Conservative disarray

Can the Tories reinvent themselves? Michael Malkin investigates

A disaster. There really is - at least from the Tory point of view - no other word to describe what befell the Conservative Party on June 7: four wasted years ending in a second consecutive landslide defeat. For our class, it need hardly be said, the Tories? humiliation is a cause for rejoicing. Historically, they have been the avowed enemies of all that we fight for and hold most dear. But our joy should perhaps be tempered by the reflection that in New Labour Britain has a government and a party that, in this writer?s opinion, is in many important respects - whether in economic or social policy - indistinguishable from the Tories themselves.

New Labour has not only adeptly stolen whole swaths of Tory policies, but, behind the flatulent inanities of the ?third way? and of endless spin and sound bites, it has created the ideological climate in which it is able to implement them in a way that Thatcher herself could scarcely have dreamt of.

It is this fact, of course, that lies at the heart of the Conservative Party?s current dilemma. For some 70 years during the century or so that extended from the death of Disraeli to the tearful departure of Thatcher from Downing Street, the Tories governed either alone or as the dominant partner in coalitions. On this basis they must be seen as the most successful political party of the modern era in Britain, a force whose claim to be ?the natural party of government? was not without foundation.

Now the party finds itself plunged into an acute crisis of identity and is forced to ask itself searching questions - such as ?What should be the meaning of conservatism in the 21st century; what is Toryism for?? Until 1997 and its aftermath, the answer to these questions was self-evident. The Conservative Party?s function was to underpin British imperialism by protecting and extending the power of capital; to foster the financial, industrial and commercial interests of the big bourgeoisie, keep secure the middle classes and, most notably in the years of Thatcher?s three election victories, successfully to capture loyal support among sections of the working class itself; to do all these things while simultaneously waging a relentless war against socialism and the forces of organised labour.

Yet how many of these tasks have not been pursued with equal vigour and performed with equal success by New Labour in the last four years? - four years in which the Conservatives, to quote Michael Heseltine, have become ?a rightwing, xenophobic party talking to itself in an introspective way? (The Observer June 10); four years, one might add, in which its natural constituency appears to have shrunk to the point where it comprises little more than the countryside and the suburban heartlands of the gin-and-tonic belt in the south east, where the great majority of its active members are already in the Tories? dotage. Small wonder that, against this background, The Sunday Telegraph quotes a former cabinet minister as saying, ?We are out for another two terms? (June 10).

From a purely personal point of view, it is quite understandable why William Hague chose to fall on his sword rather than wait for the daggers to be plunged into his back, but in provoking an immediate contest for the leadership he has done his party further harm by robbing it of the chance of engaging in a period of profound reflection and analysis. The idea that a change of leader can, in and of itself, do much to solve the party?s problems is an illusion now, just as it was in 1997. What the Tories need is nothing short of a revolution - not merely in style (though that is important), but in substance.

If we go back to 1997, we find the same fundamental contradiction that bedevils the party today. Then, as it is now, the contradiction was between, on the one hand, the correctly perceived need by the social liberals on the left of the party to project a more ?moderate? and ?caring? one-nation conservatism and, on the other, the visceral reactionary populism of the moral authoritarian right.

At Blackpool in 1997, Hague, in his first speech as leader, rightly blamed the Tories? debacle in the general election on the ?arrogant, selfish and conceited? nature of his party, which was, in his own words, perceived as ?harsh, uncaring and greedy?. Not just ?perceived? - it was all those things and more besides. Hence, the age of ?caring conservatism? had to be inaugurated and it was time to ?listen to Britain? (The Guardian October 5 1997).

