Robert Skidelsky
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Essay: They’re anti-intellectual Europhobes
Robert Skidelsky
Guardian | Tuesday, October 16, 2001

 
Conservative peer and former frontbencher explains why he is finally leaving the party
 
I joined the Conservative party just before the general election of 1992, which John Major was widely expected to lose. It seemed a natural thing to do for an SDP peer whose party had just dissolved. The Labour party under Neil Kinnock still subscribed to the "common ownership" of the economy. For a supporter - and friend - of David Owen, joining the Liberal Democrats would have been an act of betrayal.
 
The Conservative party seemed to me then to be the natural - and only - carrier of the idea of a free economy. It stood for lower taxes; it had just started to apply the principle of consumer choice to the NHS and state education. I was particularly interested in education, and felt I could contribute to Conservative policy in this area.
 
I did not know that the Conservative party had reached the limit of its reforming zeal; or that the slenderness of John Major's majority in 1992 and the growing ferocity of the party's splits on Europe were about to destroy it as an engine of government.
 
This brings me to the first, and main, reason for leaving. The party I joined was Eurosceptic. It has become Europhobic. Opposition to joining the euro has hardened from doubt into dogma.
 
But it is not just the euro. Every attempt at institution-building on the continent - from modest attempts to harmonise VAT to the project for a European rapid reaction force - excites reactions which would have been appropriate in 1940 but which today simply sound hysterical. And with Europhobia has surfaced a streak of xenophobia, symbolised by William Hague's in sensitive idea of setting up a "removals agency" to deal with asylum seekers.
 
The truth is that many, perhaps most, Conservatives would like Britain to leave the European Union - if only they knew what to do then. Some are Little Englanders - and why not let the ungrateful Scots go while we are about it? - and some would prefer to "join the United States".
 
There is a place in British politics for such views. But it's not my place.
 
Kenneth Clarke represented the last chance to pull the Conservatives back on to sensible ground. But with unerring accuracy, a party embittered, but not chastened, by two unprecedented electoral defeats, chose someone as much like itself as possible - a mistake Conservatives never used to make in the past.
 
My views on the public services have changed. Two things have become clearer to me than they were 10 years ago. First, the British people are solidly attached to the principle of universal health-care and education free at point of use. Second, attempts to raise the quality by changing the structure of these services - whether by introducing competition between hospitals and schools, or by getting private companies to take them over - do little to raise standards while demoralising those who work in them.
 
If this is so, it seems to me that politicians have to start making the case once more for the NHS and state education as public services, rather than treating them as anomalous statist left-overs in a market economy. This means funding them decently (mainly from taxes) and doing everything possible to restore a public service ethic. Iain Duncan Smith's idea of sending shadow cabinet ministers round Europe to discover how "our European neighbours" manage health and education seems to me to be a mere gimmick. They will discover that European welfare states cost more than ours: and what then?
 
I do not doubt that, as national income grows, the private sector in healthcare and education will grow too. And it seems to me important to a free society that it should be allowed to. But this growth should come from outside the public sector and not by trying to mesh public service and commercial motives inside the public sector.
 
Finally, the anti-intellectualism of the Conservative party has become increasingly hard for me to take. Of course, I knew that the Conservatives were not a "thinking" party. They rely on the "intimations" of history to tell them what to do.
 
Traditions are not to be despised. They protect a society from all kinds of hair-brained projects. But they also create an intangible barrier to acceptance of people who are seen as "academics" or "professors". Look at the differences between the kind of people the Conservatives, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats make peers.
 
Perhaps this was not quite so apparent 10 years ago. The towering generation of thinking Conservative leaders who had brought about the Thatcher revolution were about to leave the stage. They were not replaced. The party was reverting to type.
 
David Willetts - the ablest front bench Conservative today - often teased me about what he called my "intellectualist fallacy". That is arguing from principles, not history. He said: "You are not really a Tory after all." He was probably right.
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