21 SEPTEMBER 1991, Page 6


The clever Tories who are far too clever to have any new ideas


At Conservative Central Office on Tuesday, ten whizz-kid Tory prospective candidates were presenting their opinions on the Way Forward, their Vision for Britain in the Nineties, the Tasks that Lie Ahead. The title they had chosen for their collective statement was 'Bearing the Stan- dard: Themes for a Fourth Term', which I suppose ensures that they will be known collectively as 'the standard bearers'. Since several of them had previously been special advisers to government ministers (Charles Hendry was an adviser to Tony Newton, David Lidington advised Douglas Hurd, and David Willetts was a member of Mrs Thatcher's Policy Unit), they must have decided that this title would be an improve- ment on 'the bag-carriers'.

Would 'the rag-bag-carriers' have been an apter phrase for the authors of this document, I wondered? But I was being unfair, at least so far as any implications of disorganisation and jumble are concerned. Their 'Themes for a Fourth Term' have been expertly pieced together in such a way that nothing obviously contradicts anything else. They are in favour of social cohesion, and of greater individual free- dom. They are in favour of Britain's unique traditions, and of a socio-economic system which is 'blind to birth and back- ground'. There are some things that they are against: they 'want no truck with artificial constructions like English region- al authorities', and would even restore some of the old counties. Against artificial constructions? Can that possibly mean . . .? With a slight rush of blood to the head one fumbles for the section called 'Steering a Course in Europe'. Ah, here it is: they are in favour of the EEC moving forward, so long as it does so 'in the right direction'. Yes, well. I suppose it depends which way you're facing.

'What they say must be interesting,' said someone from Central Office as we chatted afterwards, 'because they are all such high-flyers.' On the contrary, I decided, it is because they are high-flyers that what they say cannot be interesting. These are all people who are not going to put a foot wrong until they have made it over the threshold of the Cabinet Room. They may have all sorts of brilliant ideas on how to change government policy on this topic or that; but their main aim when expressing those ideas must be to ensure that they do not sound as if they are criticising any aspect of present government policies whatsoever. Once they are ministers, of course, they will have to spend their time dressing up stale policies as `initiatives'; until then, they must do exactly the oppo- site.

This reduces us commentators to some- thing more like Kremlinologists. For what it is worth, my Kremlinological reading of 'Bearing the Standard' is that it is a basically dry, Thatcherite statement set out in slightly more Majorite terms (but not, thank God, in Pattenese: the terms, 'social market', 'Christian Democrat' and 'feder- al' are conspicuously absent). Strong on the continuation of free-market reforms, and emphatic that public spending on welfare should be more efficient and not necessarily more huge, it seems to get much of the general picture right, but has snapped it through a soft-focus lens. The hard edges are missing. In the section on welfare, for example, it argues that 'a growing private welfare sector' should be a long term priority. How can a government make this happen? Does it mean encourag- ing people to opt out of state welfare altogether? An independent think-tank such as the Adam Smith Institute could suggest ways of doing that, some of them politically unpalatable. But a group of high-flyer prospective Tory candidates can- not be expected to take such risks; they are the star apprentices in the Cordon Bleu school of political palatability.

Given the inherent tendency of our system of politics to stifle original thinking and strangle awkward new ideas at birth, it is a marvel that so many have survived and grown and made it to adulthood. During the Thatcher years one might often have been forgiven for wondering, like an unen- lightened child: where do baby policies come from? Not from Tory MPs — that much was obvious. Some from ministers, perhaps, or at least from their ideological bag-carriers (before they landed safe Tory seats). Many seemed to come from the Prime Minister's Policy Unit; but most of those were fostered there, rather than conceived. The Unit was far too busy conducting guerrilla warfare against gov- ernment departments.

The simple answer would be that the most important source of new policies in recent history has been the think-tanks: the Adam Smith Institute, the Social Affairs Unit, the IEA, the CPS et al. But any simple description of what these bodies have done would be a false one. Their most valuable effect on policy has been long- term and indirect: over nearly 35 years, the IEA has changed the way people think by putting a whole range of ideas into more general currency among academics, politi- cians and economic journalists. Sometimes a think-tank scores a direct hit with a policy proposal (privatisations, contracting-out, sale of council houses, scrapping exchange controls), but sometimes it can pound away for year after year and achieve nothing (education vouchers). The best achievements of the think-tanks seem to come about when they are not trying to do the Government's work for it: once they start trying to find new solutions to the Government's problems, they start seeing things through the Government's own nar- row viewfinder. The best thing the think- tanks can do is not to find new solutions, but to find new problems.

During the Thatcher decade, the think- tanks became burdened with success. 'Suc- cess' was measured, increasingly, in terms of direct influence — a dubious procedure, rather like measuring the succession of professors of Eng. Lit. by the number of new novels being written which embody their critical theories. Influence means power, and power means politics. Academics and economists find this a natural and flattering progression, and do not seem to realise that the only reason why their think-tanking activities gained such influence in the first place was that they were able to look at things in a not-quite-political way.

Some change of this kind has taken place at the IEA over the last couple of years. (The resignation of its co-founder, Lord Harris, has concentrated attention on some current squabbles; but the true problems are long-term.) Conversely, the Govern- ment seems increasingly to view think- tanks and pressure-groups as instruments of its own policy-making process — hence the extraordinary treatment of the Bruges Group by Mr Chris Patten, who has 'punished' it by forbidding ministers to speak to it (while not minding if they speak to Marxism Today). The supply of original thinking is running dangerously low. One can only hope that when the whizz-kid 'standard-bearers' finally reach their min- isterial desks, they have not entirely for- gotten how to do it.