Conservative Diary

« Next time round, can we have Aidan Burley as part of the show, please? | Main | Cabinet league table for end-July »

David Willetts wants Conservatives to embrace the state (and he's right)

By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter

Willetts David BBCbSo much Olympics-related news overnight but I must point you to a typically thoughtful speech from David Willetts. David has been one of the party's most interesting intellectuals for more than a generation but he hasn't done much public thinking for some time. In a speech to the Bright Blue group today he has put that right. His remarks are multi-layered and I encourage you to read them in full via this PDF. I want to briefly focus on his remarks about the state.

"One of the strengths of the Conservative tradition," says Willetts, "is that ultimately we understand we are rooted in the British people as they are, not as some theory says they should be." "There is a strand of Conservative utopianism which is uncomfortable with this," he continues, "though for us as Conservatives our utopia tends to be in the past." Last night Danny Boyle portrayed Britain as it is. Not all of Britain, certainly. But a lot of Britain. My friends and family loved the whole event. Only on Twitter and in the blogosphere do I find a few right-wingers moaning. People who have to retain a readership of thousands rather than mobilise the millions necessary for majority government seem uncomfortable with celebrating Britain's diversity, with respect for gay people and popular support for the NHS and some kind of welfare state. The most important political point that Willetts makes is one recently made by New Zealand PM John Key and, in an American context, Francis Fukuyama... Conservatives must embrace the state. Not a big, unfocused state but an enabling state. It must certainly be limited but so, too, must it be strong.

Mr Willetts gives two examples of where the state has a role, relevant to his own universities brief:
  • Backing long-term scientific research: "One reason I am a long term optimist is that Britain has a strong presence in many of these technologies – such as software for high performance computing, nanotechnologies like graphene, synthetic biology, innovative space vehicles and the agri-science that will feed the world.  We are still a country where much of the world’s cutting edge research is conducted. With the strong support of George Osborne, we are determined to keep our leading position."
  • Investing in sport: "We can learn from the extraordinary rise of British sport since the humiliation of the Atlanta Olympics when we won just one gold medal and were 36th in the medal table. We had to raise our game and we did. John Major’s lottery funding helped as did sustained support from every Government since. This included rigorously targeting our efforts on sports like rowing, sailing and cycling where we were thought to have the best medal hopes. At Beijing we won 19 gold medals and came fourth in the medal table. Who knows what Team GB will accomplish in London. But what has happened already is an illuminating and optimistic story. Ultimately it depends on individual talent and determination.  But we cannot just leave sportsmen and women on their own. They have to be trained and they need the right facilities. Our universities have made a big contribution – not least with the research on techniques and equipment that can make all the difference. Indeed innovation is driven by competitive sport – light weight carbon fibre was first used in sporting equipment for example."

THATCHERSome Thatcherite readers may hate this but Thatcher would not have done so. Willetts remembers in his speech how he once described himself as "laissez-faire" to the great lady. She rejected that label, saying she preferred the idea of "ordered liberty". Maggie never cut as much from governmernt as George Osborne is planning to. She was not the anti-government libertarian that her champions now suggest. Here she is in her speech to the Church of Scotland from 1988:

"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."

There is not a successful conservative politician in the world who hasn't embraced the state in a very practical sense. John Key I've mentioned. There's also Canada's Stephen Harper who has publicly rejected libertarianism. Boris Johnson, here in Britain, wants an active government role in fighting the recession. Angela Merkel. Jeb Bush. Chris Christie. The gap between conservative rhetoric on the state and what we do doesn't help anyone other than our opponents. It allows them to paint us as ideologues who want to leave people and businesses on their own. It's not what people want and it's not what conservative governments do.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.