Tory English nationalism

Out of touch with big capital, the Tories are seeking support through redefining British chauvinism, adding an extra reactionary twist

Last week’s Conservative Party conference confirmed that for the moment the Tories have been relegated to the fringes of British politics.

Hardly anyone - not even the majority of conference delegates - believes they can win the next general election. More importantly, in order to unite the party majority, William Hague has been forced to adopt a policy towards the European Union diametrically opposed to the interests of the most international, most competitive and most dynamic section of British big capital.

It goes without saying that any party hoping to be elected in normal times must speak for ‘the country’ - ie, it must adopt the language and conventions of national chauvinism: claiming to defend the interests of those who live in Britain as against those of outsiders. Today however, the question is not so simple. Global capital, whose individual sections still define themselves in relation to one state or another, nevertheless requires regulatory intervention over and above that provided by those states. Not only is there an increased need for world economic and political institutions (the United Nations, the World Bank) - even the Tories would agree that much. But the economic and commercial blocs, into which bourgeois states have always formed themselves, now require an ever growing degree of pooled sovereignty.

European capital in particular, if it is to compete with the rival North American and east Asian blocs, must not only proceed towards the integration of its separate economies, but also begin to build a supranational state structure to oversee that convergence. Within each EU state there are of course sectors whose interests are not served by this process. They are the representatives of small and medium (national) capital, as opposed to big (international) capital. The Conservative Party, for so long able to speak with authority on behalf of both wings, is now by and large articulating the views only of the former.

As a result it is in disarray. No wonder, one by one, media supporters have deserted it, to one degree or another switching to New Labour. The Sun appeared to sum up the situation with its headline, “Tories dead - official” (October 6). Only The Daily Telegraph remains loyal, but even its political correspondent seemed to cringe along with the rest, as he reported Peter Lilley’s attempts to amuse the Bournemouth audience with his rendition of “the New Labour version” of Land of hope and glory.

If the Tories had been aiming to adopt a position which guaranteed their marginalisaion, they could not have been more successful. Hague’s line of ruling out the euro for the lifetime of the next parliament is so obviously out of touch with reality that it leaves his party marooned in irrelevance. As Kenneth Clarke pointed out, long before then the new EU coinage is likely to be circulating alongside sterling in everyday use.

Britain will be forced to adopt the euro if it wants to retain any chance of re-establishing London as a gateway to Europe for world capital. Hague may pretend to believe that his overwhelming majority in the membership referendum has “settled” the issue, and that the Tories can now unite around his leadership. Yet in less than three months time, on January 1 1999, 11 European states will make the euro legal tender within their borders. Life itself will mock his ‘success’.

This untenable position ensures that the Conservative Party will remain deeply divided and leaves it susceptible to a split. The Clarke-Heseltine wing cannot be expected to quietly accept that the traditional ‘preferred’ party of British capital to which they have devoted most of their lives can no longer be its main political voice. Clarke’s description of the ultra-chauvinist, inward-looking majority as “unilateralist” is particularly apt. The term was widely used of the Labour Party in the 80s, following its adoption of the policy of nuclear disarmament for Britain. At that time it was Labour that was dubbed ‘unelectable’.

Two decades later, Blair seeks to establish New Labour as the ‘preferred’ party of the British bourgeoisie in place of the Tories. The thinking of his government is completely in tune with the requirements of big capital on the central question of Europe. It is true that Blair is still parrotting the ‘wait and see’ line which originated with the Conservative Party under John Major. But there is no doubt that for Blair the inevitable declaration of intent to join the single currency is just a matter of timing. He will come out openly for such a position once he believes he can win the referendum to which he is committed. The odds will build up in his favour as big business calls to adopt the single currency become a clamour over the next year or so. There will be a long, gradually intensifying campaign in which government institutions will be used to the full.

