Iain Duncan Smith – 2002 Nicholas Ridley Memorial Lecture

Ian  Duncan Smith
Ian Duncan Smith

The below speech was made by the then Leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, on the 21st November 2002. The speech was made as the Nicholas Ridley Memorial Lecture and held at the Portman Hotel, Portman Square, London.

There are three popular prejudices about modern politicians.

The first is that they have no interests outside politics.

The second is that they are all spin and no substance.

And the third is that they are desperate to please whoever they happen to be talking to at the time.

Well, none of these were true of Nick Ridley. It is a real privilege to give this lecture in his honour tonight.

It would be an understatement to say that Nick liked to speak his mind.

He was that rare creature in Conservative politics of the 1980’s, a dry who was a patrician dry.

He was once emerged from a debate when he was a Foreign Office Minister, having been needled by a Labour MP, and muttered under his breath: “He was my fag at Eton, I wish I had beaten him more.”

The object of his wrath was – Tam Dalyell.

Nick was a younger son, and knew he was never going to have a large and comfortable inheritance.

Instead, he was going to have to make his own way in the world.

Perhaps this is why he seemed to see himself as an outsider.

He genuinely saw himself as fighting for the little man, struggling on a modest income, who couldn’t afford high taxes. He loathed political correctness.

And Nick, of course, was gloriously and triumphantly politically incorrect.

This is what he wrote in his memoirs, “My Style of Government” –

“The French glory in making their lives as enjoyable as possible: I sometimes wonder whether the lobbies in Britain don’t glory in trying to make other people’s lives as unenjoyable as possible.

“We are told we must eat less fat, less cholesterol, fewer calories and all the rest of it. Growing numbers of people want to ban this, that or the other blood sport.

I hardly dare mention smoking; smokers, of which I am one, are treated like outcasts.”

Gordon Brown said that when Nick was a Minister his idea of the perfect office was an empty in-tray, an empty out-tray…and a full ashtray.

But Nick’s eccentricities were based on a practical judgement of what would worked and what wouldn’t.

There was a time when he was in Brussels to attend a meeting of the Council of Ministers.

The night before, he and his team of officials had a briefing meeting in his hotel room over supper, but the room was overheated.

The air conditioning was out of control and the windows were sealed, much to Nick’s fury.

So after the team of officials had left, he removed all his clothes before starting to work on his briefing papers.

At that point the waiter arrived to remove the remains of supper to find the British Minister naked at his desk, just like a scene from Monty Python.

Nick’s quirkiness and angularity, his originality and outspokenness, reflected the character of a man who had lots of interests outside politics – more than I can possibly do justice to.

Engineer, architect, writer and cook, Nick helped create one of the finest water gardens in England in his own house with his own hands, and was a distinguished painter of watercolours – one of the most gifted artists in the Commons since Winston Churchill.

He also designed the gates that now stand at the end of Downing Street a few feet away from the Cenotaph.

Apparently, there had been a bureaucratic muddle about the construction of the gates. Nick was present during a Cabinet discussion about how to resolve it.

“If my grandfather could design the Cenotaph,” he said. “I can surely design the gates.”

And he did there and then. It took him twenty seconds.

The breadth of Nick’s interests helps to explain what for me was the most important aspect of his public life.

The last century was shaped partly by those who believed that politics is the be-all and end-all of human existence.

By Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao-Tse-Tung.

By the ideologies of fascism, communism, and socialism.

Who dreamed, as T.S.Eliot once wrote, “of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good”.

These ideologies had their differences.

But they had one belief in common.

That government could bring about the satisfaction of all human desires.

As this century begins, those over-arching systems have collapsed into a heap of rubble.

Taking with them the lives of millions of innocents.

The belief that government can make people’s lives perfect, was anathema to Nick.

Like Sir Keith Joseph, his great contemporary, he believed that there were limits to the good which government can do, but almost no limits to the harm.

And like Sir Keith again, he played an irreplaceable part in the Conservative revolution during the opposition years of the 1970s, which prepared the way for the Thatcher governments of the 1980s.

This group, Conservative Way Forward, was founded to keep the spirit of that revolution alive, and drive it into the future.

And it can truly be said that Nick Ridley always looked for the conservative way forward.

Now, once again, we are in opposition.

Again, we seek to serve the British people in government.

However, times have changed.

During the 1980s, people were menaced by double-digit inflation, trade union power and the Cold War. Their overriding concern was their standard of living.

