It isn’t always obvious when you are living through a turning point in history. But March 2002 may just turn out to be one of those pivotal moments in the story of UK politics.
What usually happens is that things drift; governments do their best, muddling along their chosen path as best they can, avoiding icebergs (or events, as Harold Macmillan called them), if they can. The direction of a government gradually becomes clear, and at some point people decide, in a general election, whether this is the direction they want the country to go in – or not.
New Labour has been a classic example of this meandering. They came to power promising to follow Tory spending plans – and they have continued to drift to the right. They have embraced privatisation to an extent the Tories didn’t dare; they have been harder on criminals, harder on asylum seekers, harder on single mothers than their predecessors. Many people who voted for New Labour in 1997 and again last year have been saddened by their failure to grasp nettles, to be radical, to be bold …
And then, all of a sudden, the Tories, the party of wealth and big business, have declared their intention to side with the underdog, to protect the vulnerable, to look after the needy. But this isn’t a result of the Tories drifting to the left. Since 1997 they’ve been trying to fight their way further to the right.
Remember William Hague? Remember his four years of opportunistic band-wagon hopping, his support for the anarchy of the fuel protesters, his enthusiastic anti-Europeanism? Remember what happened in the 2001 election? Another landslide for Blair, and half a dozen more seats for the Liberal Democrats.
What has happened is that New Labour have drifted so far to the right that there is no room for the traditional right wing Tory party; nowhere to go but extinction. So they have decided to try and change their spots.
The Tories – aren’t they the tax-cutting party? No, not any more – not until our public services have been sorted out. The Tories – weren’t they the people who cut investment in education, the police, the health service, to give us all a few pence off income tax? Well, yes – but they’ve changed their minds.
To be honest, hearing senior Conservatives talking about the poor and needy and the need for investment in public services is very like hearing a prim maiden aunt declaring that she is all in favour of free love, and isn’t it about time they legalised cannabis?
I even heard one of their spokesmen talking of ‘a long tradition of one-nation Toryism’ – but wherever he was in the 80s and 90s, he certainly wasn’t living in the same Britain as the rest of us. The destruction of our manufacturing industry, the demoralising of the education, health and police services. One nation Toryism? I don’t think so.
Leopards cannot change their spots, and try as they might, the Conservatives won’t be able to change their old prejudices. Their underlying obsessions were lurking in their leader’s speech last week in Harrogate: “Give people the freedom to decide how to spend their own money’” he said. That’s Tory talk for lower taxes (and, obviously, lower public spending). The freedom to spend your own money how you like is a fine freedom – as long as you have money to spend in the first place.
Liberal Democrats have argued consistently that you cannot have something for nothing. If we want a better education system, we will have to pay for it. If we want better health services, if we want a better police service, if we want a better environment – we will have to pay.
This message is starting to get through. In local elections, Liberal Democrat candidates are winning seats from both New Labour and New Tory. Last week we won a seat in Sedgefield (local MP: Tony Blair).
Locally, Liberal Democrats have always pursued a path of modest council taxes to improve services for all. Tory councillors have always argued for less spending and lower taxes. They didn’t want improvements in Rayleigh High Street, they didn’t want extra money in the budget for elderly people, they don’t want to spend as much as the government recommends on education, they have cut funding for road maintenance …
I heard on the radio this morning that the Tories are to charge students £400 a year extra for travel to college. Presumably they wouldn’t have had to do that if they had followed government guidelines on education spending. Whatever the case, it shows that we should not just listen to what they say – we should watch what they do.
On second thoughts, we might not be living through one of those key moments in history. Perhaps it’s just another spasm in the death throes of a once great party.