Gorwel: The Welsh Foundation for Innovation in Public Affairs
Sixty-two years ago a group of bright young men – and in those days they were all men – formed a dining club to prepare a manifesto for what became known as the “One Nation Group”. Their aim was to develop and promote new policy ideas, ideas in the Conservative tradition but ideas that would speak to post-war, welfare state Britain. Keen to establish for themselves an ancestral lineage, the group’s founders derived inspiration from Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, which had been subtitled “the two nations”, in which the future Tory Prime Minister drew attention to the yawning gap between rich and the poor in Victorian Britain.
This backstory has given rise to the received wisdom that One Nation sat firmly on the Left of the Conservative Party, although the reality is more complicated. Throughout its history the group actually drew its members from both wings of the party. The Anglo-Scottish MP Iain Macleod, for example, was at ease prioritising a role for the state, while Enoch Powell and Angus Maude advocated supply-side policies designed to encourage competitive markets. The neo-liberal ideas later associated with Thatcherism were anticipated by a 1954 One Nation pamphlet called Change is our Ally, although this didn’t flinch from attacking both Right and Left. “Their book is a riot of idol smashing,” said the Daily Mirror at the time. “They lay violent hands on all party idols—not only Socialist idols like nationalization, but Tory idols like tariffs and farmers—and they pitch the lot in to the dustbin.”
My point is this: not only was One Nation extraordinarily influential within the Conservative Party – with every Tory Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron claiming its mantle – but I would contend its influence extended beyond Conservatism. Indeed, the language and approach of One Nation could be found in the Social Democratic and Liberal parties of the 1980s, “New Labour” in the age of Blair and Mandelson and, quite naturally if you think about it, within the modern Scottish National Party which, after all, considers itself “the National Party of Scotland”.
And although the One Nation group never produced a formal policy document on devolution, a recent book by the political scientist David Seawright reveals that its members were deeply involved in that debates, leaving us to ponder the conundrum: “One Nation, but which?” Thus the One Nation ideal was challenged not only by the existence of Disraeli’s “two nations”, but also by the four nations of the multinational, multi-layered Union that is the United Kingdom.
History of the Scottish centre-right
Now it would be tenuous to claim that Scotland was central to the One Nation movement, although its ethos did owe something to a notable flowering of centre-right thinking which took place there between the two world wars. Central to this was a chap called Noel Skelton, a Scottish Tory MP I’m determined to rescue from historical obscurity. “Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy,” he declared in 1923, “neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.”
That goal of a “property-owning democracy”, since co-opted by New Labour, Liberal Democrats and indeed political movements around the world, extended beyond simply bricks and mortar. Skelton wanted individuals to have a stake in every layer of society, in government, land and industry, as well as property. He urged those on the centre-right to posit a coherent “view of life”, and thus appeal beyond traditional Conservative territory by tackling housing, welfare and industrial policy. Although Skelton’s desire to promote “fair play between all classes” might sound dated to 21st-century ears, it arguably anticipated the One Nation Group formed fifteen years after Skelton’s untimely death.
There was another, less acknowledged, flowering of centre-right thought in Scotland several decades later. The Iron Lady once told a most likely incredulous audience that, “the Scots invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of”, but she had a point. Take an in-depth look at political thought in the 1970s and you’ll recognise that Scots and Scottish institutions played a massively disproportionate role in the emergence of laissez-faire economics as the dominant doctrine in the modern Conservative Party.
St Andrews University – which produced figures as diverse as Alex Salmond and the Tory MPs Michael Fallon and Michael Forsyth – was the first to question the near-universal Keynesian orthodoxy, providing a protective womb for proto-Thatcherite economics. An offshoot of the St Andrews Conservative Association known as the Reform Group, also laid the foundations for one of the most significant think tanks in modern British politics, the Adam Smith Institute, its founders, Madsen Pirie and the Butler brothers, Stuart and Eamonn, having been students there. At St Andrews they preached deregulation – most notably of the airwaves – and at the ASI the Community Charge, otherwise known as the Poll Tax – evidence, if you need it, that everyone makes mistakes.
While certainly challenging and creative, the movement was arguably less effective in articulating a response to the rise of Scottish Nationalism in the 1970s and, to varying degrees, ever since. One of the only figures to try – the journalist and historian Michael Fry – produced a prescient pamphlet in the late 1980s called Unlocking the Future, which proposed a fiscally autonomous Scottish parliament within a federal UK. But that, even in the twilight of the Thatcher era, was obviously far from a mainstream view.