But today, people are confronted by the declining quality of our public services. They face queues for treatment in hospitals or for places in good schools. They have to cope with trains that don’t arrive on time and roads that are clogged by traffic. Even their pensions are in peril.

They are alarmed by the rise in violent crime, anti-social behaviour, disorder and incivility. In short, their overriding concern is their quality of life.

Times may have changed, but our beliefs should not.

They are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s and 80s.

The Conservative Party needs to take the Conservative Way Forward which inspired Nick Ridley and won us 18 uninterrupted years in office. Once again we must ignite a Conservative revolution in opposition.

And it is very clear what that revolution needs to overthrow today.

It is New Labour’s ever-growing centralised control of government, civil society and people’s lives.

Because it is centralisation which grows those queues for hospital treatment and places in good schools.

Centralisation which allows anti-social behaviour to rampage unchecked.

And centralisation which is damaging our quality of life in Britain.

It’s not just that we need less government.

We need more responsibility exercised at a local level.

I don’t just mean by that giving back more powers to local government.

I mean enabling people to take power themselves.

It’s what I call community government.

Tonight I will tell you how a Conservative Government, drawing on the concepts which inspired Nick Ridley, would help to make this idea a reality.

But first, let’s look at how the problem has grown.

There is a cycle in modern political life.

The media identifies a problem.

People demand that the problem must be solved.

They call upon central government to solve it.

So central Government forces more laws and rules and regulations through Parliament, often without proper scrutiny.

Those laws leave central Government with more power to intervene and interfere.

Because politicians at the centre feel they must keep control.

But the problem remains unsolved.

Indeed, it often gets worse.

People get frustrated with government and fed up with politicians.

Which leads to more media calls for action…

…and the cycle begins once again.

Here’s an example from the Queen’s speech.

There are media reports of bed-blocking in hospitals.

Local authorities haven’t enough places in care homes for those who are being discharged.

People demand that bed-blocking must end.

So New Labour proposes in the Queen’s Speech to fine local authorities wherever there is bed-blocking.

Of course, local authorities didn’t cause the bed-blocking.

The cause was this Labour Government.

By burdening care homes with new rafts of rules and regulations and red tape.

These rules and regulations have helped to close 60,000 care home places since New Labour came to power.

Places which would otherwise have been available to patients leaving hospital.

And which now aren’t available – hence the bed-blocking.

It is a perfect of example of central government first causing a problem and then punishing someone else for it.

And, in doing so, making the problem worse.

Because, you see, if local government is fined because beds are blocked, the consequence will be cuts in services or higher council taxes or both.

Causing people to be even more fed up and frustrated.

This is consistent with what New Labour is doing everywhere.

Five years of New Labour have seen five years of greater government power – an ever-extending web of centralization and control.

When it comes to decentralisation, their slogans are “constrained discretion” and “the new localism”.

They promise the roar of a lion – but deliver the squeak of a mouse.

Our teachers, doctors, nurses and police are being steadily buried beneath a blizzard of targets, directives, indicators, circulars, contracts, inspections, performance agreements and best practice demands.

For example, central government sets waiting times for hospital appointments.

And targets for a 50 per cent pass rate at A-C grades in GCSE exams.

But in setting artificial targets, New Labour distorts good practice.

And demoralizes doctors, teachers, nurses, and police officers at the same time.

In hospitals, urgent operations are put off so that routine operations can go ahead – because New Labour’s targets must be met.

In schools, fewer students in inner city schools gain any GCSEs at all – because New Labour’s targets must be met.

Although New Labour are incapable of meeting their own targets themselves.

New Labour has failed or is on course to fail nearly 40 percent of targets it set in 1998.

And it has failed or is on course to fail 75 percent of targets it set in 2000.

More departmental target performance figures are supposed to be released later this month. We expect more slippage, more watered down targets, more failures.This is the Labour Government’s classic combination:

More spending and more centralisation without any real reform is failing.
Productivity in the public services is actually falling.

In the Health Service, for every extra pound spent, we are only getting 60 pence worth of extra services.

But this deluge of directives is not just swamping our public services.

It is also burying what is left of local government.

Because in local government, the link between taxation and representation has been broken.

Just as, with the public services, the link between what you pay and what you get has been broken.

Central government funds 80 per cent of what local government spends.

It judges local councils against 140 specific performance indicators.

