Where next for Tory modernisation? The first point is that it never ends. The Conservative party could not have survived and thrived as the longest standing and most successful political party in history without continually updating ourselves. Modernisation is one of our most important traditions.
The second point is that modernising is not ideological. Still less is it about making ourselves less conservative or tacking to the left. Indeed, in the 1970s and ’80s modernisation was about detaching ourselves from an outdated corporatist consensus from which particularly younger people felt increasingly alienated.
The third point is that it isn’t superficial or about appearances. It is about showing that we understand the concerns and challenges, the hopes and aspirations, of contemporary Britons. And offering authentic conservative answers to them, that plainly flow from genuine concern for the good of the country rather than our own sectional interest as a party.
I think I’m much the same Conservative today as I was when I was one of Margaret Thatcher’s young ministers. I’m fiscally conservative, favour free markets and a smaller state, sensibly Eurosceptic and pro-business. However, I’m more socially liberal today – but then so is the country. The centre of gravity of social attitudes has moved significantly towards much greater tolerance and respect. The Conservative party doesn’t have to run ahead of society – but it can’t lag too far behind either.
In 2005, I showed the Conservative party conference what became known as my ‘killer slide’. It showed that our immigration policy of the time secured the support of two-thirds of the public when tested ‘blind’, but support halved to only a third when it was identified as a Conservative policy. That was because the attitudes and outlook that people attributed to the party devalued the policy. I remember at that time a distinguished conservative commentator saying: ‘So you think good conservative policies damage the party?’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘The party damages good conservative policies.’
Happily those days are gone. David Cameron is leading a government that is shrinking the state, giving power to consumers of public services at the expense of bureaucrats, reforming public sector pensions, cutting immigration, and committing to an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU. And by and large we are doing these things without being thought to be backward-looking, public-sector hating, little Englander reactionaries, exploiting populist issues for our partisan political gain.
So is everything fine? Can we just rest on our laurels? Of course not. We forget that in 1979 Margaret Thatcher secured more support from voters under the age of 35 than from over-35s. She was talking about a Britain in tune with the hopes of younger people: with more control over their lives, better able to get on, a country no longer doomed to long-term decline. What are their concerns today? They’re internationalist, with a global rather than narrowly European horizon. They know we’re in a competitive world and need to run faster and be better to succeed. They’re sceptical of the power of the state: they want more information and ability to take decisions themselves. They’re reluctant to accept what they’re told by bureaucrats and politicians. They want to be able to own their own homes and get a proper reward for hard work and enterprise. And they want their politicians to be on their side, not to be self-serving. They want us to be in tune with Britain as it is, not as it was. That’s the problem for Ukip – they’ve become the ‘bring back party’, transfixed by a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.
And so for conservatives, modernisation or evolution is not something we are or will ever be done with. It’s crucial to us winning the backing of the public now and in the future.