Willetts decides tactics on bill

January 9, 1998

The last thing the Tories need to produce is more detailed policy documents, shadow higher education spokesman David Willetts acknowledges with irony since he made his political reputation in the policy-fixated world of the think tanks, writes Huw Richards.

But as he prepares for the heavy parliamentary workload of leading the Conservative response to the Teacher Training and Higher Education Bill when it hits the Commons next month, Mr Willetts, who ran the Centre for Policy Studies before entering parliament in 1992, sees it as the only realistic approach for the Tories.

"We have spent the past 18 years preparing white papers and green papers. It is time to take a break and to work to reestablish confidence among different groups. If, after such a heavy defeat, we carried on regardless producing detailed blueprints we would be playing fantasy politics," he says.

He has no difficulty with the proposition that his party lost touch during 18 years of government. "The general election result tells you that. During the election people did not have to tell me why they were not voting Conservative - all they had to do was tell me their job - in the health service or teaching for instance. Rather than going on proscribing, what we now have to do is listen and learn."

Mr Willetts, 41, follows the tradition that the higher education brief goes to someone capable of dealing with top-flight academics at their own intellectual level. While his much-touted nickname of "Two Brains" turned out to originate in a joke by political journalist Michael White, it is apt enough to show signs of sticking.

He says that the Conservatives' unpopularity among academics goes beyond policy issues. "Academics are professional sceptics - and rightly so. But a crucial element in Conservatism is the unreflective acceptance of social roles."

The author of Modern Conservatism (1992), Civic Conservatism (1994) and a stream of shorter think pieces is probably the 659th likeliest member of parliament to advocate unreflectiveness for its own sake but he cites his intellectual hero David Hume in support of his contention that "you can't be sceptical about everything".

He is very sceptical about the government's handling of the Dearing report, arguing that they are guilty of "making policy on the hoof and not thinking the consequences through - a good example of this is the gap-year muddle."

He is shocked at how keen David Blunkett and his team are on centralisation, a process he recognises that the Conservatives started. "Among the themes of Civic Conservatism was the importance of maintaining strong institutions between the individual and the state. Universities, colleges and schools are good examples," he says. "If I had an anxiety about Dearing it was in this area. There comes a point when the quality-control process is so detailed and intense that in practice it becomes management. We don't want that."

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