Insists they must agree up to 66 plans.

And monitors them through four different inspection regimes.

So byzantine are the financial affairs of local government that a typical local authority would need to increase council tax by two-thirds to raise local spending by 10 per cent.

And now New Labour plans to bind the hands of councils with Comprehensive Performance Assessments.

To instruct them how to spend money by using more specific grants and fewer block grants.

And impose more of John Prescott’s decisions on them through Public Service Agreements.

But this torrent of targets doesn’t just threaten public services and local government.

It threatens to bury civil society too.

Because greater centralised control by government isn’t just bad for our public services.

It isn’t just bad for local government.

And it isn’t just bad for individuals.

It’s bad for civil society as well.

There is a space between the individual and government.

Here in Britain, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, has referred to it as the “public square”.

In that public square live families, charities, clubs, colleges, voluntary groups and the faith communities. They are Britain’s free institutions.

I believe it is no coincidence that as government grows ever-bigger, the free institutions seem to shrink ever-smaller.

As central government does more, our free institutions do less.

And as our free institutions do less, our social capital declines.

Social capital is the connections between people: the self-knowledge, abilities and good habits we develop by working with others.

The local Church-run drugs counseling project and the Council meals-on-wheels service,

the Red Cross and the mothers-and-toddlers group,

the Rotary dinner and the school parenting class,

the local hunt and the debt advice centre,

the women’s self-defence class and the Sunday morning football league – all these are generators of social capital.

These generators, and others like them, encourage the work ethic, self-discipline, teamwork, helping others, and build opportunity and achievement.

If social capital declines, civil society declines with it.

And when civil society declines, people feel not more free, but less.

If there’s no order in the public square, you can’t be free in it.

In America, the academic Robert Puttnam has chronicled the decline of social capital there in his book “Bowling Alone”.

The same phenomenon is happening here.

In the 1970s, the centralised state was crowding out private capital.

In the early years of this century, it is crowding out social capital.

And this process is endangering democracy.

Let me be clear what I mean by that.

Democracy has many aspects.

Voting in elections is perhaps the most obvious.

As it happens, we’re not doing so well at that.

At the last general election, turnout fell to its lowest since the First World War.

And voters turned increasingly to single-issue candidates.

In Wyre Forest, they voted for an independent – a respected local doctor who campaigned to save Kidderminster Hospital.

Of course, he can’t save the hospital now he’s elected.

That’s centralisation for you.

In Hartlepool, during the recent Mayoral election there, they voted for a monkey.

Perhaps they were making a point about their local MP.

He was parachuted into Hartlepool from far-away London.

Again, that’s centralisation for you.

Political evolution in Hartlepool seems to work from man to monkey.

Indeed, Peter Mandelson is like a New Labour Washing Machine: he is the master of the Spin Cycle.
This is how the cycle works:

The media story,

The public protest,

The panic, spin and interference from central government,

The botched legislation,

The consequent frustration

…and the problem growing all over again.

There are many reasons why turnout in elections is falling.

With the defeat of old-fashioned socialism, the clash between the main parties lacks the drama of the Cold War years.

Rightly or wrongly, people feel that the combats in the Commons and the arcane procedures of Parliament are all too often meaningless.

They sense that there is a political vacuum in modern Britain.

That vacuum is being filled by a new governing class.
An elite of appointees accountable not to the people, but to central Government.

New peers, top judges, chief police officers, the people who run health authorities and oversee exam boards; who plan roads and railways or power stations; who design our welfare systems or administer health and safety.

In short, the quangocracy – an ugly word for an ugly thing.

But democracy is about more than just voting.
It’s also about participation in our public life and in civil society.

In building up our social capital.

And it’s no coincidence that voter turnout and public participation are falling together.

New Labour believe that the public services and local government are accountable to central government.

Well this is a meagre view of accountability.

We believe that the public services and local government should be accountable far more widely and diversely

To consumers.

To customers.

And to local communities.

In fact to civil society itself.

And in doing so, we are moving with the tide.

At the last election, people were willing to give the old model of centralised control one last try.

But now people’s attitudes are changing as the information age gathers pace.

They no longer trust national government to deliver.

Indeed, they no longer trust the central media to deliver.

The information they trust is the information they find for themselves.

They are better informed about the mixed blessings of public sector delivery.

And their expectations are higher.

