David Willetts: "We Have Ended Up in a Situation Where the Treasury Tries to Control Everything Local Government Does." (British Shadow Cabinet Member)

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

David Willetts: "We Have Ended Up in a Situation Where the Treasury Tries to Control Everything Local Government Does." (British Shadow Cabinet Member)


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


David Willetts may not have the aura of Michael Portillo, who was recently described by the Times as the Conservative Party's"philosopher king", but he is a more influential figure. Portillo can offer banalities in speeches and be treated with the utmost seriousness. Willetts tends to be portrayed in a less glamorous light as "two brains". Even so, it is he who is in the Commons and the shadow cabinet, promoted last summer to the education portfolio. And it is he who is the party's most prominent licensed thinker. For the moment at least, the thoughts of Willetts count for more than those of Enfield's romantic exile.

Over recent months he has been reflecting on the English Question, a theme which is becoming increasingly prominent in Tory circles. Being Willetts, he has not focused merely on the immediate tactical questions of how to exploit Labour's constitutional agenda, although the government's reforms provide the backdrop. He is just as interested in the nature of being English.

"There is a very lively debate at the moment about English identity," he says. "Julian Barnes wrote his novel about Englishness, Jeremy Paxman is bringing out a book on being English. I've been reflecting on the things Conservatives can say about England which are attractive and true and which could not be said by Tony Blair. For example, we believe strongly that we are an open and mobile society, whereas the philosophy behind the New Deal and David Blunkett's hostility to Oxbridge is based on the assumption that there are lots of blockages in society. To take another example, England is a localist country, not a regionalist one. If we can be a localist party, serious about decentralisation and getting central government out of the way, that's a potent theme for us."

This is how the Conservatives plan to attack the government's constitutional reforms: not to argue for the status quo but to portray themselves as the party of genuine pluralism against the control freaks of new Labour. My strong impression from Willetts is that his pluralist agenda does not include an English parliament. While he enthuses about his other ideas, this proposal is dealt with briefly and without any expansiveness. "I would say that at this stage we are raising questions about how the Westminster parliament is going to operate. It's not the party's policy to advocate an English parliament." I suspect that loyal Tory MPs have been given licence to propose this policy as it exposes most graphically the inequities of devolution. Once the pot has been stirred, the proposal will not make it to the next election manifesto. Willetts is happier to focus on the practical consequences for Westminster.

"You can't have Scottish MPs being over-represented as they are at the moment and with the right to vote on matters affecting England. But how else do you handle the situation? Imagine the potential chaos of having a UK parliament where English and Welsh MPs are allowed to vote on legislation when the government of the day does not have a majority without the addition of Scottish members. It could be constantly defeated. Now these are deep waters."

The Tories are raising the English Question, but are the English worried about it themselves? "We have to be careful how we approach this. I'm not talking about a 'little England' nationalism. Englishness anyway is an odd form of nationalism as it has a streak of melancholy to it. But I have to say the inequities of the proposals combined with the sight of Scottish ministers trying to push through policies which apply only to England and Wales is going to cause resentment. …

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