Indeed, the centre-right in Scotland has often been reluctant to acknowledge the influence of Nationalism, but it’s certainly there, in the policy, tactics and especially the language – “Scottish Control of Scottish Affairs” was the name of one Tory policy paper in the late 1940s. The irony, of course, is that today’s Scotland basically has a centre-right policy consensus, just not one that rewards the Conservative Party in electoral terms. Indeed, if you were to ask which party best puts the case for a low-tax, business-friendly and fiscally-autonomous Scotland, it is the SNP and its charismatic leader Alex Salmond – with his banking background and easy boardroom manner – who fills that role.
It’s evidence, if anything, that traditional ideological boundaries have broken down: the SNP has assumed large swathes of natural centre-right territory, while the Scottish Conservatives often end up attacking the Scottish Government from the Left, with demands for more spending, more intervention and even more regulation. In a sense, modern Scotland represents a triumph for centre-right values, although all the three non-Conservative parties tend not to preach what they practice, continuing to condemn Thatcher and her ilk largely because they’ve been doing it for more than three decades and old political habits die hard.
Dearth of policy making – constitutional straightjacket
This has negatives as well as positives. In a private letter later leaked to the Daily Telegraph, the former Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, Wendy Alexander, lamented the lack of centre-left ideas in modern Scottish politics, noting – perhaps a little unfairly – that the Labour movement in Scotland had last made a real intellectual contribution to the UK Labour Party in around 1906. “We have often spent so long obsessing about our constitutional choices”, she wrote, “that we have spent too little time reflecting on the sort of nation we wish to create. We are only a short way into the parliament and there is still much to achieve.”
Now this was written in 2002 but unfortunately matters, at least as far as the Scottish Parliament is concerned, haven’t really improved; in fact, if anything, it’s got a lot worse. This isn’t to say the constitutional dimension isn’t important, quite the contrary, how a nation – multinational or otherwise – is constituted is often of vital importance in developing and implementing policy. Nevertheless, constitutional change should surely be a means to an end, rather than the end in itself. Indeed, so focused on the forthcoming independence referendum is the current Scottish Government that despite enjoying an unprecedented majority, it has ceased doing very much governing. Last year’s legislative programme was a case in point: the flagship Bill was one that reconstituted the National Library of Scotland. Ironically, the prospect of delivering radical constitutional change in Scotland has achieved the reverse in policy terms. Holyrood, as a result, is no longer – if it ever was – at the centre of Scottish political discourse.
That’s why I think this Foundation has the right idea in terms of “parking” the constitutional question and instead returning to first principles: education, housing and the economy. In this respect, and beyond the rather anodyne debates that take place in the Scottish Parliament, there are encouraging signs of life. Although not exactly overflowing as in London, Edinburgh has a small but vibrant selection of think tanks producing a steady stream of reports, policy ideas and commentary.
One of the oldest is the David Hume Institute which, as its name suggests, derives inspiration from the Scottish Enlightenment, bringing together economic and legal experts on a cross-party basis to achieve, as it says, “a modest but beneficial impact on policies”. The most successful, however, is also the newest. Reform Scotland was launched about eight years ago, its objective being to develop policies that deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based what it calls the “traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility”.
Again, Reform Scotland is ostentatiously ecumenical in approach. The former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander, who I mentioned earlier, sits on its advisory panel; as does Jim Mather, a former SNP Enterprise Minister; Derek Brownlee, once the Scottish Tory Party’s finance spokesman and most talented strategist; and finally Jeremy Purvis, a former Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP and the current leader of Reform Scotland’s “devo+” campaign. Reform Scotland’s chairman, the former financier Ben Thomson, enjoys good relations with politicians from every major party, while he has regular contact with the First Minister, who of course values his articulation of a “fiscally responsible” Scotland.
So to what extent do such inquiries and reports filter through to a) elected politicians and b) the electorate? This, of course, is always a challenge, but not an impossible one. Reform Scotland has established a good working relationship with the Scotsman newspaper which, thanks to a particularly imaginative editor, now has a daily “Perspectives” section full of erudite commentary and policy analysis. Indeed, the media is essential tool in promoting new ideas, and I’d encourage you all to cultivate the Western Mail, BBC Wales and anyone else who might be willing to promote your work and broad aims.
To my mind, Reform Scotland offers an ideal model for what can be achieved with a modern think tank. It has a planned and coherent programme, a widely-respected cross-party advisory board and, perhaps most importantly, a prominent public profile. Although much of its work has quite naturally focused on the constitutional debate, it has always been careful to relate these proposals to economic and social policy. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Reform has set much of the recent policy and constitutional agenda in Scotland, ranging confidently across local, devolved and central government.
