Why Redwood is not the answer

This platform is not nearly radical enough, says Dominic Hobson
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The Independent Online
The Conservative Party needs a radical, populist programme on which to fight the next election. The curious document published yesterday by John Redwood is not it. Instead, it is an undisguised attempt to build a coalition of Conservative parliamentarians sufficiently large to unseat the Prime Minister. And it is a further reminder that the Conservative Party is unlikely to adopt the populist measures it needs to recover its electoral support until the left of the party parts company with the right. When that split occurs, the crucial fissure will not be the European divide, but the gulf which now separates the liberal individualists from the Tory collectivists.

It is because the party is divided that Redwood opens his manifesto with a stirring call for lower taxation. Conservatives of all persuasions can agree on that at least. But the hard part is to turn the principle of lower taxation into reality, given the countervailing political pressures to maintain public expenditure. On this harder test, Redwood is less than convincing.

Meaningful cuts in taxation depend on real cuts in public expenditure. Redwood is not offering them. Expenditure on defence and public-sector pay will actually go up. He proposes to pay for the increases by eliminating government waste and bureaucracy. This is disingenuous. When the Conservatives were last in opposition in the Seventies, they envisaged making immediate savings of up to pounds 2bn a year. But in the event they managed to trim just over pounds 100m a year.

On schools, Redwood has nothing original to say. Yet education is in desperate need of sweeping reforms in organisation, ownership and funding. Despite expenditure of pounds 35bn a year, a significant proportion of children leave school unable to read, write and add up. Like any nationalised industry, the schools are dominated by producer interests. Their chief characteristics are low standards, drab uniformity, creeping centralisation, an obsession with justice rather than excellence and a depressing emphasis on the production of "skills" for industry. A truly radical programme would seek to restore diversity and excellence to schools by withdrawing the state from education altogether through a mixture of vouchers, endowments and fee-paying.

Another lacuna is welfare reform. Hostels for the homeless and helping pensioners with their shopping are laudable enough. But they do not even begin to tackle the perverse incentives - not to work, not to save and not to train - created by a system of means-tested benefits. Britain needs an intelligent welfare state which helps people to escape the misery of poverty and unemployment through their own efforts. In the short term that may mean increasing social security spending. The welfare state is already incubating a social crisis. If it is not reformed, that crisis will one day explode.

On Europe, Redwood has declared himself against a single currency and in favour of subsidiarity. But the question is more fundamental than the division of sovereignty between Westminster and Brussels. The British people need to rediscover their historic destiny as offshore islanders trading with the world. That probably means withdrawing from Europe altogether. It may also mean dissolving the United Kingdom.

Yet Redwood is opposed both to secession from Europe and to devolution for Scotland and Wales. The constitutional questions will not disappear simply because the right refuses to answer them.

The Redwood manifesto is unlikely to restore a sense of purpose to a bewildered Conservative Party. Most of the ingredients of a successful populist programme are there - lower taxation, anti-Europeanism, and crackdowns on criminals and bureaucrats - but they are not yet woven into a coherent and compelling political narrative. Calls for lower taxation will remain rhetorical unless combined with radical welfare and education reforms. Lower taxation is the leitmotif of a successful populist programme. The mistake the New Right made in the Eighties was to concentrate on public expenditure. It is now obvious that the state cannot be shrunk until it is denied the means of expansion.

The writer is co-author with Alan Duncan of 'Saturn's Children', published by Sinclair Stevenson at pounds 16.99.