War raises Tory hopes

Britain is on the brink of a war, the scope, duration and consequences of which cannot be foretold. As a result, the domestic political scene has been transformed. For many weeks - perhaps months - to come, normal party politics will be suspended, as our rulers and would-be rulers fall over each other solemnly to proclaim their patriotic fervour and their unity of purpose in the face of a common enemy in the form of ?terrorism?.

Lest anyone have doubts as to the identity of this enemy, the White House and Downing Street repeat ad nauseam the mantra that ?those who are not for us are against us?. Introduced in the first place as a cornerstone of the overnight militarisation of US and UK foreign policy, this dictum is capable of infinite extension. Anybody who opposes the war becomes definitionally an enemy.

At times such as this the essentially sham nature of parliamentary politics becomes strikingly apparent. All the parties are committed unconditionally to the defence of US imperialism, and to preserving the political, economic and social system of capitalism, as they jostle with one another to plant a devoted, sycophantic kiss on the posterior of George W Bush. The sound and fury of parliamentary debate signifies, in the end, absolutely nothing.

Suddenly the conference season is an irrelevance. First the Tories and then Labour announce that, ?out of respect? for the armed forces, their annual gatherings will be limited to a couple of days. They will, in effect, become war rallies, preparing the population for the losses that are to come - losses that as always will fall disproportionately on the working class, whether those in uniform or those in the workplace.

I doubt whether the parties considered even for one moment the notion of abandoning their conferences altogether. Unlike the TUC, whose craven decision to cancel its congress - again, ?out of respect? - tells us all we needed to know about the pitifully spineless economism and cowardice of the misleaders of our class, as well as providing eloquent testimony to the nature of the current period. What they should have done is obvious: not cancel the congress, but put it into emergency session to debate the politics of the coming war and its impact on the workers whom they purport to represent.

The ceasefire on the home front will not, of course, last indefinitely, but in the meantime it is good news for the Tory Party in general and for Iain Duncan Smith in particular. In an increasingly bitter and acrimonious leadership contest that may yet come to be seen as the longest suicide vote in history, the Conservative Party?s profound divisions, its utter demoralisation and lack of direction, its patent unelectability, were laid bare. Whatever their personal feelings about the human dimension of recent events, officials in Central Office must be feeling considerable political satisfaction that their new leader can, for the time being, concentrate on turning himself into a ?statesman? by standing ?shoulder to shoulder? with Bush and Blair.

The outcome of the leadership poll and the formation of Duncan Smith?s shadow cabinet were understandably restricted to a few paragraphs in the middle pages of the broadsheet press, but it is the attitude of the left that concerns us primarily. Even before September 11, there were some who evidently regarded the whole issue as little more than a diversion during the journalistic ?silly season?, as something that was ?nothing to do with us? - philistine myopia and historical ignorance of the most depressing kind on the part of those who call themselves Marxists and revolutionary socialists, and who are supposedly committed to furthering the Socialist Alliance?s intervention in electoral politics (see Socialist Worker August 22).

Can they really have forgotten that the Conservative Party - whether by itself or in coalitions - ran this country for some two thirds of the last century; that this party - having successfully recreated itself several times - has always been the most consistent and overt enemy of our class; that for some 18 years, under Thatcher and then Major, it presided over the decimation of the labour and trade union movement, setting an anti-working class agenda that has been faithfully followed by Blair?s New Labour?

True, the Conservative Party, like Labour in the 1980s, currently appears unelectable. From top to bottom, it is riven by divisions on the central issue of Europe, divisions so deep that an eventual formal split cannot as yet entirely be precluded. But if the last two weeks have taught us anything at all, it should be that ?events? can change everything.

Literally overnight, the parameters of foreign policy have been rewritten on a global scale; an already faltering world economy faces profound uncertainties and dangers, with the prospect of a worldwide depression, mass unemployment and all that means for the struggle between capital and labour. Across the developed world, ruling classes are doing all they can to stave off the recessionary impact, but in the end - whatever their interventions - the markets will have the final word.

New Labour?s plans for the economy and specifically its pledges to make decisive improvements in health, education and other public services are now just waste paper. What new crises, with the potential to throw Blair?s government into the depths of unpopularity, lie ahead?

In this light, it is simply irresponsible not to take account of the possibility - however remote it may seem now - that in four years time we will have a Conservative government. In this light, it is surely imperative that we take the Tories and their new leader seriously. Even if September 11 had not occurred and things had gone on much as before, it would still be our duty to note the temptation opportunistically to engage in non-constitutional politics - with all the repercussions that would have for our class - in view of the party?s marginalisation.