Some possible areas for exploration
So now you have a think tank, a structure, and, eventually if not immediately, funding, self evidently you’ll need something to think about. Although it’s fast becoming the British political equivalent of motherhood and apple pie, it strikes me that the crisis of social mobility is crying out for analysis and corrective political action. There is an emerging consensus about the importance of this, from Alan Milburn’s recent study, to speeches from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and, I think most notably, the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has referred to “glittering prizes in gilded hands”. In a recent speech at Brighton College Gove said
“…the sheer scale, the breadth and the depth, of private school dominance of our society points to a deep problem in our country – one we all acknowledge but have still failed to tackle with anything like the radicalism required. We live in a profoundly unequal society. More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress…For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible…”
Now it’s easy to argue that tackling this problem is simply too big, almost utopian in scale, and indeed those who on the centre right usually tend towards utilitarianism rather than idealism. Minimising inequality in the United Kingdom’s four nations is not a preserve of left or right, Nationalist or Unionist, but, or at least ought to be, a central aim of progressive politics.
Education is an obvious place to start. The former Tory education minister George Walden has written extensively on the failure of the current private/comprehensive orthodoxy, which keeps poorer children in their place (and I speak as the product of a comprehensive) while virtually guaranteeing their wealthier counterparts all the best university places and most lucrative jobs. Far from preserving this sorry state of affairs, the centre-right ought to be raging against it. In the pre-Thatcher days this was achieved through the grammar school system; but selection needn’t be a dirty word. As long as it’s selection based upon potential and blind to income, postcode and parental preference, it could radically transform schooling; and I refuse to believe it’s beyond the wit of man to come up with a system that’s at least a little fairer than the status quo.
Housing, too, offers challenges and therefore opportunities for creative policy making. In an age where many, even the modestly wealthy, find it difficult to join the property-owning democracy, the centre right ought to be zealously promoting alternatives to the current orthodoxy. The same applies to spreading corporate and industrial power much more widely. A recent book by Ferdinand Mount – who used to run Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit – not only fillets the current oligarchic nature of big business and government, but also proposes ways of tackling it, particularly in light of the 2008 economic crisis. Indeed, the present Westminster Coalition came to office with some pretty bold ideas in this respect, bold ideas that have largely vanished or been watered down to the point of no return.
That brings me to the problem with politicians – and I say this as someone who has the utmost respect for the finest of that breed. Subject to endless media and opposition battering, they have a terrible habit of either abandoning ideas or not bothering to come up with them in the first place. Think tanks, however, don’t have to win elections so it’s easier for them to articulate a clear, consistent line on tackling social mobility, growing the economy, encouraging enterprise, and so on. The aim must be making it easier for elected politicians to follow suit. Politicians rarely innovate but they will follow if they see the policy tide flowing in a particular direction. Just think of how the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs laid the groundwork for what later became known as Thatcherism, or how Progress and Demos articulated the building blocks of what became known as the Blairite Third Way.
Also, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. Now the National Assembly has primary law making powers your policy palette is much more extensive, although I wouldn’t stop there. A common refrain among all political parties in Scotland is “oh, that’s reserved so we don’t have a policy on it”, although that’s a cop out given that every political party is committed to more devolution. It’s incumbent on them, therefore, to say what they’d do with it. So the aim should be to influence not just the agenda in Wales, but also beyond; good ideas needn’t stop at the English border. If I’ve understood your name correctly then broadening your horizons should be central to Gorwel’s mission.
In conclusion the centre right should be willing, above all, to challenge orthodox views, on both the left and right, in the city and the country, in finance and farming. But in philosophical terms you also have to be honest about where you’re coming from. Sure, you’ll inevitably be attacked by opponents who wish, as in Scotland, to delegitimise any centre-right thinking, but if you conduct your affairs rationally, ecumenically and publicly, mutual respect can be fostered as the basis for mature political discourse.
Ideas are essential to modern political debate, and the centre-right tradition is long overdue for a revival. And, as with the policy aims of the One Nation Group more than sixty years ago, it’s a revival that need not send social democrats and Nationalists running for cover, for while there will always be disagreements, over emphasis, detail and – particularly in Scotland and Wales – precisely which Nation, the destination can be the same, to elevate, in the words of Disraeli, “the condition of the people”. So, be prepared to smash some idols on both left and right and – above all – to live a little dangerously. Thank you very much.
David Torrance MSP
for information about David Torrance click here