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Garvan Walshe: A lesson from Israel's first Prime Minister for today's Conservative Party

WALSHE GARVANGarvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.

“England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” The old Irish nationalist slogan seeps in disguise into Tory hearts: Nick Clegg’s difficulty is our opportunity. Applied by the Irish Republican Brotherhood to launch an uprising in 1916, with England bogged down in Belgian trenches, it proved a terrible mistake.

Another anti-British freedom fighter turned statesman gave wiser advice. This short socialist from Plonsk, forty miles north west of Warsaw, might seem an unlikely inspiration for today’s Conservative party, but the man I have in mind is Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

In 1939, he had been leading resistance to the British government’s “White Paper” that restricted Jewish immigration into the British Mandate’s territory in Palestine. This didn’t just make it harder to gather enough people in to sustain the Jewish National Home promised by the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour in 1917. As Nazi persecutions of Jews got worse, and European countries closed their borders, it made it harder for them to escape.

Nine days after Britain declared war on Germany, and in opposition to the extremists on his own side for whom the war was an opportunity to put pressure on the British Empire, Ben Gurion declared: "We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

He understood that the British Empire and the Zionist movement were doomed to clash. Britain sought to maintain control of the large Arab territories it acquired after the Ottoman empire collapsed. The Zionists wanted an independent state on territory as important to the Arabs as Kosovo is to the Serbs. He also knew that in the more urgent struggle against Germany they were on the same side. But just as vital, the White Paper had to be subverted and resisted: full co-operation with the British would make it harder to smuggle Jews out of Nazi occupied Europe and would limit the size of the Jewish community in Palestine.

The stakes may not be as high for the Tory party, but the strategic situation is similar. We and the Liberal Democrats have different visions for the country: for the future of public services, on law and order, and over Europe. Yet on the most important matter facing the country: how to reduce government spending to a level we can afford, and get business going again to create jobs, we have much more in common than with Labour.

We should still have three years until the next election. This gives us three years to show the public what a Conservative government would be like. Our party needs to use these next three years to develop a philosophy that can win enough support across the country: that has to emerge from debates and arguments.

It’s too much to expect Ministers to take part in the debate. They have collective responsibility to defend, and they have to show that they can implement the Government’s common agenda with competence. But the rest of us in the Conservative party need to keep thinking about the new ideas and principles we can offer the British people in 2015. Our last election campaign didn’t cut it.

Quite simply, too many people are still scared of a Conservative government. This is partly because they still feel we’re out of touch, partly, too because they wonder about our competence, but it’s also because we haven’t been able to convince them about what we’re for. The Lib Dems have been quite clever with their “differentiation” strategy, blaming us for the hard-hearted things any government has to do, while sedulously plagiarising our programmes for social justice, such as the pupil premium.

Our appeal is at its broadest when we’re the party of emancipation. This is what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to do, in the worst economic circumstances, with his welfare reforms: to free people from a life where it’s rational to be dependent on benefits. By decentralising power, we can free people from being subject to decisions made by a bureaucracy outside their control. And in too many parts of the country, a mindless job shuffling papers in a government bureaucracy is the best way to make a living.  But we haven’t got the argument right yet. Too many people worry we’ll cut the benefits, but they won’t be able to find jobs; that elected police commissioners will be party hacks as unaccountable as mandarins, or that entrepreneurial companies won’t replace permanent but dull jobs in quangos or government services. They fear we’re in the business of taking things away, but that we don’t really care about replacing them with opportunities of which they can take advantage.

We need to use the next few years to convince them that a fully Conservative Government would be devoted to creating these chances and freedoms, and to do that we need the Coalition to be a success. This means we must fight for the Coalition as if it weren’t composed of two separate parties, and we must also fight to define what a Conservative Government would be as if there weren’t a coalition.


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