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Tories must learn to love the country as it is, not as they would like it to be

The writer served as UK minister for culture, communications and creative industries from 2010-16

The latest chapter in the Conservative party’s astonishing post-Brexit psychodrama has delivered the departure of Liz Truss, the shortest-serving prime minister in history. How the Tories come back from this is anyone’s guess. But there will be no return unless they take a long, hard look at themselves and think seriously about what sort of country Britain could be.

In 1997, after the catastrophic Tory election defeat and the triumph of Tony Blair’s New Labour, I, along with people such as Michael Gove and Nick Boles, embarked on a project to “modernise” the Conservative party.

Our mantra was simple: the Tories should embrace Britain for what it is today, rather than what they wanted it to be. Our equivalent of Blair’s battle with his own party over clause four of the Labor constitution was section 28, the Thatcher legislation that prevented schools from teaching children about homosexuality. In 1997, the Tories opposed its repeal. Fifteen years later, under prime minister David Cameron, they were introducing gay marriage.

But our campaign went wider than that. We understood that voters treasured their public services, and cared about issues such as the environment and human rights. These were issues Conservatives cared about too. But we had simply forgotten to reassure the public about our approach.

Of course, the Tory modernisers ended up being derided as the “Notting Hill Set”, a prototype of the Remain-voting, tofu-eating “wokerati” ridiculed in the House of Commons this week by former home secretary Suella Braverman. (I hate tofu, by the way.)

But it is now time for the modernisers to rise again and embark on modernization 2.0 — which will be much harder to do while still in office. The first time around, modernization was begun in opposition.

If that first rejuvenation project appeared to be more style than substance, there was a reason for it. Style counts for a lot in politics, especially now that recent Tory prime ministers have derided many of their natural supporters, suggesting they have had enough of experts, “citizens of nowhere”, business and the so-called anti-growth coalition. You don’t get very far with an attitude like that.

There is a very profound question confronting those who wish to modernize the Conservative party today: what is Britain’s place in the world? What are we capable of achieving, either by ourselves or with others?

Many Tories still believe Britain’s narrative should be about Empire and past glories, that our history should never be questioned, and that we can continue to dispute the globe and bend the world to our will. In short, that we can turn the clock back to a small state pre- (second world) war economy.

A modern Tory, on the other hand, understands that we have a much more exciting future based on our strengths today. The UK is Europe’s technology hub; we have world-class universities; a public realm largely free of corruption; the rule of law; and universal public services.

As the old cliché goes, Britain is a great place to live and work, hard though that may be to believe at the moment. Either you think modern Britain is a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend, or an exciting, dynamic 21st-century economy with enormous potential.

The outlines of the new modernization agenda are clear. We must come to terms with Brexit and prioritize our relationship with our closest neighbors and our biggest and nearest market. That means stopping the immature stand-off with Brussels and making an economic and migration settlement with Europe our biggest priority.

We also need to stop living in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher — although I admit I said that in 1997, too. The Conservative party bangs on about tax cuts, with the consequences all too evident in Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous “mini” budget, but we would achieve much more with tax simplification.

As for “levelling up”, that is not about moving civil servants around the country, but should mean building the rail networks we need to truly bring the country together. We should revive the Northern Powerhouse and be unstinting in our support for the High Speed ​​2 rail project.

Education should focus on the whole child, with an emphasis on health and genuine opportunity for those from the least advantaged backgrounds. And government should be digital and focused on clear and achievable aims which have a real impact on the lives of our fellow citizens.

This is a manifesto full of optimism and hope. The Tories have not profited from ideology. They would do better focusing on what works. It’s time to stop revering the past and fearing the future.

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