So a few facts: 256,797 members of the Conservative Party cast valid votes in the leadership election - a turnout of nearly 80%, contrasting markedly with both the June general election and with the leadership contests that saw Blair and Kennedy assume control of their respective parties.

Extrapolating from the figures, we learn that the Tory Party had 328,271 members eligible to take part in choosing their leader. Compared, for example, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (over one million members), this figure might seem rather modest, but statistical comparisons show that the Conservatives have around 17,000 more members than the Labour Party, whose membership has been falling steadily since the heady days of 1997.

Duncan Smith polled 155,933 votes against Ken Clarke?s 100,864 - a clear and decisive margin of victory in the order of 60% against 40%. The number of spoiled ballots was not revealed and was evidently excluded from the total turnout, which is a pity, as it would have been very interesting to have learned how many inscribed the name ?Portillo? on their ballot papers, or who opted to write ?neither of the above?.

During the campaign, many Conservatives used the pages of The Daily Telegraph to express their dissatisfaction at having been disenfranchised: the exclusion of Portillo from the contest - by literally the narrowest of margins - as a result of the vote by the 166 members of the parliamentary party meant that those realists who sensibly favoured his ?modernise or die? agenda of bringing the party back into the so-called centre ground of British politics effectively had no say. It was Hobson?s choice between on the one hand the ultra-Europhile Clarke, the ?big beast?, who (mythically) had the charisma to bring the party back into office or on the other hand the avowed Europhobe, Duncan Smith, whose only credentials were his military background, much vaunted by his backers and friends, and a reputation for ?decency?.

What, exactly, was this electorate voting for? In general, one might conclude that the vote was split definitively by the European question and specifically by the question of euro membership, but many of those who voted for Clarke did so, no doubt, against their better judgement and solely on the basis that, however much they may have disliked his politics, he might offer the Conservative Party the best chance of an early return to power. Instead, the majority opted for a candidate who, uniquely in the annals of the party, has no ministerial experience and whose policies are as yet largely unknown, save for his determination never to lead the UK into membership of the euro.

The task facing Duncan Smith is apparently insuperable. In the next four years he must somehow convince the party and the country that the Conservatives constitute not only a viable party of opposition, but also that they are fit to take up the reins of government. He would have needed no reminding that the party will need a swing of more than 10% just to achieve a majority of one seat in the 2005-6 general election. Some 40% of those who voted Tory in the 1992 general election have since defected to New Labour or the Lib Dems. How to win them back?

Strategically, the party?s problem from May 1997 onwards was how to keep pace with New Labour?s relentless drive to the right. On the home front, they were constantly being outflanked by a Labour Party bent on securing its credentials by attacking all the Tories? traditional targets - single mothers, dole ?cheats? and ?dodgers?, gypsies and asylum-seekers, to name but a few - as the then Labour home secretary, Jack Straw got away with policies that Thatcher and her epigones could only have dreamt about.

At first, conscious of the fact that his party was (accurately) depicted as arrogant, greedy, corrupt and generally ?sleazy?, the newly elected leader, William Hague, played the humility card. In a way that foreshadowed Portillo?s strategy of 2001, it was time to talk about tolerance and inclusivity. But Labour?s unprecedentedly long honeymoon period left the Tories more deeply frustrated and still out in the cold.

In the 1999 European elections, albeit on the basis of a miserably low turnout, the party tasted its first successes and Hague decided, or was persuaded, to change tack. Every available populist bandwagon was mounted with enthusiasm. Party policy became indistinguishable from the saloon bar rhetoric of the home counties, reaching its nadir in the pitiful ?you have x days to save the pound? madness of June last, when anyone who had eyes to see it knew that the Tory campaign, already heading for the buffers, would end in a second, deeply humiliating landslide defeat.

Hague duly did ?the honourable thing?, but by taking the Roman option and falling on his sword, he performed the final disservice to his party. There was no time for reflection, no time to regroup shattered forces. Instinctively, the party knew that it had no alternative but to reinvent Toryism just as it had done before, but the paradoxical combination of Portillo?s Hamlet-like indecision and the pre-emptive arrogance and bullying of his backers, who constituted a majority of the Hague shadow cabinet, was a gift to his many enemies and put paid to that possibility. The choice was between Clarke, whose election would inexorably have led to a split, and the untested Duncan Smith.

What do we know of him? To judge by the hagiographical accounts in the Tory press, he is a cross between the Duke of Wellington and Saint Francis of Assisi: martial prowess married to caring, catholic family values.