And they recognize that in many instances they can make better provision for themselves by paying for extra services individually, such as healthcare, or paying for them communally, such as home and estate security.

Furthermore, they are no longer prepared to put up with the frustration caused by top-down systems of service delivery.

We are living in the information age.

But our public services seem rooted in the industrial age.

Just as the Soviet Union lost its power to real nations when the Berlin Wall came down. In the same way, central government is losing its power to real communities.

I have seen this for myself while travelling Britain to find out what is happening outside Westminster.

When I first went to Easterhouse, one of the poorest parts of Glasgow, I talked to local people there.

And they told me about a different kind of visit.

The great and the good gathered at a local primary school to solve the problems of Easterhouse.

They analysed.

They conjectured.

They debated.

They discussed.

And afterwards, like colonial administrators sent out to govern some far-flung part of the Empire,

they prowled the streets of Easterhouse,

peered at the local inhabitants,

met up to compare notes…

…and then went home.

Without having spoken to anyone who actually lived there.

But the people of Easterhouse are working together to build up social capital and civil society.

In Gallowgate, elsewhere in the city, local people have come together to offer support and help to the families of heroin and crack cocaine addicts.

In Barry Comprehensive in South Wales, an inspirational head teacher, David Swallow, has revitalised the school by providing vocational courses to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I have seen all these projects and many others at work.

And there are thousands of others like them all over Britain.

They are the very opposite of New Labour’s plans for Regional Assemblies.

Which will destroy our historic counties and create a new layer of government,

employ fresh armies of bureaucrats and create new reams of red tape,

and impose a new tier of politicians on local people and place new burdens on business.

Regional government will do nothing to bring about community government.

The people of Carlisle will not feel closer to power for being bossed around by Manchester.

And the last thing the people of Cornwall want is to be controlled by Bristol.

Regional government has one objective only.

Not devolving power down.

But grabbing power up.

Regional Assemblies and community government just don’t mix.

And I am determined to find a new Conservative Way Forward for community government in Modern Britain.

We have already begun a process of policy renewal as sweeping and extensive as that of the 1970s.

We have published a detailed critique of Labour failure in a series of pamphlets about the public services.

And recently at party conference we announced 25 new policies.

Tonight, I want to announce the next stage of our programme to restore community government.

We will further be examining ways in which this is done both here and abroad –

First of all, in the delivery of public services.

In healthcare, we will be closely examining the system used in other countries.

In Sweden, for example, patients have the right to choose hospitals, doctors and treatments.

In education, we will be doing the same.

In Holland, for example, parents have the right not just to choose schools for their children, but also to have new schools set up.

Our second aim is to strengthen society itself.

In crime prevention, we will learn from examples of community institutions which have played a major part in taking young people off the conveyor belt to crime.

In welfare reform, we will learn from the ways in which Kent County Council has begun to reduce welfare dependency by intervening early and strengthening civil society through social independence projects.

The third area we will look at is how we can revive the powers of local government.

In other countries, local government is financed in a more open and transparent way.

In Australia an independent grants commission allocates money free from central government interference.

Elsewhere, local government is allowed to borrow money or issue bonds.

In the United States, as elsewhere, both the financing and the powers of local government are different from Britain.

In America, judges, police chiefs and others are often held accountable by election.

We will want to examine how this system works and why it works.

So I am announcing today that we have set up a task force on community government which will cut across departmental boundaries.

It will be chaired by David Davis, and those Shadow Cabinet members who cover the Treasury, Home Office, Health, Education and Local Government and the Regions will also serve on it.

The task force will find the best way for the next Conservative Administration to roll back the boundaries of New Labour centralised control and roll forward the new age of community government.

In the 1970s, when Nick Ridley was pioneering the Conservative revolution, there was a sense that the tide of ideas was flowing in our direction.

It is flowing the same way today.

Away from top-down politics.

Away from the quangocrats.

Away from the control freaks in Downing Street and the Treasury.

Away from New Labour’s ever-growing centralised control of government, civil society and people’s lives.

We have always believed in our country and in the people of Britain.

A generation ago, pioneers like Nick Ridley used that conviction to transform the economic prospects of millions.

He had the courage to defy the prevailing consensus and the vision to point to a better way.

Armed with this same conviction, we must now show the same courage and capture that same sense of radicalism as we seek enrich our society, improve our public services and renew our democracy.

We can do no greater honour to Nick Ridley’s memory. We can perform no greater service to our country.