Nothing provides a better insight into our antique political culture than a party leadership contest. I remember talking with Robin Cook just as the Blair bandwagon began to assume unstoppable proportions. Cook had outfought and out-performed every other Labour contender by a mile; he was cleverer, more experienced, funnier. And yet what he was having to read in the press was an endlessly recycled remark about him looking like a garden gnome. The Gadarene rush to Blair told the rest. What on earth was this really about? Cook is neither handsome nor ill-looking, just somewhere in between, like the rest of us. The Labour Party hadn’t cared about looks when it picked the flaccid Wilson, the much-creased figure of Jim Callaghan or the stooping, stick-waving Foot. A bit of deconstruction suggested this was all a blind, that Labour had just had a Welsh boyo and an Edinburgh lawyer as leaders, neither of whom had made it. That was quite enough Scots, Picts and people from the periphery. The really important thing was to pull back in the SDP English, the sort of Labour supporters who sent their children to private schools. Blair, who’d been to a private school himself, was perfect for this. The English – if not the British – are a profoundly monarchical people: they wanted not just an elected leader but a young prince, so the leadership was as suddenly and completely Blair’s as if he had drawn a sword from the stone. He is now the Dauphin awaiting his inevitable inheritance and all men are on his side. His undoing is certain but it is far ahead and his courtiers do not yet talk of things like that.
The upheavals in the Tory Party show a different face of the same reality. John Major’s leadership has been under almost intolerable stress ever since the collapse of British EMS membership in late 1992. The better the economy did thereafter – and not since the Fifties have we experienced such a protracted period of high growth and low inflation – the more it proved how wrong the Government’s dire warnings of disaster if we left the EMS had been. At last we had got an export-led boom – by complete accident. The only success of which the Government can boast would never have occurred had the leadership had its way.
It is worth pausing to point out how strong the Tory leadership principle is, stronger than anything seen in other Western conservative parties and comparable only to the practice of the European Fascist parties, which also elevated leadership into a principle. Until 1965 the Tory leader did not have to submit to the indignity of election at all. The fact that a leader simply ‘emerged’ from a secret inner process of consultation, of which even Tory MPs knew little, gave the leader an almost sacral significance, as if he were anointed by a higher power. This was the closest approximation the Party could make to the pure monarchical model, for there was no doubt that the leader, like a king, was not responsible to his subjects. Their duty was to follow him but he had no duty to represent them. What no one could forget was the war leadership of Pitt, Lloyd George and Churchill when the fate of the country hung entirely on the character of the leader. Churchill had breathed legitimacy into the model for a hundred years.