Edward Leigh: The Future of Conservatism

A speech to the Cambridge Union Society, 19th October 2011

Young people are being put off politics by the concentration of political parties on the centre ground – it is difficult to distinguish between compassionate conservatism, and New-Labour policies. Whilst there is certainly a difference between the two main parties, it is not enough to allow people to be excited or committed to one or the other. Although young people may nominally support one party or another, the consequences of losing an election are as meagre as the gains from winning when policies are so similar. For people to be more excited about politics the Conservatives need to be more, and visibly, conservative; and the Labour party must be correspondingly more socialist. We must return to a choice between red and blue as opposed to one between different shades of grey.

I can’t pretend to be an expert on socialism, but I can outline a future for the Conservative party – a future which returns to the great traditions of the Conservative past. Conservatism must return to the three fundamental strands on which it is based: freedom, patriotism and tradition. Freedom is a fundamental aim of conservatism and is reflected in current conservative policy allowing more freedom to schools through the academy programme, and the NHS though the abolition of PCTs. We should, however, go further – we should move to a much simplified tax system, and eventually as far as a flat tax; we should abolish disincentives to prosper, including the 50% tax rate; and we should stem the tide of political correctness sweeping and restricting Britain. To this end, we should press further with educational freedom to allow headmasters in the maintained state sector to have the same freedom to hire and fire teachers, expel and select pupils, and run their schools as those in the private sector have enjoyed for centuries. In the health sector, those who choose alternative provision, reducing the load on the NHS without reducing its income, should pay their health insurance contributions free from tax.

The second main strand of conservatism is patriotism – pride in Great Britain. It is this pride which should allow us to take pride in our public buildings and institutions which are the envy of the world, rather than disparaging them. It is also this which should spur us to provide a defence force which allows us both to defend our interests at home and abroad, and also to protect our influence on the world stage. We must therefore do all we can to maintain strong defence spending, particularly on the Royal Navy, and as part of this should lose no time in restoring our independent Aircraft Carrier capability.

The final main strand of conservatism is that of tradition – the rejection of the arrogance that believes that we alone can create a better system of government, or write better laws, than the combined knowledge of all who have gone before. This traditionalism should lead us to defend our great institutions and laws, spiritual and temporal, built though the skill of our ancestors – it is not dogmatic, but rather pragmatic. As Iain McLeod said, ‘Labour may scheme their schemes, Liberals may dream their dreams, but we have work to do.’

The crucial distinction to make in modern politics is between actions motivated by conscience, and those caused by the law of the jungle. Crucially, one must recognise the role that religion can play in supporting a guiding conscience, and act to protect and encourage the spread of faith, rather than to retard it. It is the business of any good government to support the actions motivated by conscience, and that is what lies at the heart of Conservatism. By returning to these principles the Conservative party will both help the country and re-ignite interest, and participation, in true politics.