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Oliver Letwin MP: Is the battle of ideas in politics a battle about ends or a battle about means?

Letwin_oliver_2 Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP is Chairman of the Conservative Party's Policy Review and of the Conservative Research Department.

The answer to this question changes through time and across different political terrains.

The battles of liberal democracy against the Nazis and the communists were battles about ends, rather than means. We wanted freedom; they wanted something quite different. And the same is true of the current struggle between liberal democracy and theocratic islamism. We want freedom; the theocratic islamists want something quite different.

But when it comes to the battle of ideas between the centre-left and the centre-right in mainstream British politics, what we are arguing about is much more a question of means than a question of ends.

Nothing illustrates this better than the seminal work that Iain Duncan Smith's policy group has done as part of the Conservative Policy Review. If you read Ian's hugely impressive twin volumes -- Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain -- what you find is a clear identification of progressive goals which anyone from the centre-left would agree with, allied to a series of policy prescriptions for achieving those goals which are unmistakably from the centre-right.

Iain's overriding aim is emancipation from poverty. What could be more progressive,  more shared as a goal with the centre-left,  than that? But his policy prescriptions do not involve the vast centralised bureaucratic schemes beloved of the Brownites. They rely instead on strengthening the family and making society more responsible. His aim is to ensure that the individuals in poverty are supported by others around them, and are thereby given the power to lift themselves out of poverty. In short, he adopts a characteristically Conservative approach to the means of achieving the progressive goal of eliminating poverty  -- social responsibility in place of state control.

This same pattern emerges from the Green Papers in which David Cameron and the shadow cabinet have begun to set out the social policies of a future Conservative government.

The recent green papers on schools, welfare reform and rehabilitation of prisoners draw heavily on Iain's work and on the parallel proposals for public service improvement produced by the policy review group led by Stephen Dorrell and Pauline Perry.

They set out new and characteristically Conservative approaches to achieving progressive goals -- tackling the problems of poor schooling, worklessness, dependency and crime that particularly afflict the most disadvantaged people and the most hard-pressed neighbourhoods in Britain. They sit alongside our proposals to strengthen and support families. And they spring from a conscious decision that it is by addressing these deep causes of social breakdown that we can do most to lift individuals and neighbourhoods out of poverty.

The green papers are far more radical than most of the commentators have noticed. They will lead to a gradual revolution in the way we tackle social breakdown in Britain.

Until now, the assumption has been that, if there is a set of people who are trapped in deprivation, then the only way of dealing with the problem is to ask the bureaucracy to inject a large amount of additional funding from the taxpayer in a highly 'targetted' scheme of improvement.

Over the last eleven years, this assumption has been tested to destruction. After huge injections of taxpayer cash and endless bureaucratic schemes, the number of families in deep poverty has increased; more than 4 million people remain on out-of-work benefits; there is no sign of a reduction in the number of people dependent on drugs or alcohol; reoffending rates have increased; and school standards in some of the hardest-pressed neighbourhoods remain way below what the pupils who attend them deserve.

What the Conservative green papers propose is a radically different thought -- that we are moving into a post-bureaucratic age in which we need not only to find new answers but also to pose new questions. They ask: What if we decentralise? What if we open up competition to address these social ills? What if we mobilise the voluntary bodies, the charities, the social enterprises? What if we pay them by the results they achieve?

In schooling, Michael Gove proposes to crack open the monopoly of local authorities  -- giving parents the power and opportunity to take the taxpayer's money to new academies. These new academies will depend for their existence on achieving results that enable them to attract and retain pupils. They will be  run as independent schools that offer academic rigour, discipline and high expectations.  So parents will no longer just  have to put up with low standards in places where schools are currently failing.

In welfare, Chris Grayling proposes to mobilise third sector and private sector providers to invest in people who are out of work, paying these independent welfare-to-work providers by the results they achieve. For each person that they get into work and keep in work for two years or more, they will receive two years' worth of the out of-work-benefits saved by the taxpayer.

In prisoner rehabilitation, Nick Herbert proposes essentially the same revolution, with prison governors given the opportunity to pay independent rehabilitation providers some of the huge amount of money that the taxpayer saves when they get ex-prisoners out of addiction, into jobs and houses, and onto the straight and narrow.

There are three key principles behind all of these policies:

(1) the principle that social goals can best be achieved through government setting frameworks rather than through government micromanaging provision;

(2) the principle that the energies of civil society can be mobilised by paying competing providers of socially beneficial transformations on the basis of the results they achieve; and

(3) the principle that, by acting in this decentralised, non-bureaucratic way, government can (so far from adding to the burdens on the taxpayer) progressively diminish the otherwise ever-increasing demands on the state.

The third of these principles, in particular, deserves more attention than it has received.

Cameron's Conservatives have been heavily associated with the drive towards sustainability. And the long-term environmental sustainability of our quality of life is something with which any responsible, far-seeing government must indeed concern itself. But there is also another form of sustainability with which any responsible government needs to grapple.

We need to ensure -- particularly at a time when Mr Brown has taken the nation's money and blown it -- that our social policies are economically sustainable. And that means we have to find ways of enabling people to lift themselves out of deprivation, dependency, worklessness and crime so that the demands on the state progressively diminish.

The use of Conservative methods (frameworks, decentralisation and competition instead of micromanagement, centralisation and state monopoly) in the social sphere is not only the most promising method of achieving socially progressive ends. It is also the only available method for ensuring that we live within our financial means.


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