By 1999, however, in the wake of the Tories? surprisingly good results in the European elections and under pressure from his right, this implausible conversion to humility and compassion was quickly forgotten. In its stead, we got The common-sense revolution - a fatuous oxymoron - that turned out to be just a ragbag of neo-Thatcherite, supposedly populist nostrums. This bombastic, bloated and intensely backward-looking document, with its ?five guarantees to the British people? and its 60 policy initiatives, laughably endowed all the most prejudiced and reactionary opinions of the home counties? saloon bar ideologue with the status of political wisdom. Programmatically, The common-sense revolution represented a logical, rightwards extension of Blairism, for it was Blair, with his astute feel for the priorities of ?middle-Englanders?, not Hague, who had turned out to be the natural son and heir of Thatcherism.

By last autumn, with an election in prospect, the contradiction remained unresolved. True, the conference adopted the slogan of ?A Conservative Party for all?, and wheeled out a resurrected John Major, who, abandoning his own (exclusively ?English?) vision of warm beer, cricket grounds and old ladies bicycling to evensong, averred that the Conservatives should be speaking to ?the people outside the circle of rising prosperity, the black and brown and yellow Britons? (The Guardian October 3 2000).

Hague?s flirtation with English nationalism was tempered somewhat. The xenophobia was toned down and there was a marked change of tune in the direction of ?inclusivity?. The unlikely mouthpiece for all the inane, transparent, crypto-Blairite rhetoric, of ?celebrating difference and diversity?, was none other than Michael Portillo, for whom Bournemouth 2000 was the final stage in rebranding himself from a hard-line Thatcherite ?tankie? to a ?caring? conservative with a tender conscience. Portillo gave his listeners a sermon on the iniquities of ?Little Englandism?, a sin which he confessed to having committed himself - before he saw the light while working as a TV reporter and hospital porter. Portillo?s road from Enfield via Damascus purportedly left an indelible impression, and transformed him into a passionate advocate of ?rich ethnic diversity? and respect for gays and lesbians. He even had a compassionate word to say for asylum-seekers - ?who come to Britain in fear of their lives?.

It was abundantly clear at the time that this was not so much a conference speech as the personal manifesto of a candidate for the leadership. In some respects it contradicted the leader?s own approach, but Portillo, with evident foresight, obviously thought it would do him only good to distance himself from Hague?s increasingly erratic tendency to jump on all manner of populist bandwagons. In this respect, Hague was, of course, continuing the Thatcherite tradition of defining Toryism not in terms of what it stands for but in terms of the things it is implacably against: ?dodgers?, ?cheats?, ?scroungers?, single mothers, anti-clause 28 promoters of homosexuality, asylum-seekers and, of course, the EU in general and the euro in particular. The natural outlet for all this pent-up bile was, as readers will recall, the so-called ?darling of the activists?, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, who launched into a magnificently mad tirade against cannabis-users that left the saner elements in the party in a state of shock.

In the succeeding months, and especially during the election campaign, it became increasingly apparent that the Conservative Party had failed abysmally to read the political runes. Hague?s rash promise to slash taxes - an anachronistic throwback to gung-ho Thatcherism - entirely missed the point of a political agenda that was dominated by genuine popular anger over the appalling state of public services; lurid attempts to frighten the voters into deserting Labour were ill-conceived and counterproductive; and then there was the desperate, facile campaign to ?save the pound?.

In theory, the dismal turnout of around 59% - surely reflecting the disillusionment and apathy of many towards Blair and politics in general - ought to have helped the Conservatives recoup at least some of their 1997 losses among the middle classes and in the centre ground. The fact that it did not is significant, reflecting, the extraordinary political background against which the election was fought: a stable economy, with low inflation and a low level of (official) unemployment; connected to that, rising standards of living for those in decent jobs; the absence of open warfare between capital and labour, with the working class atomised and demoralised and the big unions supine before New Labour; and, perhaps above all, the perception that nothing fundamental separated the two main parties in terms of policy - only in terms of managerial competence, specifically in relation to the economy, where Labour garnered the harvest of Gordon Brown?s reputation for ?prudence? and trustworthiness.

