Tories hit the road to Damascus

London Event: January 11th, 2005; jointly hosted by Centre for Social Justice and World Vision

”Idealism without illusions: a Conservative approach to combating poverty”

Michael Howard, Leader of Conservative Party
Oliver Letwin, Shadow Chancellor

So much for Gordon Brown’s personal crusade to meet the 0.7% UN target for overseas development assistance. A Tory government will match every penny and adhere to the same timetable – promised the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, in his first major speech on international development.

This policy proposal has been in the public domain in recent weeks. Both speakers now took the opportunity to soften up the audience of charity managers with promises that more aid would be channelled through civil society, with less going to multilateral agencies. Michael Howard was quick to accuse the European Union of inefficiency and of misdirecting aid to relatively affluent recipients. The Tories instead will focus on the very poorest countries.

Other promises built on these principles. Michael Howard introduced a proposal to set up an advocacy fund to assist poor countries fight their corner in WTO disputes. And Oliver Letwin promises to advocate reform of the World Bank so that it concentrates more on grants and microcredit, and less on grandiose project loans.

The sting in the tail for this particular audience may be the unreserved commitment of both speakers to the principle that aid should be conditional upon free enterprise, liberalized markets, and free trade: “The spread of liberal markets has done more for poverty than aid,” insisted Michael Howard, citing the economic growth of China as a “huge achievement which we should celebrate”. He did accept the need to undo the hypocrisy of European tariffs and subsidies, and to recognize at least the principles of fair trade: “I believe in fair trade becoming fairer and free trade becoming freer,” he said.

Oliver Letwin echoed variations on this theme of fairer and freer trade, concepts that may require much unpicking over coming months. There was little reference to the responsibilities of corporations enjoying the benefits of free global trade, and none at all to the regulation of the arms trade, the issue which had done so much to undermine the last Conservative government.

Absent too was a sense of real belief in these new policies – which do, after all, represent a significant shift in Tory thinking. Reading prepared speeches and taking no questions, Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin lack the conviction and passion that might persuade diehard liberals to walk the gangplank and vote Conservative. Gordon Brown delivers more political punch just by walking on to a platform. This is a mountain the Tories have to climb.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK