~ Geoffrey Wheatcroft - The Strange Death of Tory England


To look back over the past century is to see hopes and fears confounded again and again, and every confident prediction falsified. The only 'lesson of history' we have learned is that history does not follow a forseeable course. A hundred years ago this winter the Conservative government resigned and the Liberals called an immediate general election, which was a landslide victory for them and a rout for the Tories. It seemed a new dawn for the forces of progress, which were surely now unstoppable. Who would have then guessed that within fewer than ten years the last Liberal government would have passed from the scene, that the party would never hold power again, and that the Tories would be in office for 32 years out of the first half of the 20th century?
Sixty years ago this summer Labour won another historic landslide and the Tories suffered another rout. It was the high tide of socialism, and very many people, Conservatives among them, assumed that state control and a command economy were the irresisitible wave of the future. Who would have then guessed that the Tories would return to hold power for 35 years out of the second half of the century, and that, after adopting that many had regarded as the utterly discredited doctrines of the competitive free market, they would moreover hold office for a longer period, and win more consecutive elections, than any party since the Reform Bill?
Twenty years ago, that new tide seemed to be sweeping all before it after the Tories had won two elections, and the Labour party appeared to be on the point of collapse or even extinction. Who would have then guessed that by the first decade of the 21st century a Labour government would have been in office for eight years, after winning not one but two landslides to rout the Tories, and that as a third election approached it would be the Tories who seriously wondered whether they had any future, or whether they might follow the Liberals into oblivion? The great thing about history is that it keeps us on our toes.

What was meant to have been a progessive century became instead the conservative century.

"In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom and virtues of society."
        - Oliver Goldsmith

As with one of PG Wodehouse's heroes, it would have been quite untrue to say that Randolph Churchill was never sober, since he was indeed frequently sober, sometimes for hours at a time. Unfortunately it was the rest of the time that he was most conspicuous. Those who watched television more than forty years ago may have happy memories of two men, Brendan Behan and Randolph Churchill, who had little in common except that they both appeared in live interviews when they were quite obviously drunk.

Well before 1900, the great historian FW Maitland had written that "we have become a much governed country" and he didn't know the half of it. Ludwig von Mises, one of those exotic names who had kept alive the idea of traditional liberalism, said that once the principle was conceded that the state had a right to protect people from the consequences of their own folly there were no limits to what it could do, and Tory  Iain Macleod said the same thing more pithily when he (in his Spectator guise of 'Quoodle') coined the phrase 'the nanny state'.

Toward the end of the 20th century and in another context, the cruel and intractable struggle in the Holy Land, an Israeli conservative said something sour but telling. Historically the Arabs were the world's great warrior nation, while the Jews were the master of debate and dialectic, but in this conflict, "the Arabs have lost every battle, and the Jews have lost every argument". The Tories were destined to win many political battles; whether they won the final argument was another matter.

"Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the 'Chatterley' ban and the Beatles' first LP."
        - Phillp Larkin, "Annus Mirabilis"

Maybe Larkin wasn't entirely wrong. For one thing, the summer of 1963 was more important in English sexual history than he can have realized. The contraceptive pill became available, ending for ever the connection between sexual intercourse and procreaction and greatly accelerating a revolution in sexual behaviour which was burgeoning for years past.

The events of 1975 were astonishing at the time, and scarcely less so in retrospect. Not many people saw Margaret Thatcher coming, and when she arrived the British didn't quite know what had hit them.

"The longest suicide note in history."
        - Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP, describing his party's 1983 manifesto

Arthur Scargill's venture was always doomed. To call a national mining strike in the spring, with coal stocks at the highest they had ever been, was a strategic decision to be compared with invading Russia in December.

Successive London governments, principally Tory governments, had tried to kill Irish Home Rule by kindness, legislating to relieve misery and then, on a startingly drastic scale, to bring about land reform by breaking up and distributing the huge estates. This did not in the event kill the demand for self-government, but it turned the Irish from a people of starvelings and outlaws into a nation of sturdy farmers and traders: and it meant that when Home Role was at last granted in the name of a Free State Ireland would become, as the intelligent Tory Lord Crawford predicted at the time, "the most reactionary corner of the Empire".

In 1940, Sean Russell, 'chief of staff' or the IRA went on a clandestine mission to Berlin to meet Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister later hanged at Nuremburg, concluding cordially that "Our ideas have much in common". And as a Dubliner might have added, a truer word he never spoke. It was more than fifty years later that the admirable Dr Joseph Hendron, a Belfast MP for the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, called Sinn Fein "a sectarian and fascist organisation", while John Banville, the most eminent Irish novellist of his generation, said despairingly: "Those of us who have always thought of the IRA, and indeed Sinn Fein, as neo-fascist, are deeply worried by the kind of respectability they have won now in Dublin, London and Washington".

In Ulster itself there was on one side, Irish 'republicanism' and Sinn Fein ('Ourselves Alone', a good fascist name), a supposed political party which was in reality the front organization for, and controlled by, a gang of terrorists engaged in communal killing, child murder and ethnic cleansing, not to say a fascist movement with a long history of antisemitism and ardent support for Hitler. One the other side was the country which had invented parliamentary government and which, in the summer of 1940, had flown the standard of freedom against the Third Reich.

If the democratic government of a great power could not win a popularity contest against a small gang of pro-Nazi child murderers, what battle for hearts and minds could it win?

Writing about Gladstone, Roy Jenkins observed with wry puzzlement that 19th century prime ministers had the greatest difficulty hanging on to their cabinet ministers, who were forever resigning impetuously for small reason or none, whereas 20th century prime ministers had as much difficulty getting rid of theirs. It did not occur to him that this was yet another reflection of the professionalization of politics, and that even though Victorian ministers were well salaried, they had other sources of income, and other lives. Now, even when everyone knews that a minister should resign, and even when he himself knew that in his heart, he could not face life without office and without emoulements and privileges.

"During the sixties and seventies the left developed, almost in substitution for its economic prescriptions, which by then were failing, a type of social individualism that confused, at points at least, liberation from prejudice with a disregard for moral structures. It fought for racial and sexual equality, which were entirely right. It appeared indifferent to the family and individual responsibility, which was wrong. There was a real danger, occasionally realized, that single-issue pressure groups moved into the vacuum. Women's groups wrote the women's policies. Environmental groups wrote the environmental policy, and so on. This was the same elsewhere. I remember a telling intervention of a speaker at the Republican convention of 1984 in the US asking rhetorically, 'When was the last time you heard a Democrat say no?' It was too close to the truth for comfort."
        - Tony Blair, speaking in Australia in 1995

In a famous phrase, John Stuart Mill called the Conservatives "the stupid party", and a hundred years later this was glossed by AJP Taylor when he said Mill's words were not unfair: "to be stupid and sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, Radical and Socialist, is clever but silly". What had happened in the later years of the 20th century was the emergence of a right which was clever but silly.

It sometimes seems that Tory journalism, like the party itself, follows another old Viennese joke: not long ago the situation was serious but not hopeless, now the situation is hopless but not serious.

On the night of 31 August, Diana, Princess of Wales, the former wife of the heir to the throne, was killed in a motor crash in Paris. This was a shocking event in itself, but just as shocking was the effect it had on the British people... for the week between Diana's death and her funeral, London experienced something close to mass hysteria. The queen was bullied by the Murdoch press into making an embarrassed speech of regret of television, the Mall was carpeted with flowers, and the capital was swept by a great flood of inchoate sentiment, and what Boris Johnson called Latin American peasant hagiolatry.
But nothing was as striking as the reactions of supposed men of the left. Anthony Barnett claimed that "the year 1997 has altered Britain for good: politically, institutionally and emotionally", and he consciously linked the Labour landslide with Diana Week. The old rational left was dead, and had been replaced by sickly sentimentality. Feeling had taken over from fact. In observable fact, the "brute, metallic logic of the market" had triumphed politically and economically, as the Blair government would demonstrate beyond doubt, but the left (or a version of it) had won culturally.

