The Tory party has lost its way. David Cameron's surrender to the Left has deprived the electorate of any real choice of government
Politics is the last thing anyone wants to discuss at a general election. For as long as most of us can remember, these strange contests have been fought through national advertising campaigns, TV trivia and through the personal images and reputations of increasingly presidential party leaders. The campaigns are usually enlivened, and sometimes taken over by shameless scare stories in which one side or the other seeks to frighten people into abandoning its opponent.
Then there are those peculiar episodes known only to political journalists as “gaffes”, usually a moment when an exhausted or exasperated frontbencher suddenly says what he or she actually thinks and then has to be disowned. I was myself once embroiled in such a gaffe, the moderately famous “Jennifer’s Ear” episode of 1992, also known as “Grommetgate” because it concerned the insertion of grommets into the ears of small children. Details of the affair, which still causes a modest but important number of Labour-supporting people to hate me, are available on request. It is now as obscure and puzzling as the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Lord Palmerston said that only three men in Europe understood it: one was dead, another in an asylum, and he himself had forgotten it.
But Jennifer’s Ear, whatever it was, did perform a useful purpose. It enabled people who didn’t like the look of the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock but didn’t know why to give themselves a reason for their unease about him. For 1992 was, almost as much as 2010 will be, a contest between parties which do not even want to be especially different. Mr Kinnock had, in the Cold War past, been rather faint-hearted about national defence. But the 1989 revolutions had made that meaningless, along with most of the other dividing lines of post-1945 British, European and North American politics. Nothing of any significance separated him from John Major, a man whose background was in apolitical municipal affairs and who spoke of his desire for a classless society. In many ways, the British people chose, without knowing it, the prototype New Labour government when they returned Mr Major to Downing Street in 1992. Politically correct, weak on the European Union, committed to a gigantic welfare state and defeatist on Northern Ireland, is it really very hard to imagine Mr Major going on to abolish the hereditary peers, introduce Welsh and Scottish devolution and civil partnerships, as well as signing the Lisbon Treaty? After all, he fought for Maastricht.
Does this matter? Why should we be concerned that all major politicians now seem broadly agreed on every major topic and many minor ones too? Doesn’t this just mean that the days of silly partisan posturing are over and that we are to be governed by reasonable men, under the discipline of occasional elections? I can quite see why people who call themselves “progressive” would think this. What is fascinating about this political season is that many who would certainly not call themselves that are also arguing for the joys and virtues of what they term the “Centre Ground”. We are told that the British people are “moderates” and that a “moderate” Tory Party will appeal to them, seducing them from New Labour. Judging by the generosity to the Tories of formerly Blairish newspapers such as the Guardian, and the even more extraordinary kindnesses shown to David Cameron by the BBC, this is certainly the case in the important media classes. But what is much more disturbing is that so many people, whom I know to have conservative heads and hearts, appear to believe that this is a good thing. An extraordinary, sterile silence has descended not just over Tory politicians, but also over conservative journalists and commentators. It is simply not done to criticise the Cameron project. If you do so, you are at first shushed, as if you had made a scene in church. After that you are ignored with icy, aristocratic scorn.
I must declare an interest here. When I published The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost Its Way (Continuum, May 2009), it contained criticisms of the Cameron scheme for obtaining office without power. Like my previous books, it was attacked by reviewers in the left-wing press. In fact, I have been scolded for my anti-Cameron position by no less a person than Michael White, the political editor of the Guardian. But unlike my previous books it went unreviewed by every newspaper and magazine of the “Right” except my own, and by every significant conservative commentator except Michael Gove, the one member of the Cameron circle confident enough to relish debate. This self-enforced silence about Mr Cameron is particularly odd because so many conservative writers — and they know who they are — must have grave doubts about Mr Cameron and his ideas. Those who endured the early pre-Iraq years of Blairism, when a horrible and destructive government met no serious opposition at all, yearned hopelessly for a champion who could fight this awful creature and his slippery, anti-British and unconstitutional rule.
Actually, William Hague performed far better than he was ever given credit for. He was, for instance, a far more effective opponent at the Parliamentary despatch box than David Cameron, regularly making a fool of the supposedly invincible Anthony Blair. On more than one occasion he ripped Gordon Brown’s fraudulent and confiscatory Budgets into small pieces. But he was endlessly undermined, both by his own colleagues and by the media classes — especially by a gratuitous personal attack on him at a crucial moment, by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper.
The tragi-comic leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, who I suspect knew very well that he was not equipped for the post but took it out of an old-fashioned sense of duty, happened because by then the bigger men in the party — including Mr Hague — were not prepared to take on the task of upholding conservative principles in a hostile world. The election of Kenneth Clarke was impossible after the turmoil over Maastricht. But Mr Duncan Smith inherited an especially unpleasant task. He either had to stand for his principles and be pelted with slime and cowpats until he quit or he had to do what Mr Cameron would eventually do. Mr Duncan Smith chose the braver course and was duly rewarded with derision and public humiliation.
Labour’s main aim in the 2001 election, privately much discussed, and openly stated by Mr Blair in an extraordinary triumphalist speech at Wellingborough just before the poll, had been to force the Tories, by a second overwhelming defeat, to abandon what remained of their conservative policies. This would guarantee that New Labour’s radical programme of constitutional reform, sexual and moral revolution, egalitarian education and heavy redistributive taxation would not be reversed, a major preoccupation of Labour radicals since the days of the English political theorist Harold Laski. Mr Duncan Smith would not have given in to this demand if he could. So he had to go, even if this had to be managed by a combination of media undermining and backstairs plotting, over the heads of actual Tory voters. He was ejected in an establishment and media-backed putsch, and Michael Howard was installed in his place after none could be found to stand against him. (There were, interestingly, few media complaints and jibes about Michael Howard being an “unelected” leader, compared with the many about Gordon Brown being unelected.) Mr Howard’s baffling and undeserved reputation for being “right-wing”, which does not stand up to any serious examination, placated or disarmed opposition. The Tory Party went into administration, where it remains, controlled by the trustees of the establishment and the thought police of the media — who ensured David Cameron’s succession.
Mr Cameron has described himself, notoriously, as the “heir to Blair”. He memorably led his MPs in a standing ovation for Mr Blair on his departure from Parliament, unprecedented in every way. His closest colleague, Michael Gove, has both in the past and more recently burst out into songs of praise of Mr Blair. The Tory party constantly flatters Blairite courtiers, such as Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn and Andrew Adonis, sometimes lauding them in public statements. Now, though I disagree with many old conservative friends who supported the Iraq War and, as it were, “went over” to Mr Blair on this issue after years of opposing him, I remain puzzled by the way in which their entry into the Blair big tent has apparently transformed their view on other, entirely unconnected matters, all of which they used to care about. It is most odd. Many people still think of the Iraq war as being an essentially “right-wing” enterprise. I do not think it is. I also don’t think this is true of the “Euston Manifesto” group of acute and perceptive left-wingers who have transferred their utopian hopes, long homeless, to an interventionist US. And I remain puzzled by the way in which people such as Charles Moore have found themselves sharing a cause with Nick Cohen and apparently not been made to wonder, by this unlikely company, whether they have come to the wrong shop. But there it is. It is just so. I have experienced long periods of doublethink myself, in which it has been easier to live with absurdly contradictory positions than to acknowledge the difficulty and resolve it.
But what is much more puzzling to me is the apparent abandonment, by such conservatives, of any concern with issues which once moved them powerfully, including the cultural, sexual and moral revolutions, the man-made global warming cult, the attack on the married state, the pollution of language with intolerant leftist Newspeak, the pursuit of equality of outcome rather than of equality of opportunity, the loss of rigour and authority in education, the break-up of the UK and the unending salami-slicing assault on tradition and Christianity, the general unremitting attack on what Mr Blair once called “the forces of conservatism”. Mr Cameron has nothing of any comfort or substance to say about these issues. On the contrary, on many of them he has aligned himself with the other side in acts of public self-abasement to the new orthodoxy. I might add the issue of national independence to these as well, but I have to acknowledge Mr Cameron’s masterly ability to appear militant on the European matter without binding himself to any dangerous course.
Once the coming election is out of the way (and, like the Tory high command, I do not share the conventional view that an outright Conservative victory is assured), it will be time to discuss politics again. And where will the genuine conservatives in Britain be if they have, by silent acquiescence, helped to perpetuate Blairite government? Powerless and alone. Every possible outcome (save one) is bad. If Mr Cameron wins outright, he will attribute his victory to his abandonment of conservative policies and the remaining conservatives in the parliamentary party will be more isolated than at any time since the days of Edward Heath. If he manages to form a minority or coalition government, it will of necessity be a Blairite, leftist coalition which will govern (as would a Cameron majority government) like New Labour. Only a Tory defeat, which would demonstrate that surrender to the Left also cannot save a party which has in truth had its day, would at least create the possibility that a genuinely conservative opposition might be created which could unite the “forces of conservatism” and eventually throw New Labour into the sea. At this election, we have no real power to change the government, but we have — if we choose — the power to change the Opposition.