Robert Skidelsky
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Essay: Clarke and IDS share a goal but not much else
Robert Skidelsky
Guardian | Tuesday, August 28, 2001

 
The language politicians use tells you less about what they intend to do than about the hopes and fears to which they wish to appeal. How, then, does one set about deconstructing the manifestos of the two contenders for the Tory leadership, Kenneth Clarke and Iain Duncan Smith, bearing in mind the rather specialised nature of their electorates?
 
The first difference - on which nearly everything else hinges - hits you in the face. Clarke puts himself forward as the leader most likely to topple Labour; Duncan Smith as the leader best placed to unite the Conservative party. The Clarke appeal is to the hunger for power; the Duncan Smith appeal is to the hunger for unity. Clarke plays to the fear that the Tory party under IDS (as he has become known) will become marginalised; Duncan Smith to the fear that, under Clarke, it will fall to pieces.
 
See how the rhetoric works. "The true satisfaction of politics," writes Clarke, "comes with the opportunity to participate in the decisions of government." He goes on: "Our party has always been the party of power... we have a historic responsibility to govern... I have no doubt that in four years' time, we can, and will, win again."
 
Contrast IDS: "To be electable, we must be united. Without unity, all our efforts will be wasted. If we want to widen our appeal... first, and above all - we must be united... [We must restore] the unity and purpose of the Conservative party."
 
Implied by these positive statements are different analyses of why the Conservatives lost. Clarke has no doubt that their "colossal" defeat this year was due to their being seen as "sectarian and extreme, obsessed with things ordinary people did not much care about, and insensitive to the things which really mattered". IDS minimises the scale of the Tory defeat: "William Hague has left us much to build on." The only analysis of defeat he offers is disunity.
 
Clarke believes that in order to win the next election the Conservatives must compete with Labour for the "moderate, middle ground" of British politics. "I want to reassert the tradition of liberal, one-nation Toryism and break with the image of extremism." Otherwise, the "fringes of politics" beckon. IDS is clear that "there is no future for the Conservative party in attempting to be more like New Labour. We should not try to 'out-Blair' Mr Blair." Rather the Tories should "hold faith with those things that make us Conservatives".
 
And so to Europe. For IDS, Britain's future relations with the EU are a life-and-death matter, and he believes that his brand of Euroscepticism is shared by the vast majority of the party, as well as by the voters at large. For Clarke, on the other hand, "Europe is an important issue in British politics but the electorate does not believe it to be the most important."
 
For supporters of IDS it seems to follow as night does day that "only Iain can unite the party on Europe". The manifestos do not really bear this out. Both contenders agree in opposing federalism, using Britain's veto to protect its interests. But what about the euro?
 
Here IDS's claim to be the unity candidate looks very peculiar. He has hardened the "sceptical" approach of Major and Hague into one of complete denial. He is "opposed to entry into the euro on principle". "Iain is committed to keeping the pound sterling", whatever the circumstances. It is hard to see how this can be a unifying position for a party which has always prided itself on its pragmatism.
 
Compare Clarke: "I do not think the conditions are right for Britain to join now." It remains for Clarke to say under what conditions he would think it right or wrong. But at least he has kept an escape option. He does not have to support Blair in a referendum, whereas IDS is committed to opposing him.
 
On domestic policy, there is a great deal of overlap, both manifestos attacking what they see as Labour's over-centralised, bureaucratised approach to the public services, and promising to increase choice, reduce the role of the state, get rid of red tape, and so on. These are common Conservative instincts.
 
However, Clarke's manifesto owes more than IDS's to Michael Portillo's agenda. Under his leadership the Conservatives would espouse "social freedom" as well as "economic freedom", would reject "a morally authoritarian tone", would re-engage with the universities, and would endorse a "rich, diverse, multicultural national life".
 
IDS, too, sees the need to reach out to contemporary Britain, but his one concrete offering is environmentalism, which he links to the Conservative desire for "conservation".
 
On policy, Clarke is more cautious than IDS. He accepts the need for "fresh ideas but not ideologies", rejects "making policy on the hoof" and would set up four expert commissions to suggest policy "in the major areas of political controversy".
 
IDS, too, promises "top-quality research", but offers ideas of his own, which in advance of the "research", might strike the reader as more half-baked than bright: tax breaks for solar panels, "credits" to enable parents to escape from sink schools, "binding" school contracts, and more private-sector involvement in providing healthcare and pensions.
 
The demotics of the two leaders' approach to the "state of Britain" explains a great deal about their strategies for reviving Tory for tunes. Although IDS concedes that there is "much to enjoy" in modern Britain, he does not seem to enjoy it very much. His rhetoric is panicky: "Fear of crime is destroying our communities. Graffiti, vandalism and violent behaviour are now everywhere... Why don't you feel safe even in your own home?... Why are the trains always late, and the roads so clogged up?"
 
Clarke's mood is more cheerful. He recognises that there are serious social problems ("Conditions in too many parts of our cities fall short of what a civilised society should tolerate"), but his picture is that of a successful society which is not "safe in Labour's hands", rather than a society on the brink of dissolution.
 
Why is Clarke so much more impressive than IDS? Because he understands that Britain today is not the country which Mrs Thatcher's government inherited in 1979, that New Labour has camped on much of Mrs Thatcher's own ground, and that a Conservative party which wants power has to fight Labour for ownership of that ground, not to conjure up a vision of doom if its remedies are rejected.
 
But will the voters Clarke needs to secure the leadership understand that, or will they prefer the shrinking security of an unsullied faith?
 
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