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Donal Blaney: All gains are incremental; not all increments are gains

Every week the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Young Britons' Foundation, Donal Blaney, explains one of Morton Blackwell's Laws of the Public Policy Process. Morton Blackwell is the Founder and President of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

It will come as no surprise to learn that I remain a proud supporter of Thatcherism. I am convinced that the underlying values espoused by Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, Nick Ridley and Cecil Parkinson – lower taxes, self reliance, national pride, freedom of choice – are the values of a far larger number of people than the militant modernising tendency of our Party would like to believe. 

The death this week of Lord Harris, the great stalwart of the Institute of Economic Affairs and builder of Britain’s fledgling free-market movement, is yet another reminder that the great figures of the past are leaving us with increasing regularity for the next world. 

With few figures from the last period when the Conservative Party underwent a radical policy review during the period from 1974-79 now still alive, it is important not to forget the lessons to be learned from that period and to apply them to today’s debates.

The great changes to British society in the 1980s didn’t happen overnight. The necessary and successful emasculation of the trades union movement and the re-energising of the British economy only occurred as a result of a series of bold but small steps. Reducing the top rate of tax from 98% to 40% occurred over a nine year period. Reform of the unions likewise was a gradual process. 

It is important for conservative activists of all hues to bear this in mind as we impatiently wait for the day when a Conservative Prime Minister again crosses the threshold of 10 Downing Street. Rome wasn’t, after all, built in a day and it will take a considerable period of time for the damage done to the country by the Labour Party and its fellow travellers in the media (and even our own Party) to be reversed. 

As that damage is sought to be reversed – and as gradual steps are taken – we will be reminded that the gains we want to see made can only be made incrementally. We will be invited to trust the underlying instincts of those who are making the decisions. 

No doubt we will be told that small steps that disappoint or dismay core supporters are all part of the Great Plan and that we should trust the strategic judgement of those who are driving forward an agenda that we allegedly all ultimately share. 

Indeed we are being told this even today. The line from the “Powers That Be” is that the Party’s politically savvy economic policy requires as its first stages the neutralising of the Party’s “damaged reputation for economic competence”. By repeating this mantra we are, of course, doing the Left’s bidding. We repeat their language and ensure that it is seen as received wisdom that the Conservative Party has a damaged reputation for economic competence (in the same way that the soubriquet “Nasty Party” so successfully helped advance the Left’s continued campaign to denigrate all Conservatives as being evil, selfish bigots). 

Those who are within the “inner loop” and who still deign to communicate with the Party’s core supporters invite us to trust the instincts of David Cameron and George Osborne. They assure us that it is a necessary step along the path to government for us to make incremental steps that might seem counter-intuitive  and even un-conservative but those steps are still – so we are assured – nonetheless steps in the right direction and, therefore, gains. 

This week’s Law of the Public Policy Process reminds us not to be fooled into believing that all increments are necessarily gains. This week’s Forsyth Commission Report came forward with tax cuts proposals that are, as a percentage of the government’s total spending of £500 billion plus, modest in the extreme. The Taxpayers’ Alliance points out that even if those tax cut proposals were enacted today, the tax burden would only return to 2003 levels. 

Nonetheless even those proposals have been dismissed as being unacceptable, all as part of the “Grant Plan” to assure wavering voters, the BBC and the Guardian that the Party is not going to cut services. Those of us who advocate radical tax cuts are derided as being “far right” and the wholly false canard that tax cuts lost us the last three general elections is again trotted out as a justification for not pursuing a fundamental tenet of conservative philosophy. 

Politics is, of course, the art of the possible. It is rarely, if ever, possible to achieve everything that one sets out to achieve. Even minor achievements usually take longer than might be hoped for. Vigilance requires that we at all times bear in mind that not all increments are gains – otherwise we will only have ourselves to blame if, when we are in power, we do nothing substantial to reverse the damage done to the country by the Labour government since 1997. 

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