Well that was a lesson learned. The lesson? Don't bother debating with people who were trained in debating by the Socialist Workers Party. In case you are wondering, I refer to Peter Hitchens. He, Ed Vaizey and I were talking this afternoon at the Oxford Literary Festival on the theme of 'What is the Tories' Big Idea?'. There were around 150 people at in the Grand Marquee to hear a lively exchange, which was moderated by BBC journalist Ben Wright.
Both Ed Vaizey and I were rather dismissive of politicians who have big ideas. They are usually from people who over promise and under deliver. I prefer politicians who under promise and over deliver. Ed concentrated on talking about localism and education and in particular the Conservative policies on schools as key to the Conservative approach. I said that the only big idea in town must be the one which helps solve our economic woes. It was fanciful for any politician to think that it would be politics as usual. But I might as well have saved my breath.
Peter Hitchens didn't really bother to address the question of the debate and treated the audience to a collection of his column's greatest hits. All politicians were useless, especially Tory ones. Nothing could be solved until Britain left the EU and the best thing which could happen would be for the Tories to lose the next election and implode. There could then be a real political party which could implement all the policies which Hitchens himself believes in.
And pigs might fly.
I am afraid I saw red and ridiculed Hitchens for being the Tony Benn de nos jours. He reckoned the only reason the Tories had lost the last three elections was because they were not right wing enough. An interesting proposition, and a preposterous one. Benn thought the same about Labour in 1983. He reckoned they would have won if Labour had been more left wing.
Hitchens then accused Vaizey and all modern day politicians as being careerists and only being in it for what they could get out of it. An easy populist line, but one which didn't seem to find much resonance with the audience. He accused the Conservative Party of not believing in anything. I pointed out that the Conservative Party has a clear consistency of ideas and beliefs, unlike someone who has travelled from the far left of the political spectrum to, er, God knows where. I don't think even he knows where has ended up to be honest.
There's nothing wrong with a good dose of idealism in politics. I agree with some of Peter Hitchens' ideals. But he belongs to the school of thought which ignores the harsh realities of political life. He doesn't seem to recognise that all political parties are coalitions. He pretends that he would like to be in power and make the decisions - but he would find it impossible to be a politician in a liberal democracy - a benevolent dictator perhaps, for if he couldn't get his own way on everything he'd rather just snipe from the sidelines at those who do their best to make things better.
I made the point that while we all retain ideals, some of us realise that in the end politics is about putting things into practice, and yes, sometimes having to be pragmatic.
The best question came from a man in the audience who had his 18 year old son sitting next to him. He asked what the Tories could offer young people like him, who were about to go to university and be saddled with a £20,000 debt. Ed maintained that student loans and tuition fees were perfectly justifiable in an era of expansion for higher education. I begged to differ. I said that the 50% target for 18 year olds to go to university was fatuous in an age where job prospects for graduates were increasingly dubious and it was criminal to encourage people to go to university just because it was the 'done thing'. Many of them would drop out in their first year. I went on to talk about vocational education and said that the worst thing the last Conservative government had done was to turn polytechnics into universities and help ruin vocational education in this country. I concluded by saying that a Big Tory Idea could be the revitalisation of vocational education. It was the only thing which got a big round of applause during the whole hour, which is something David Willetts might reflect on. Ed told me afterwards that this policy had been thought up and implemented by Robert Jackson and Alan Howarth during their stints as Higher Education Ministers, while Ed was himself on the Education Desk in the Conservative Research Department. Both of those ex Ministers ended up defecting to Labour.
Another 18 year old complained that none of us had given him One Big Idea which could inspire him. To be honest, I think Ed and I both thought we had failed him. Someone asked about Barack Obama and how he had inspired a generation. With what, asked Ed. By constantly repeating the mantra of "Change we can believe in"? "OK, I can do that too," said Ed, "but I'd prefer to treat people as adults."
My parting shot was to suggest that the big idea ought to be "Sound money we can believe in".
I normally enjoy these sort of panel sessions, but I left this one feeling that the audience hadn't really got what they came for. The fact that Peter Hitchens was on the panel meant that it became a discussion about his wacky brand of right wingery, rather than about what the Conservatives ought to do in government. I suppose it was inevitable, but it was nevertheless unsatisfactory. To be honest, I don't think any of us covered ourselves in glory.
I am still sceptical about a Big Idea. What do you reckon?
It was nice to meet a few of my blogreaders afterwards, particularly the lady and her son who told me I brighten up their day each morning. And it was also great to meet Lakelander and Mrs Lakelander!