Limited government

26th May 1995 at 01:00
Things to Come: The Tories in the 21st Century. By John Patten. Sinclair-Stevenson. #163;17.99 - 1 856 19591 0.

John Patten has sought to write a manifesto to guide his beleaguered colleagues. Conservatives, he says, have to continue thinking if they wish to continue governing. Patten's first task, however, is to define Conservatism. "Three themes in our values (sic) are dominant", he believes.They are traditionalism, belief in the organic nature of society and a suspiciousness of philosophical grand designs.

From this it follows that Conservatives should be suspicious of the state and opposed to constitutional reform. Proportional representation would lead to weak government and devolution would break up the United Kingdom - except of course in Northern Ireland. Moreover, rights in Britain are already better protected than in countries with Bills of Rights, so that we can do without "the carefree importers of foreign legal systems".

For the same reason, Conservatives should be suspicious of Europe, although they should not carry their suspicion so far as to leave the European Union. An independent central bank could, however, be useful since it could "help to discipline socialismLabourism in future".

Instead of constitutional reform, Conservatives should support a programme of rolling constitutional change - piecemeal development to meet practical needs. The setting up of trust hospitals and GP fund holding are good examples of rolling change. Conservatives ought also to favour limited government and the control of inflation. Nor are apple pie and motherhood forgotten since Patten writes much of maintaining and strengthening the family. He admires the Chief Rabbis, Jakobovits and Sacks, although this admiration does not extend to spelling their names correctly. Nevertheless Patten favours high standards in education.

But how are high standards to be achieved? Patten would, it seems, like to see every school become grant maintained, since he regards grant maintained schools, like trust hospitals, as examples of subsidiarity in action. He also favours educational vouchers. Unfortunately, however, his proposals are set out in generalised terms; they lack sufficient detail to be convincing and Patten never gets to grips with the obvious objections. He does not, for example, seek to meet the argument that grant maintained schools cannot enjoy real autonomy if their funding comes from Whitehall, and if a minister is, in the last resort, responsible for them.

There is not much else in the book about education, except for familiar exhortations about the need to improve training. Patten nowhere asks why it is that we are seeking to answer almost the same questions about education that were asked during A J Balfour's premiership at the beginning of the century. Why have we not in the past done better at answering these questions, and what reasons are there for supposing that the efforts of the present government will meet a better fate than those of their predecessors Things to Come betrays many signs of hasty writing as well as cliche-ridden thought. The metaphors are often mixed and the grammar sometimes shaky. Is there no copy editor at Sinclair-Stevenson who can correct such sentences as "If to do that was 'visionary', then it was not necessarily seen as such at the time, rather than as an intensely pragmatic approach"?

The conclusion to Things to Come is in keeping with the spirit in which it is written and offers a fair sample of the book's style and syntax. It is that "The Tory years have done an enormous amount to improve the environment of our people and their surroundings as broadly understood, everything from promoting animal welfare and the performing arts to preserving the sites of special scientific interest and back." This might just pass muster as the peroration of a speech to a branch of the Huddersfield Young Conservatives on a rainy Saturday night, but it hardly stands as a permanent contribution to Conservative philosophy.

As Education Secretary, John Patten was widely regarded as shallow and lightweight, even by the standards of John Major's lacklustre administration. Things to Come will do little to rescue his reputation. George Orwell, whom Patten quotes liberally, once said that when Tories start to get clever, it is time to count your change. No one, however, will be any the worse off from Things to Come - except, of course, those who buy it.

Vernon Bogdanor is Reader in Government, Oxford University and a Fellow of Brasenose College.

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