The Tory left, wanting to emerge with clean hands, kept its peace during the campaign itself, but accusations of ?kamikaze tactics? on the EU and the euro from the likes of Chris Patten and Michael Heseltine soon emerged in the wake of defeat. Across the whole party there is a recognition that the Tories have failed adequately to grasp the sheer scale and nature of the social and cultural changes that have occurred over recent years. All but the remaining true believers (who probably hold that Hague lost because he was not rightwing enough) acknowledge the urgent necessity of reconnecting themselves with the electorate by finally abandoning the ideological baggage of Thatcherism, which risks turning the party into that worst of all things - an irrelevance. As Alan Duncan put it, ?The party has had an identity crisis for nearly a decade. The world has moved on. We will get nowhere by reheating the Thatcherite agenda. We must realise that social attitudes and the way we speak and look matter enormously. We have to start becoming for things instead of against them? (The Daily Telegraph June 14).

This is, of course, the gospel according to Portillo, whose bid for the leadership is predicated on the thesis that, ?We need to show that we are people like other people and that their concerns are our concerns ... In our demeanour and our tone we must show that we are thoughtful, understanding and moderate? (ibid). With some two-thirds of the shadow cabinet and a reported 100 MPs behind him, it seems that Portillo?s name is bound to be one of the two on the ballot paper that eventually reaches Tory Party members, but speculation on the outcome of the contest is futile at this time, especially until we know whether Ken Clarke decides to stand on his own account or come to some accommodation with one of the contending candidates.

Though Portillo is the bookies? favourite, he may have a hard row to hoe with the geriatrics in the shires. They are not stupid, and they know that the parliamentary party does not exactly suffer from a shortage of homosexuals, but they resent Portillo?s decision in 1999 to ?come out? about his youthful homosexual experiences. Comments from Norman Tebbit about ?the new touchy-feely pink pound? indicate the level of latent homophobia that could be unleashed against Portillo in a dirty campaign of rumour and innuendo - a campaign that would incidentally only confirm how out of touch the party remains with the steadily increasing politically correct consensus.

Leaving aside this personal problem, it is clear that the party?s long-run civil war over Europe must play a crucial role. Hague?s commitment not to enter the euro ?within the lifetime of a single parliament? was never anything more than a consciously dishonest piece of ambivalence aimed at somehow keeping the troops from tearing each other apart. How can one attack membership of the euro on a temporary basis by using arguments like the destruction of sovereignty and the end of the nation-state - whose logic points to a permanent reason for staying out? All the candidates who have declared themselves thus far, including Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis from the right of the party, as well as Portillo himself, are Eurosceptics, but the need to secure support from the Europhiles has led them to talk in vague terms about the possibility of compromise.

They point to the fact that Harold Wilson, prior to the European referendum of 1975, allowed his cabinet to give public voice to their dissenting opinions. Duncan Smith, blessed - or cursed - with the soubriquet of Thatcher?s (and Tebbit?s) favourite, speaks of the possibility that Europhile members of his putative shadow team could ?step down? temporarily during a referendum, but this is nonsense. Europe is too important an issue for the Tories. If Clarke did throw his not insignificant weight behind any of the candidates, he would have to be given one of the big shadow portfolios. How could he then publicly voice a line utterly opposed to that of his leader? It would be an absolute gift to Blair. The Tories? best hope lies in the possibility that Gordon Brown?s own brand of Euroscepticism will be influential enough in government to see the issue deferred at least for a few years, but the omens are not encouraging.

Any suggestion that the Conservative Party is doomed to extinction seems foolish. As we have repeatedly pointed out, the Tories, facing more long years in the wilderness, might in their frustration succumb to the temptation of resorting to non-parliamentary methods, seizing on any opportunity presented by the likes of the Countryside Alliance, fuel protesters or disgruntled Ulster unionists.

However, while the Tories stew in their own juice and in problems of their own making, our primary task is to attack the main enemy of the present - Blair?s New Labour - whose aim is undoubtedly to replace the Conservatives as the principal political representative of British capital.