and could be disastrous for the party's future. At the centre of it all is the constitutional agenda. But, after the sterility of the Thatcher years and the completely negative attitude of John Major's administration, we hardly know where we stand on anything. The first rays of change and a constructive approach over the acceptance of the referenda results and House of Lords reform are welcome, but we have an awful long way to go.
In a very real sense the constitutional issues, which must include Europe, provide a striking example of what has happened to the party I joined. Under Edward Heath in the early Seventies, the Conservative Party and government was the party of Europe, internationalist rather than nationalist; and, most importantly, it was beginning the voyage towardsmuch-needed constitutional reform. After Heath's Perth speech, we were, as a party, in favour of Scottish devolution. Lord Home of the Hirsel was asked to chair a committee and produce a report on the reform of the House of Lords, which eventually came out under the new leadership in 1977 and was well and truly shelved. All this was 20 to 25 years ago!
In 1975, under Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative approach on Scottish devolution was changed, and formally recorded in a Commons vote, to be against such devolution in anticipation of Labour's legislation on the subject. A number of us abstained in protest, including several distinguished future servants of the party. In the years that followed, the party's attitude on constitutional issues represented the same nationalist or English Unionist mentality as increasingly became visible over Europe. It is very sad that the Major years compounded the problem, greatly weakening the capacity of the party's leaders to face up to these issues. It has left us in a policy vacuum that the present leadership has got to get out of if we are ever again to be a government.
Obviously we cannot just change everything overnight, or eat our own words other than in digestible doses. But a start must be made and a sense of direction established. We must begin with the fundamental point that the main constitutional issues are related to each other, hence the "constitutional agenda". One leads on to the other. Future powers of European institutions take us to our national government, then to the House of Commons and its reform, to the House of Lords, to devolution, to regional government and so on. The fact that, of necessity, these questions will be dealt with piecemeal should not obscure their interdependence.
This is not an article about the European Union, but the Conservative Party must at least start to change direction on Europe. Our position on the single currency, committing us to "Never, but never say never, so let's say 10 years" is frankly untenable. It is not enough to sit back and say that we are in opposition now, so Labour will make all the important decisions for us and then we can govern again as if nothing has happened. We have to get back into government first, and fighting the next election against a single currency will not help. Apart from a few eccentric millionaires, this policy will increasingly diminish the major donations to Conservative Party funds, not to mention the membership or support of the "movers and shakers".
Then comes the Commons and its eventual reform. The new generation increasingly sees its ways as antique and change is in the air. Linked to this is the over-confrontational nature of our system, and attitudes to proportional representation. Sooner or later there will be PR for European elections. A commission is about to be established by the Government, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, to consider electoral reform for the House of Commons. A referendum could well follow. The Conservative Party should have views and be part of all this.
The same goes for reform of the House of Lords. When it comes to the governance of our country, it is no longer possible to defend the hereditary principle. We should use Labour's essentially interim measure to move the argument on to the sort of upper house that would be best for Britain.
Then we get to devolution. Walking around during the devolution campaigns just saying "No" has done nothing for the Conservative position in either Scotland or Wales. These measures should be seen as presenting a great opportunity. For Conservatives to be able to fight seats in Scotland and Wales free of the English dimension, or the perception that they are the English party, could provide a considerable advantage over their present lamentable situation.
Regional government will take longer but a climate is steadily being created where it could come about sooner than we think. The first challenge will be in London and there is little doubt that the Government's proposals will be as welcome as they are exciting to Londoners. Our first reaction of 50 per cent acceptance - yes to a mayor, no to an elected council - is at least something, but it is inadequate. A mayor or any elected leader must have his counterbalancing assembly elected on the same basis as himself. The boroughs should have an active role, but it should be consultative.
One could go on into local government but, in the light of the somewhat patchy reform that we put through in the wake of the poll tax debacle, perhaps that is enough for the moment. Suffice it to say that our system is perhaps the most over-centralised in the democratic world and provides little incentive for anyone to go into local government. We should be devolving rather than trying to stoke up fears of the break-up of the United Kingdom, making constant references to the unitary state, unionism and all the rest of it. That talk belongs to the past and, to govern, the Conservative Party must belong to the future.
All this is written by a Conservative who has not compromised his views and remains the same political person he was when he joined the party in 1958. While there must be change in any institution, including a political party, it would be nice to be able to say that, in the case of my party, change has been for the better. That I cannot frankly do, but we are making a "fresh start", so let's get up and go somewhere!