Why this was the moment to defect

Hugh Dykes
Sunday 14 September 1997 23:02

I have been a member of the Conservative Party for 37 years, and served as Conservative MP for Harrow East for 27 years until this May. This week I have finally decided to leave the party, and to join Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats. My decision is by no means a sudden impulse. It is the sad conclusion of a long period of soul-searching - the inevitable result of the Conservative Party's steady drift away from the principles and policies which I hold dear and which attracted me to the party all those years ago.

I have always been a "One Nation" Conservative, believing in social justice, committed to the European ideal, and a supporter of the sensible modernisation of our political system. On all these issues it is not so much a case of me leaving the Conservative Party, but of the party leaving me. It is good fortune for Britain that in the Liberal Democrats we have a party that has stood firm on what really matters to our future. I believe Paddy Ashdown is an extremely impressive leader, and I am proud to become the party's newest member today.

I have had growing concerns about the direction the Conservative Party has taken in recent years - doubts which I tried to stifle as the election approached. The row in January with my local executive - when its members blocked my attempt to participate with Labour and the Liberal Democrats in a review of constitutional issues - left a nasty taste in my mouth.

Inside, I felt uneasy about the rightward drift of social policy, about the growing divisions in our society and about the increasingly harsh tone of government pronouncements; I felt bitter about the closure of Edgware General Hospital, and about the impact of the loss of such front- line NHS services on the people I was in Parliament to serve. I felt that the Conservative Party ought to have been prepared to engage in a more rational debate about the modernisation of our constitution. I despaired at the party's drift into an insulting, isolationist anti-Europeanism that has only damaged Britain's interests and undermined our influence abroad. All these matters were important but, in so many ways, Europe was the deciding issue which obliged me to take this difficult decision.

The Conservative Party I joined was one that understood that Britain's place was at the heart of Europe, shaping Europe's future. The Conservatives in those days understood, in particular, that the best interests of British business lay in a positive and constructive pro-Europeanism. I rejoiced when Ted Heath's government joined the then European Economic Community in 1972.

The importance of Europe to the UK is as great today as it ever was. I want to be a member of a party which sees Britain's future firmly at the centre of Europe - a full partner in building a more integrated, more prosperous and more secure continent as we enter the next century. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party has given up that vision. It no longer speaks up for the interests of British business in the European debate.

The conduct of the Conservative election campaign filled me with gloom. I am not surprised that I and other MPs lost our seats, particularly when I recall the sorry progress of the cash-for-questions affair, and the chaos and confusion of our European policy as the anti-Europeans came to dictate the party's policy.

Even after the disaster on 1 May, I thought it would be worth one last stand to save the party, to which I have dedicated my political life, from the inexorable drift to the right (when Central Office raised the issue, I considered trying to get the nomination for the Uxbridge by-election). But the final nail in the coffin of my hopes was Ken Clarke's defeat at the hands of William Hague. I realised then that the battle for the soul of the Conservative Party was lost, finally and conclusively.

Many of my erstwhile colleagues, sick at heart as I am, are still agonising. Others have decided to remain, however unhappily, in the party to which they have always belonged. I respect their decision, but after long thought I decided I had to act. I feel what I have done represents the views of hundreds of thousands of former Tories.

After talking things through with Richard Holme, who masterminded the Lib-Dem election campaign, I met and talked to Paddy Ashdown direct, just before Parliament went into recess. In France over the summer we met again, and talked about the state of British politics, about the Conservative Party, about Europe. We discussed a wide range of policy issues, and agreed on much.

I have always been a liberal Conservative, valuing tolerance, decency and fairness. These "One Nation" values were once very strong in the Conservative Party. But I believe the party gradually lost touch with these traditional British values, on which its broad appeal had always been built. As I considered my political future, and read through the Liberal Democrat election manifesto, I was struck by the way these values ran through the text and the policies - decency, a sense of fair play, and a basic tolerance. I was also impressed by the straight-forwardness of their message on the issue of tax - that if you want better schools and hospitals, you have to be prepared to pay for them. I saw not only a party I could respect but also a party I could feel at home in.

I was impressed, too, by the decision of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties to sit down and talk about the implementation of constitutional reform, even before the election, and to invite me as a Tory MP to join in this exercise before the election, and I would have liked the Conservatives to have made a more positive contribution to the constitutional debate, as the party did back in the 1960s and 1970s. As we enter a new century, I believe there are a number of important reforms needed to our constitutional arrangements. The wider the consensus these reforms can command, the more stable they are likely to be. That has been shown in Scotland over recent years, and I hope it will be shown again as plans to give London its own strategic voice are developed in the months ahead. I see the joint Cabinet Committee on the Constitution as a sensible means of developing a consensus around reform, and a welcome expression of a less tribal style of politics.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I see in the Liberal Democrats kindred spirits on the key issue of Europe. The European commitment of the Liberal Democrats, and of the Liberals and SDP before them, has been unswerving. Like me, they see Britain's future firmly at the heart of Europe. They argue the pro-European case as a matter of principle. They understand why greater sharing of power, at a European level, is actually in Britain's interest, and have been unswerving advocates of the positive case for Britain joining a single European currency. At their conference in Eastbourne next week, in a debate in which I hope to be called to speak, they will set out a positive agenda for Europe after the Amsterdam summit, moving the debate forward instead of letting it stagnate.

At the end of our long discussions, Paddy invited me to join the party, and I accepted with pleasure. I don't feel I have left my home. I feel I have come home. The Conservative Party has changed, beyond recognition. British politics is changing, too. I am delighted that I am now with people whose views are closer to mine than the views of many I shared the Commons benches with in the last Parliament. It will be marvellous to be at the Liberal Democrat conference in Eastbourne next week, speaking up for what I believe, instead of apologising for what I abhor.

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