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Nick Wood: David Cameron should tell the British people the truth

Woodnick Nick Wood is a former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. He now runs Media Intelligence Partners. In the growing debate about the extent to which David Cameron should be honest with the British people about his post-election plans, Nick takes us back thirty years...

Who said this?

“We believe in making substantial cuts in the tax on your pay packet. Labour doesn't.”

And this:

“The State takes too much of the nation's income; its share must be steadily reduced. When it spends and borrows too much, taxes, interest rates, prices and unemployment rise so that in the long run there is less wealth with which to improve our standard of living and our social services.”

And this:

“Any future government which sets out honestly to reduce… taxation will have to make substantial economies, and there should be no doubt about our intention to do so.

“We do not pretend that every saving can be made without change or complaint; but if the Government does not economise the sacrifices required of ordinary people will be all the greater.”

And finally:

“The reduction of waste, bureaucracy and over-government will also yield substantial savings.”

OK, not too many prizes for guessing the answers. All of them are from Margaret Thatcher thirty years ago. The first quote comes from her conference speech of 1978 and the rest from the Conservative Party manifesto of 1979.

Many myths have grown up about the Thatcher years. One of the most pervasive is that she fought and won the 1979 election on a Tory-lite prospectus. And, for that reason, David Cameron should do the same.

Bonaparte Why rock the boat? Why frighten the horses? Or, to quote Napoleon, when you see your opponent making a mistake, don’t interrupt him.

Of late, inside Cameron’s inner circle, the Bonapartists have been making the running. A number of Cassandras, not least City man Malcolm Offord in his splendidly candid paper Bankrupt Britain, have been making the incontrovertible point that our levels of tax, spending and borrowing mean that we are heading for hell in a handcart. Offord calculates, with the help of some fancy computer modelling, that it will take Britain at least 10 years of 50% tax and £100 billion a year spending cuts (that’s like shutting down the NHS overnight) before we can return to “normal” levels of public debt.

Yet no one wants to know.

Obviously, the self-styled saviour of Western civilisation Gordon Brown does not want to know. He piles all his chips (and then some more) on red and prays that somehow he will escape with a suspended sentence.

The Conservatives have also been in denial. As the self-styled realists around Cameron put it, so you want to go into the election pledging massive middle class tax rises and a slash and burn approach to the public services (and their 6 million employees)? How many votes are there in that?  It is a fair point. But the Thatcher experience suggests it is possible to level with the public about the scale of the crisis facing the country and the painful measures needed to put things right – and still win.

As the extracts above indicate, the myth is a myth. Margaret Thatcher did not fight the 79 election on a vague promise to put things right. She was quite explicit about her intentions and, of course, about taming the tiger of her time – rampant trade union power.

Nor did she downplay the scale of the crisis facing Britain thirty years ago, which, although probably not as scary as today’s puff of smoke implosion of banking and business confidence, was seemingly more intractable. In many ways the parallels between the last Labour government and today’s are uncanny.

Take this quote from her pre-election conference speech:

“But I must warn you that the dying days of this administration may well see one last wretched round of manipulation and manoeuvre, of private deals or public pacts or cosy little understandings, always, of course, in the national interest before the Government are finally dragged, kicking and screaming, to the polls.

If that should be the case, so be it. I believe that the longer they wait the harder they will fall. But the harder, too, will be our task of halting and reversing the decline of Britain.

Our party offers the nation nothing less than national revival, the deeply-needed, long-awaited and passionately longed-for recovery of our country. That recovery will depend on a decisive rejection of the Labour Party by the people and a renewed acceptance of our basic Conservative belief that the State is the servant not the master of this nation.

Does what has happened to Britain over the last four and a half years imply that we have been governed by remarkably foolish people? No, though you may be able to think of one or two who would qualify under that heading.

Is it the result of having been governed by unusually wicked people? No. There have been enough good intentions to pave the well-worn path twice over.  The root of the matter is this: we have been ruled by men who live by illusions, the illusion that you can spend money you haven't earned without eventually going bankrupt or falling into the hands of your creditors; the illusion that real jobs can be conjured into existence by Government decree like rabbits out of a hat; the illusion that there is some other way of creating work and wealth than by hard work and satisfying your customers; the illusion that you can have freedom and enterprise without believing in free enterprise; the illusion that you can have an effective foreign policy without a strong defence force and a peaceful and orderly society without absolute respect for the law.”

Happily, David Cameron and George Osborne are taking some tentative steps in the direction of 1979. Cameron has said the “world has changed” and talked of spending cuts and tough decisions. He plans more speeches on economic strategy and regrets lapsing into the cosy economic consensus of the Blair/Brown years where taxing, spending and borrowing were king.

All this is to the good – not least because it represents an attempt to be straight with the public about the rocky road ahead. As he goes down this path, he can take come comfort from the fact that a generation ago the country elected and stuck by a leader who did not just tell them what they wanted to hear.


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