As the son of WGG ?Smithy? Duncan Smith, a Battle of Britain fighter ace, who heroically brought a premature end to the lives of some 19 Luftwaffe pilots, Iain Duncan Smith has, we are supposed to believe, genetically inherited some mysterious qualities of leadership. Having passed through his minor public school with creditable honours, he chose, like hundreds of his middle/upper class contemporaries then as now, to join one of her majesty?s regiments of footguards as a prelude to a career in the ruling class. First, he was part of the British army of occupation in the north of Ireland, where the poor fellow had to spend several months living in a damp caravan at the foot of Derry?s walls. Subsequently, in rather more congenial circumstances, he saw ?active service? as the ADC to major-general Sir John Acland in Zimbabwe.

Were it not for the fact that the Tory backbenchers are currently crowded with a collection of oiks who have made their fortune and reputation as petty entrepreneurs, estate agents, provincial solicitors and car salesmen, such a military career would hardly be seen as inspiring. His career in business - first at Marconi (the least said the better), then at a property company that went bust and finally as a sales executive with a minor publisher - is supposed to enhance his image as someone with experience of the world.

Aside from the fact that he is, in the words of Lord Tebbit, ?normal?: ie, not gay; that he personally drives his children to school and has a wife from the bottom ranks of the British aristocracy, Duncan Smith?s ?family values? are summed up by an ardent espousal of capital and corporal punishment.

So much for the man. What about his politics, as reflected in his shadow cabinet? In the words of one despairing former Tory party official, ?He has handed over control of the asylum to the lunatics? (The Times September 15).

As any schoolboy could have told him, Duncan Smith?s only course must have been to do everything possible to unite his party, or at least to fabricate some semblance of unity, however fragile it might be, by bringing together in his shadow cabinet representatives of all the trends. Portillo?s slogan, of creating ?a new conservatism for a new age?, albeit an empty soundbite in itself, should have alerted him to the necessity of engaging in a fundamental review of exactly what the party is for in the 21st century: how can it best re-engage with the electorate in terms of presenting not just a competent, but a human and trustworthy face?

Whether out of ideological conviction or sheer blindness, the new leader has done nothing of the kind. Instead, his new shadow cabinet represents the most inexperienced, the most Europhobic and the most rightwing in the history of the Conservative Party. Even Thatcher, in the first flush of her 1979 election victory, dared not try to impose on her party the cabinet she really wanted. Instead, she gradually weeded out the ?wets? until only the careerists, the useless, the sycophants and the insane were left behind in the bunker.

Not so Duncan Smith - though admittedly he had a very small pool of talent from which to choose, given that some of the party?s most experienced hands had already indicated their unwillingness to serve under him. Leaving aside the obvious debts that had to be paid to those failed competitors who made a timely decision to cast in their lot with him - Michael Ancram and David Davis - who respectively take the deputy leadership/foreign office portfolio and the chairmanship of the party, what we find is a shadow cabinet that is in effect representative of a predominantly Europhobic, neo-Thatcherite party faction.

How else to explain the Dracula-like emergence of Michael Howard from his well-deserved political coffin? This oleaginous and repellent reactionary, whom even his own party found it impossible to like or trust, is catapulted into the shadow chancellorship, the second most important office in the state. As if that were not enough, in his wisdom Duncan Smith has decided to promote to his cabinet as shadow attorney general one Bill Cash, a man whose sole claim to fame is the fact that, in a long and undistinguished career on the back benches, he has tabled literally thousands of anti-European amendments to legislation. Not even Thatcher in her maddest period would have dreamt of giving this man preferment.

As shadow home secretary we find Oliver Letwin, whose stratospheric promotion must represent a sop to the Portilloistas. Emerging from obscurity in the first week of the election campaign, he let the cat out of the bag by indicating that the Tories planned to axe some ?20 billion from the budget by cutting expenditure on public services, a claim that was strenuously denied by Hague, but has since been confirmed by doing some elementary arithmetic on Duncan Smith?s projections for a reduction of expenditure as a proportion of GDP. The list of names (most of them unknown outside the circle of Westminster cognoscenti) and their putative positions could be prolonged.

However remote and unlikely the prospect may seem at this moment, we must take account of the possibility that this motley crew will form the next government, or, in their frustration and inspired by the jingoism that is inseparable from war, turn to the ripe fields of extra-parliamentary forms of activity.

One thing is certain: the Tories have not gone away for good.

Michael Malkin