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Conservatives need (more than occasionally) to say positive things about the State

By Tim Montgomerie
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This is the fourth part of a week-long series looking at 'The Wrong Right'. In part one I looked at the malign influence of a right-wing entertainment complex and in part two looked at the need to update centre right thinking on blue collar Britain. Yesterday Pete Hoskin focused on the failure of Thatcher and Reagan to constrain the state.


The Conservative Party can sometimes - even often - give the impression that we're an anti-State party. We are, of course, a 'limited state party' but we are not an anti-State party, nor even a minarchist party.

People on the Right may say that they do, of course, support all sorts of state activities but, regrettably, when they appear on TV, radio or in newspapers it's invariably to explain why the state should be smaller in one or other particular area of national activity. For obvious reasons that's particularly true at the moment.

This is dangerous politics. A party that cannot say positive things about the role of government - or that does not appear to say positive things about the role of government - is a party that is out of step with public opinion. A ConHome/YouGov poll that I published last week found that only a measly 5% of the British people want to be "almost completely free of both government control and assistance". 25% want "a society where government plays a big role in society" and another 61% want "a society where government plays a limited role in society, providing services and a safety net in hard times". The full survey results are here.

The chart below points to what the public would most like government to do:

Click on chart to enlarge.

Chart role of government5

We didn't ask about every conceivable activity but there are six activities - identified in YouGov's exclusive poll for ConHome - where voters recognise a very considerable role for government:

  1. Maintaining law and order;
  2. Providing healthcare;
  3. Making provisions for unemployment, sickness or disability;
  4. Providing education;
  5. Building road and transport networks;
  6. Collecting and disposing of rubbish.

Conservative MPs and activists appearing in the media and thinking about the public presentation of Tory policies need to be as ready to affirm what they do think are legitimate roles for government as well as being ready to talk about what they want to cut or trim. The public will be more ready to trust the Conservative Party with making what they see as necessary cuts if they believe that we have a heartfelt and intellectual commitment to certain core government functions and those functions are more than fighting crime and maintaining the armed forces.

Let me give the last word to Margaret Thatcher. This is what the Iron Lady said in 1988, in a speech to the Church of Scotland:

"It is on the family that we in government build our own policies for welfare, education and care. You recall that Timothy was warned by St. Paul that anyone who neglects to provide for his own house (meaning his own family) has disowned the faith and is "worse than an infidel". We must recognise that modern society is infinitely more complex than that of Biblical times and of course new occasions teach new duties. In our generation, the only way we can ensure that no-one is left without sustenence, help or opportunity, is to have laws to provide for health and education, pensions for the elderly, succour for the sick and disabled."

Quite right. The family is the building block of a free and compassionate society but the government has vital and central roles - and those roles extend beyond nightwatchman functions.


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