Magazine article The Spectator

Manifesto Destiny

Magazine article The Spectator

Manifesto Destiny

Article excerpt

If economics is the dismal science, manifesto-writing must rank as a candidate for the most dismal of arts. Too often in recent times it has been a case of writing down the word 'future' and then throwing virtuous-sounding words such as 'fairness', 'change' and 'all' into the air and seeing in what order they land. Manifesto writers ought to subject each sentence to a test: do not include any statement unless you can imagine your political opponents saying the opposite. The title of Labour's manifesto sums up its intellectual exhaustion: which politician this side of the 19th-century would ever have opposed a 'Future Fair for All'?

That is what makes the title of the Conservatives' manifesto so distinctive.

Taken literally, the Conservatives' 'Invitation to Join the Government of Britain' is of course absurd: David Cameron is not going to find room in his government for Doris of Dewsbury as undersecretary for pensions.

Yet behind the phrase lies a genuine set of proposals which create a very big difference in ideology between the two main parties.

The Conservatives, not before time, have coalesced around a philosophy of smaller and smarter government, in which individuals and communities are empowered to take over the running of services that for too long have been considered the preserve of the state. It is the very essence of Conservatism.

Adam Smith spoke of the 'invisible hand', by which the common good is unintentionally advanced by people acting in self-interest.

Frederic Bastiat spoke of 'what is seen' - government action - with 'what is not seen' - the harm caused by taxes levied to fund that action. Hayek spoke of 'spontaneous order' - how human society naturally inclines towards civility and co-operation. Now, David Cameron talks about the 'big society' which he wants to see replacing state control.

Explaining these ideas is always the hardest task of Conservatism. When government does not act, what does? How can you 'roll forward society' in the way Mr Cameron advocates? To vote Conservative is to vote for a less predictable agenda, to place faith in society rather than the state. Few of the most useful changes in society are anticipated, let alone encouraged, by the state.

And it is not, of course, parents who will set up the most new schools, but companies. When they compete with each other, power is passed from the bureaucracy to the community. This is the revolution which Mr Cameron is pledging to bring.

There is one initiative which the Conservatives might have added to their proposals empowering citizens against over mighty government: an end to the exemption which political manifestos enjoy from trading standards legislation. …

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