Oliver Letwin – 2006 Speech at the Policy Exchange

Oliver Letwin

Below is the text of the speech made by Oliver Letwin at the Policy Exchange on 16 March 2006.

“I want to speak today about where Conservative policy comes from and about where it is going.

But, before I do that, I want to begin by saying how refreshing it is to find myself here, making this speech.

Policy Exchange was founded by my friends and colleagues, Francis Maude, Archie Norman, and Michael Gove at a time when the Conservative Party’s fortunes were at a low ebb. Today, from those slight foundations, under the brilliant guidance of Nicholas Boles, it has become one of the seminal influences on political debate in Britain. And — a particular pleasure to me — it is now chaired by my best man, Charles Moore.

To say that I feel at home here would be an understatement.

But it would also be an understatement to say that circumstances have somewhat changed since the foundation of Policy Exchange.

The dark days of the Conservative Party are past.

The sunlit uplands now beckon.

We know that reaching them and ascending them will involve a long route-march followed by a steep climb.

But we can at least see them clearly before us. And we now possess two items that every mountaineer requires: a compass and a map..

My aim today is to describe the direction indicated by the compass and the route shown by the map.

Let me start with the compass-bearing.

In what direction does it point?

It points towards a government that supports society more and dominates society less.

I hope this does not surprise you. It ought not to do so. The desire to see the state supporting society rather than dominating society, is the enduring characteristic of conservative thinking.

That is the deep instinct from which all our policy will spring.

We have expressed it in two slogans, “trusting people” and “sharing responsibility”.

These slogans are, for us, central.

The conviction that government should trust people more and dominate them less springs from the view that our society is more complicated and subtle than is dreamt of in the philosophies of Whitehall departments, agencies and inspectorates.

We believe that the people best equipped to organise anything are typically those who are involved in it.

We think this is true of families, schools, hospitals, businesses, villages, towns and cities.

But this doesn’t mean that we think government should wash its hands of all these things. To have a strong sense of the limitations of government is not to lack aspirations for government.

When we say that we believe in shared responsibility, we mean that we acknowledge the responsibility for government to support society — to establish a stable framework of expectation that enables all our people, through their various social relations, to make a civilized life for themselves.

Our vision, in short, is of a government that opens opportunity rather than of a government that directs society.

Before I go any further, I want to pause, to reflect on how that centre-right view differs from the view currently espoused by the centre-left and on how it marks out Modern, Compassionate Conservatism.

The difference between our view and the centre-left view lies in the fact that, for the centre-left, the default position is direction by the state.

The rhetoric of the centre-left does not always disclose this default postion. Indeed, in the hands of the most Blairite proponents of New Labour, the rhetoric frequently tends in the opposite direction. The intelligent Mr Miliband, for example, talks glowingly of ‘double-devolution’. By this, he apparently means devolving power to local authorities and then devolving it further to the entities governed by local authorities, including social enterprises. So far, so excellent.

But I fear we shall find that, in practice, this alleged “double-devolution” results in centralisation — with the government constraining the bodies to whom power is ostensibly devolved with a welter of centrally imposed targets, performance monitoring, inspections, specific grants and the like.

Why do I say this? Because the trend of the present Government’s actions, as opposed to its rhetoric, has been to seek centralist and directive solutions whenever a specific, centrally determined goal is not being achieved at high speed. Speak to professionals in our schools, hospitals and police forces, and you will find them echoing that view. Speak to the social enterprises and voluntary bodies, and you will hear endless tales of the lengths to which they have to go to fit their actual projects into the highly targeted and ever-changing initiatives and schemes devised by Whitehall.

Actions, as they say, speak louder than words — and the only plausible conclusion when one looks at the actions rather than the words is that the centre-left instinct to solve social problems through central government direction is thoroughly intact.

This willingness of the centre-left to engage in central direction is linked in an interesting way with their desire for short-term results.

If your main concern is with the long-term sustainability of arrangements and changes, then you want them to run with the grain. You want them to emerge, so far as possible, from choices and decisions made voluntarily by participants in civil society — because choices made that way are more likely to last.

But if you are impatient, if what you want is rapid results, then you are far more likely to get what you want by imposing it through central authority. Of course, if you do things that way, you pay the penalty that, when central authority alters its focus or removes its interest, there is likely to be a reversion. But by then perhaps people — or the media — will have moved on, and in the meanwhile the coup of the initial, fast result has been obtained.

And that, I fear, is pretty much a thumbnail sketch of much of the recent modus operandi of the centre-left in Britain. Centrally imposed measure, causing a media stir in the short term, followed by unexpected (but actually predictable) failure to achieve sustainable change in the long-term.

So there is a clear distinction between our long-term, centre-right approach of trusting people more and dominating them less, and the yearning of the centre-left for short-term results, with their consequent readiness to default to central direction whenever those results are not immediately forthcoming.

But our approach is also, distinctively, a modern and compassionate approach.

Its modernity lies in a new agenda which addresses the great challenges of our time. I shall return to that agenda in a moment.

What marks our approach as compassionate is the centrality of our concern with social justice.

We want today’s modern, compassionate Conservative Party to be the party that offers a way back in for the unemployed, the homeless, the disabled, the refugee, the orphan, the drug-addict, for those who have been kept out and for those who have been shut out, for those who have lost out and for those who have dropped out, for all the victims of state failure.

In the recent past, despite various efforts on our part to rectify the perception, too many people have imagined that we were somehow a Party focussing solely or mainly on a quite different set of people — those who can look after themselves, or the rich.

