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That other constitution

Posted by Helen Friday, June 17, 2005

[Health warning: this posting will resume a theme that this blog excels in – being rude about the Conservative Party.]

Let me make it quite clear: I would like to be nice about the Conservative Party and its members. I would very much like to write about their wonderful ideas, courage and ability to connect two brain cells while waggling their fingers. And, indeed, I shall do so, as soon as I find any evidence of it.

Meanwhile, what do we have? A row about how to elect the leader, which, apparently, Michael Howard and his two immediate acolytes, Francis Maude and Theresa May, lost. And a party that effectively has no leader and cannot elect one for the foreseeable future, a week being a long time in politics. Just what we need at this juncture, when the European project is in dire trouble, though, not, I suspect, in terminal decline.

The potential leaders have been parading before us and before those members of the party (whoever they may be), who will be electing them. And we had a jolly little write-up by Alice Thomson, who has oohed and aahed over every Tory leader and has informed us on numerous occasions that this time they really want to win.

Well, this time they really, really want to win and they showed that by having that row about the Conservative Party constitution.

So, what of the beauty queen pageant? Do they all want to be doctors and work to help people in the world? You bet. Except for Liam Fox, who already is a doctor and just wants to get married and help people in the world?

Kenneth Clarke Ms Thomson dismisses because he does not really want to win and, anyway, Europe is a problem as it "is becoming a big issue again".

Malcolm Rifkind, according to one unnamed Tory MP

“… has held four senior ministerial posts but it is hard to remember what he achieved in them”.
Nothing, as far as I can recall. Furthermore, though he was once upon a time Foreign Secretary, he never quite understood the difference between a common foreign and security policy and straighforward alliances.

But fear not, Sir Malcolm is also trying to modernize the party. What nobody has managed to explain is what a modernized Conservative party will look like. (Maybe they are all disciples of Ibsen. The last play by that gloomy Norwegian I saw, was Rosmersholm and I spent the entire time trying to work out what they meant when they said that they supported "new ideas" against the "old" ones. It was never explained but the main characters walked into the sea.)

Liam Fox, according to Ms Thomson, does not look like a leader, despite, in no particular order, getting engaged, absailing down a building and resuscitating a choking man on the House of Lords terrace (what was he doing there, anyway?).

He also … gasp! … came up with some interesting ideas about "a completely different, dynamic Europe". That's an idea? Even the Telegraph bemoaned the fact that he did not say what that Europe would look like and how he would achieve it.

There are all sorts of odds and sods but the three contenders in Ms Thomson's estimation are the three Davids: David, Willetts and Cameron.

Willetts, it seems, is "civilized" but "not charismatic". I can vouch for the second.

Davis is clearly not liked by Ms Thomson, a paid up member of the Notting Hill modernizing Tories.
Davis's merits are obvious. First, he desperately wants the job. This sometimes makes him sound too brutal.
We wait in vain for second and third. That's it. Davis wants the job and he is too brutal. Oh and he is not big on detail. That is true as anybody who has actually tried to find out what his views on Europe are, can testify.

So we come to the real one: David Cameron, the favourite of those "new ideas" people a.k.a. the modernizers.
His greatest strengths are his brain, his calm logic and his managerial skills.He has acted like a Cabinet minister since he was 21, but pragmatism is not enough. He needs to be an idealist, too. His speech on education last night talking about "happiness" was a good start.
Well, I don't know. Education has little to do with happiness. But it was interesting to see what Mr Cameron's modernizing views on education were. By a happy coincidence the Telegraph ran a big article on the speech. [Though it is not on line.]

It seems that modernizing does not mean changing the failing education system of this country and giving parents choice and freedom. Perish the thought. That is not, Mr Cameron, aged 38 and ⅓, tells us, parents want. The Tories should focus on simple and straightforward issues:
Discipline. Standards. Promoting teaching methods that work. Scrapping those that don’t. Building on tests, league tables and exam standards that genuinely measure success, failure and progress.

Exposing and demolishing those that dumb down, promote an "all must have prizes mentality" or simply waste time.
And, as far as possible, abolishing main verbs.

So there we have it, ladies and gentlement. The modernizing view of education is leave it in the hands of the state, continue to run a centralized system of teaching and discipline worked out by politicians and bureaucrats and do not even think of giving parents the freedom to choose what kind of school they consider to be good. They might choose the wrong one, and Mr Cameron would not approve of that.

And how does that differ from the old saying about the gentleman in Whitehall knowing best?

Except that Douglas Jay did make his views clear on the European project in its various manifestations. David Cameron does not.

In fact, despite Europe becoming a "big issue again", we hear little of the contenders' views on the subject, apart from Liam Fox's rather meandering and recycled views. We have actually been here before with all sorts of excited politicians calling for a different, more dynamic Europe.

Most recently it was called the Lisbon Agenda and nothing much came of that. The Liam Agenda is likely to go the same way. Meanwhile they will go on producing yet more modernizing ideas, every one of which has been around for fifty years and has failed for as many. Nice to know that there is one thing in politics that can make Mr Blair happy.