Balfour’s Ghost

Peter Clarke

  • Why Vote Conservative? by David Willetts
    Penguin, 108 pp, £3.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 14 026304 7
  • Why Vote Liberal Democrat? by William Wallace
    Penguin, 120 pp, £3.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 14 026303 9
  • Why Vote Labour? by Tony Wright
    Penguin, 111 pp, £3.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 14 026397 7

Penguin published these three books simultaneously on 17 February: good timing, as it turned out, nicely anticipating the general election without being overtaken by it. Over the last half-century, Penguin have intermittently filled this kind of slot, beginning in 1947, when they commissioned the Labour MP John Parker and the Conservative MP Quintin Hogg, now Lord Hailsham, to produce books of a couple of hundred pages each. ‘When the manuscripts were received,’ the publishers were forced to reveal, ‘it was found that while Mr Parker had kept closely to the length suggested, Mr Hogg’s exposition had run to about double the size we had anticipated.’ The result was that readers had to choose between the economical Labour case at one shilling and Hogg’s Case for Conservatism at twice the price. The latter was also twice as good, it has to be admitted, and it is still worth picking up in a second-hand bookshop, where its price (I see that I paid 50p) has lagged behind inflation. Today, in the era of soundbite politics, Penguin keep to a standard hundred-odd pages from each contributor – half what Parker had, let alone Hogg – but it is enough.

Enough, that is, to give a pretty faithful view of the tenor of argument characteristic of each of the parties. Each author – a Tory MP, a Labour MP and a Liberal Democrat life peer – is worth reading for a justification of his party that rises above ritual partisan point-scoring. If David Willetts was not already the best-known of the three when the books were commissioned, he certainly is now. Allegedly known as ‘Two Brains’ to his friends (or alleged friends, perhaps), Mr Willetts last year found himself in difficulties before a Parliamentary committee in explaining away his over-enthusiastic activities during the period he had served as a government whip. With a double dose of excess cerebration, he sought to educate the committee on how the phrase ‘wants our advice’, which he had used in a document before them, should be construed. Now want is, of course, a word with many finely discriminated senses, as the SOED helpfully makes clear. And whereas persons of little culture might plump for SOED 5 (‘to desire, wish for’) in its post-1706 usage, Willetts is evidently much attached to the original Middle English usage of SOED 4: ‘to suffer the want of; to need, require; to stand in need of (something salutary, but often not desired)’. Did not the great Goldsmith (Oliver, not Jimmy) write:

Man wants but little here below,
Nor wants that little long?

Alas, the philistine committee, rationed to one brain per member, and wanting the sort of instant erudition which the SOED might have offered them, remained unimpressed by Willetts’s gloss on his fateful words. His promising ministerial career as Paymaster General thus came to an abrupt end.

I will not be misunderstood, I am sure, if I say that what Willetts now wants is a long spell in opposition; he therefore wants a Conservative defeat; and he wants a Labour government with a majority big enough to survive for a full parliament. He clearly stands in need of these salutary experiences, not only in order to ripen his wisdom of the world, but also to achieve his own political rehabilitation, to the long-term advantage of himself and his Party alike. For, despite everything, his manifest abilities shine through even under unpropitious circumstances. It has to be said that, of these three books, his makes out much the best case.

Willetts argues with such conviction because, like Bernard Shaw before him, he has obviously been convinced by his own brilliance. There are few signs of self-doubt here. He begins with a strong affirmation about the importance of ‘the battle of ideas’, suggesting that parties which win it can ‘stay in office for a generation’. Yet he maintains that, even after 18 years in government, ‘Conservatives can still feel like an embattled minority: the media, the Church, academia, are still largely uncomprehending and the conventional wisdom hostile.’ The reason why ‘the collapse of the socialist Left has not given Conservatives the intellectual dominance which we deserve’ is that the chattering classes are still ‘uncomfortable with the free market’. His ground-clearing defence of the free market thus provides the foundation for the case he builds in the rest of the book. If this fails, the rest falls.

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