Of course, we wish there to be in Britain opportunities for all people of every kind.

But the focus of modern compassionate conservatism is not on those who can look after themselves. It is on those who are most in need. Our intention, in using government to support society, is that society should thereby be enabled to support the least advantaged.

So, on the one side, we have the centre-left, defaulting to short-term, centralist, statist solutions. And, on the other side, we have a Modern, Compassionate Conservative Party — a Party of the centre-right, which sees its task as using government to support society, in order that society can sustainably provide opportunity for those most in need of it.

That is where the modern, compassionate conservative policy agenda comes from.

The next question is: where is it going?

And the first answer is: towards a coherent policy programme.

This may sound like an obvious statement.

Who wouldn’t want a policy programme?

Who would want an incoherent policy programme?

But I should bring to your attention that, if the desire is obvious, the fulfilment of the desire is anything but obvious.

I do not believe that the Government can claim, at this stage in its term of office, to have anything recognisable as a coherent policy programme. If you ask how its policy on housing coheres with its policy on carbon-emissions, or how its policy on localisation ties in with its police amalgamations, or how its fiscal policy ties in with its policy on competitiveness and productivity, you will not find it easy to give convincing answers.

I will pass over, in respectful silence, the question of the coherence of Liberal-Democrat policy.

But I fully recognise that we, too, over recent years, have found it dauntingly difficult to establish a coherent policy programme.

Part of the reason for this is that the world is complicated.

It is fairly easy to stipulate an array of desirable policy outcomes. But — because the world is a complicated place — it is genuinely difficult to find means of satisfying all of the desires simultaneously.

A serious policy programme therefore has to rescue coherence out of the real-world tensions, by establishing how the greatest possible proportion of any given desired outcome can be achieved without sacrificing too much of the other desired outcomes.

This requires imagination, foresight and hard work. It cannot be achieved in a rush.

A Party in opposition, in the early stages of a Parliament, has the time to do it properly.

But, to do it properly, one has to find the right way of asking the right people the right questions. And that is exactly the process in which we are now engaged.

Let me start with the questions.

First of all, they don’t come in neat boxes — certainly not the neat boxes gift-wrapped by Whitehall departments.

So we have not asked our Quality of Life Policy Group to think about our transport policy, or our energy policy, or our housing and planning policy, or our climate change policy, or our wider environmental policy. We have instead asked them to think about all these things together — because they are all connected with one another.

And then we’ve invited our Economic Competitiveness Group to look at these same things (along with some other items) but asking a different question — not how they affect our quality of life, but how they affect our competitiveness.

Two policy groups, each asking the same questions? Yes — and probably getting different answers.

Why? Because the world is a complicated place, and because both quality of life and economic competitiveness count, and because we know that it is only by resolving the tensions that arise when we consider the same areas of policy from both angles that we can develop a policy programme that is coherent and built to last.

And of course the questions we have asked our policy groups to address — the angles from which we have asked them to look at the complicated world — are not arbitrary. We have asked them to consider what we think are the most difficult and important questions facing Britain today — How do we improve our quality of life and do our bit to protect our planet? How do we become more economically competitive? How do we do more to relieve global poverty in the face of globalisation? How do we improve our public services? How do we strengthen national and international security and increase community cohesion? How do we bring social justice to a Britain in which so many of our fellow-citizens are trapped in multiple deprivation?

I am not suggesting that these are the only questions to be asked. Some others — very important in themselves — will need to be considered, such as the measures required to strengthen our democracy, which Ken Clarke and his team are looking at in a separate task force.

But I do say that any policy programme which can answer those questions convincingly will be a programme worthy of a government for this country.

Such a policy programme is exactly what we need to build out of the work of the policy groups. And when we come to that great architectural project, we shall know that the bricks out of which we are fashioning the building have been constructed with the aid of experts — because the people we have asked to work with us in these groups are real experts.

And the strength of the groups lies not just in the experts within them, but also in the vast range of understanding and opinion upon which they will draw. It lies in the research they will commission, the evidence they will hear, the ideas and proposals they will receive from far and wide in what is undoubtedly the most transparent policy-making process yet developed by a major political party in Britain.

So I think we can say that we have found a way of asking the right people the right questions.

But, of course, we cannot end there.

The really difficult work is yet to come in the later part of next year, when we come, as a Shadow Cabinet, to construct the programme on the basis of the analyses, suggestions and recommendations of the policy groups and task forces. We shall undoubtedly accept some of the recommendations unamended. But we shall also undoubtedly have to reject or modify many others in order to obtain a coherent whole that appropriately balances the competing objectives in a complicated world.

And this, last stage is not, of course, one that can be left to the experts. There is a point at which, when the experts have said their say, the politicians have to make the judgements. We cannot escape, as a potential government, the responsibility for deciding on the difficult balances between competing objectives –because it is upon the ability to make those judgements that the success of a government depends.

I cannot say that it will be easy, or that the work of the policy groups will make it easy.

But I can say that it will be a considerable step forward for us and for our country if the Conservative Party is able go into the next election with a policy programme that constitutes a clear answer to the great political questions of our time, and if that answer is coherent in three senses — coherent in the sense of having resolved the tensions between conflicting aims, coherent in its remorseless focus on social justice, and coherent also in conforming, throughout, with the vision of a government that is there to support rather than to dominate society, so that the answers we propose to the great questions are long-term answers, answers that are built into the fabric of society, built sustainably, built to last.