Receding intellectual beginnings

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2006

The Tory Party seems to have been stung by comments that their policy larder is looking a bit bare. The last two days has seen a whole two policy announcements – though the coolness with which they have been greeted perhaps explains why David Cameron has been putting off the evil day when he has to stop simpering and start clarifying.

First, came George Osbourne’s ‘tax pledge’, in which he boldly declared that he would have a long, hard look at tax codes, and see, y’know, if there was some stuff he could do. As George himself said, “This is quite an ambition.” When even a politician moderates what is billed as a major policy announcement with the qualifier ‘quite’, you can be pretty damn sure even he realises it’s a little bit of a damp squib.

The response from those two true blue voices of Neolithic Toryism, The Daily Telegraph and, was unequivocal: “… by refusing to promise a redistribution of wealth from the state to the private sector, [Mr Osborne] shows that the Conservative Party simply hasn’t grasped the financial imperatives of the modern world,” proclaimed Friday’s Torygraph leader. ConservativeHome’s Tory Diary was even more cruel, deriding not only the Shadow Chancellor’s “economic illiteracy”, but also the muddled way in which the speech was handled by Tory spin-doctors.

Then, secondly, John Redwood – the Tories’ very own Banquo’s ghost – could be heard this morning telling BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the Tory Party had worked out how to solve Britain’s economic competitiveness, and our pollution worries: legalizing left-hand turns at traffic lights. Though the RAC’s executive director, Edmund King, was a little more sceptical that this trans-Atlantic import is practical: “It works in places like Los Angeles because there you’ve got very wide roads, very few pedestrians, and virtually no cyclists.”

What is intriguing about Mr Redwood’s notion is not just the small beer-ness of the policy (with its ironically eerie echoes of John Major’s traffic cones hotline), but the way the Tories so quickly, easily, happily revert to type.

I’ve little doubt that there are places in Britain where allowing vehicles to turn left at traffic lights will ease congestion, so speeding up journey times and cutting pollution. There may also be merit in some of the other ideas Mr Redwood mooted: bus lanes which only operate during rush hours; introducing changeable speed limits according to the time of day, so that 20mph zones outside schools only apply at the beginning and end of the day; and putting cycle lanes on pavements.

But it is stating-the-bleedin’-obvious to point out that the success or failure of each of these policies will depend on the prevailing local circumstances – in some areas, any or all of these ideas might work. In other places, they could be a complete disaster. It is up to local communities to determine what applies best to their neighbourhood, not for national politicians to wake up one morning and think, “Hmmm, there’s a populist agenda. I’m going to hire me some of that.”

In this regard, Mr Redwood wouold have done well to have heeded some wise words from his fellow Tory, Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart, Chairman of the Local Government Association, writing in Friday’s thegrauniad:

Central government must learn to give up the ingrained habits of decades. It must shift the balance of power and policymaking to locally-based government, so that power can be exercised with and for local people.

Similarly, councils must rise to the challenge of a more devolved system. They must be ambitious for their communities, be determined to devolve power further, relentless in driving for continuous improvement, and fearless in shifting responsibility and accountability from government to council leaders.

The homepage of the Conservative website promises the Party is ‘Beginning intellectual renewal’. If this is the best they can do, let’s hope it’s the end of the beginning.