Have the Tories Found a Big Idea at Last?; Iain Duncan Smith's Speech Yesterday Could Mark a Turning Point for His Party

By Oborne, Peter | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

Have the Tories Found a Big Idea at Last?; Iain Duncan Smith's Speech Yesterday Could Mark a Turning Point for His Party


Oborne, Peter, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: PETER OBORNE

by Peter Oborne Political Editor of The Spectator

EVER SINCE 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was flung out of Downing Street, the Tories have been engaged in a fruitless search for a guiding philosophy. It is doubtful if John Major even knew what an idea was, while poor William Hague casually allowed the party to become the vehicle for an ugly nationalism with racist undertones. The arrival of Iain Duncan Smith, who received his intellectual education in a smart British Army guards regiment where thinking is regarded as a subversive activity, did nothing to inspire hope.

Yet Duncan Smith's speech in Harrogate yesterday was a revelation. It was potentially the most interesting speech by a Tory leader for two decades. I say potentially because it is far from clear that Duncan Smith quite understands the full magnitude of what he is saying. It is yet more doubtful whether he will have the courage and self-belief to follow what he says to its extraordinary and radical conclusions. But if he does, then yesterday's Harrogate speech will go down in history. It may come to be seen as a great turning point, the moment when the Conservatives began their long way back - if not to power than at least towards playing an important and purposeful part in our national life.

First, it is important to say what Iain Duncan Smith's new idea is not. It has become fashionable to suggest that the Conservative Party leader has embraced the agenda of Michael Portillo, the defeated candidate in last summer's Tory leadership election. He hasn't.

Duncan Smith is far from unsympathetic to Portillo's ideas, and yesterday made a powerful call for more blacks, gays and women to be represented on the Conservative benches. But he does not think that the Conservative Party lost the last election because it failed to appeal to metropolitan values.

THE last election was not about metropolitan values, but local values. It was the election when everything changed, and yet everything remained the same. It was as if the number of seats held by the main political parties was frozen in aspic. But beneath the surface a new politics was making itself felt, driven by a visceral cynicism about Westminster and a reemergence of local loyalties. That specifically local motivation - not seen in British politics since the 19th century - in large part explains why so few seats changed hands in 2001. It used to be said that no local MP, however assiduous, could resist the national swing. The 2001 general election proved that old saw wrong. In dozens of seats good local MPs from all parties benefited from a novel "incumbency factor".

Strategists in all the main parties have realised that globalisation has had the paradoxical effect of making voters relate more profoundlyto local issues. It is this that partly explains the startling success of the Liberal Democrats at the last election. They grasped that it is the quality of the local school, or whether planning consent will be given for an incinerator to be built in the locality, which people care about passionately. …

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