The Tories’ more realist, pro-Europe wing understands all this only too well. But Clarke and Heseltine are unlikely to make any rash moves. They will certainly avoid a premature split. An institution with the weight and history of the Conservative Party will not easily be replaced. They will not follow the example of Europhile MEP, James Moorhouse, who last week resigned from the party. He defected to the Liberal Democrats, timing his move for greatest effect to coincide with Hague’s conference speech. Moorhouse, 74, had already been deselected by his constituency and had nothing to lose.

Two other MEPs, John Stevens and Brendan Donnelly, also to be dumped for their pro-EU stance, commissioned a Mori poll on the eve of conference, which found that around 10% of electors would back a Euro-friendly Tory breakaway if it was headed by a figure such as Clarke. Of those questioned 82% thought Britain would have joined the single currency in 10 years time - a finding which only reinforces the Tories’ predicament. In an amazing 24-hour period the two were expelled, reinstated, resigned and then withdrew their resignations.

All this goes to show that the threat of a split will hang over Hague for as long as the present policy is retained. One man who will be watching developments very carefully is Tony Blair. He knows that Clarke and Heseltine will not move before the introduction of proportional representation, when 10% support could be translated into a block of MPs and the possibility of a seat in a coalition government - unlike under the present system when it would mean oblivion. As with his position regarding the euro, Blair’s mind is already made up over PR. Again it is a question of timing to ensure a majority, both within his party and within the electorate as a whole, in order to implement this reform - one which looks certain to split the Tories.

Having turned their backs on the most obvious strategy to serve the interests of British capital, the Tories have nevertheless begun to sniff the possibility of an alternative means of carving out a place for themselves. Among the 22 mentions of “the British way” in Hague’s keynote speech, there was an extra, particularly repugnant, reactionary ingredient.

The Conservative leader said:

“We are not going to be English nationalists, but we are going to see that the voters of England are fairly represented ... For the first time we will have to become advocates of major constitutional change. It may be a change in the voting rights of Scottish MPs. It may be an English parliament in some form.”

Such proposals would have nothing to do with the ‘rights’ of the English. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish may well be marginally ‘overrepresented’ at Westminster in proportion to their populations, but England still provides 80% of its MPs who in practice can decide everything. The Tory call for a royal English parliament does not reflect any progressive national aspiration. It represents a stoking up of irrational prejudices and, despite Hague’s assurances to the contrary, the possibility of a sinister and necessarily reactionary incipient English nationalism.

Hague explicitly defined this in opposition to Scotland and Wales. He said of them: “We are not going to leave the battleground to the nationalist parties who want to destroy our country and a Labour Party which has played into their hands” (my emphasis). The logic ought to be as clear for us as it is to him. Scottish and Welsh national aspirations are positive in that their democratic content poses a threat to the UK monarchical system.

But for Hague English nationalism can be used to bolster the beleagured Tories. According to former home secretary Kenneth Baker, the fact that Scots and Welsh MPs will continue to vote on questions concerning England alone, while English MPs will “have no say” on Scottish and Welsh issues, is “unfair to the English and inherently unstable” (The Observer October 11). His article appeared under the headline, “A democratic deficit south of the border”. Yet Baker and Hague won support from an unexpected quarter for this crass populism. Showing the Tories’ potential for the gaining of wide support for such a redefining of British chauvinism, The Guardian echoed Baker’s words the following day: “There is an incipient deficit in the way the interests of the people of England get articulated ... It is time to create practical proposals for procedural reform” (October 12).

Not surprisingly Scottish and Welsh delegates to the Conservative conference voiced concern at this new turn. But that will not worry Hague unduly. His party has been wiped off the map in Scotland and Wales. While of course he would like to win back MPs and councils in those countries, the reality is that the Tories are at present a very English party.

Baker’s Observer article drew the following conclusion: “The way to hold the UK together is for each country - Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England - to have its own parliament.”

In place of the democratic demand for a federal republic from below, the Tories appear to be moving towards the reactionary solution of a federal monarchy imposed from above.

Jim Blackstock