Well before that September, the Prince and Princess of Wales had both demonstrated how much the old values had faded when they were interviewed separately on television to talk about their failed marriage, just like any Hollywood celebrities, and in the process illustrated WH Auden's phrase: the trouble with nowadays is that people have forgotten the difference between their friends and strangers. Love and sex, adultery and divorce, were things which normal people in civilized societies had always with discussed with relish, but in private. But it was also Auden who presciently explained Diana Week. In a bravura, haunting vision written fifty years earlier in , "For the Time Being - A Christmas Oratorio", he foresaw with frightening acuity the coming age in which:
"Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions - ..., angelic images generated by fevers of drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling waters. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces...
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. ...Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. ...the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it.
...Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. ...every crook will argue: "I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really, the world is admirably arranged." ...The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy, when the general, the statesman, the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire."

That was precisely England in September 1997, and it was a country the Tories could no longer cope with or even understand.

For the next three years and more nothing went right for William Hague. Personable in private as well as intelligent, he had a jarring public manner. In an age of appearances his own did not help, part foetus and part death's head, apparently without having gone through the usual intervening phase of human life. That was bad luck.
To be fair to Hague (not that many were), no combination of Disraeli, Salisbury and Baldwin could have won the 2001 election, which approached with a dull inevitability.

Americans would come fretfully to wonder whether Iraq was Vietnam revisited, which it was clearly not. To English eyes there is a much better parallel. Iraq was not another Vietnam, it was another Suez: a war fought to destroy an Arab dictator by Western governments which could not, however, avow their motives and actions and had to resort to conspiracy and deceit.

In every other European country there is a rightist or conservative party whose fundamental principle is patriotism and the national interest, of that country. Only England now has a Conservative party whose leaders, and whose cheerleaders in the press, thought their first duty was to support the national interest - of another country.

I once suggested that the best model of how society should operate was the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It is an autonomous body which performs a literally vital service with no support from the state and no coercion whatever: its brave crews are unpaid volunteers, its income is raised entirely by voluntary donation.

"Those who always believed in the overring value of free markets and private ownership of the means of production include many figures of intellectual substance. The recent crop of bowdlerisers and beauticians, who only yesterday delpored the ugliness of the system they primp, do not."
 - Perry Anderson, of "New Left Review" with a swipe at New Labour

By the turn of the century it might have seemed that the Tory party was Margaret Thatcher's greatest failure, and New Labour her greatest success.

In British politics the rout of the left is personified by Tony Blair and embodied in New Labour. By any objective historic standards, this party is to the right of centre, having abandoned the minimal definition of even mildly progressive left politics for the previous century, the belief in a centrally planned economy and in large redistributive taxation. And it is hard to argue with Martin Jacques of "Marxism Today" that Blair personally stands to the right of every postwar prime minister with the exception of his heroine, Margaret Thatcher.

Both in academic discourse and in practical politics, class conflict has been superseded by 'culture wars'; and the other great truth of the age is that the right has won politically while the left has won culturally. Blair personifies this also, and thereby comes closer still to explaining the death of Tory England. Rupert Murdoch shows tha it is possible to combine an intense love of the capitalist system with antipodean contempt for custom, both of which Blair shares: he is a true spiritual Australian.

Margaret Thatcher may not now be fully able to appreciate the ironies and paradoxes of her career. Her role in helping defeat Communism should never be forgotten and will not be in Eastern Europe. But that very defeat had very grave consequences for conservative parties in the West, hers as much as any, by depriving them of one of their reasons for being, at the same time as allowing the left to shed a poisonous moral burden. In her own country that was mirrored by her particular problems of success: once she had done the necessary dirty work, others could claim her inheritance, but in ostensibly kinder, gentler guise. That meant Tony Blair.

[From Charles Moore's Telegraph review of the book]
One day, someone will write a book about why the terrible intestine struggle of the Conservative Party was a fight worth having. Already it is clear that voters would never have been promised referendums on the single currency and the European Constitution if this battle had not happened, or if it had had a different result. If Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine had led the Conservative Party, we should by now be signed up to both, unconsulted, which would have been bad for the sovereignty that Wheatcroft wrongly scorns and the democracy that he rightly extols. Tony Blair's "big tent" has been very powerful for a long time, but when it collapses, as it quite soon will, we shall be glad that some of our leaders insisted on staying outside it.

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