Little Mercians

Ian Gilmour

Throughout the four years between its two landslide defeats, the Conservative Party was intent on pleasing itself and its ultra-rightist supporters in the press, with the predictable and much-predicted consequence that it pleased nobody else. Its long orgy of self-indulgence began immediately after the 1997 election, when the Parliamentary Party rejected Kenneth Clarke as its next leader. Clarke was unquestionably the best of the candidates and indeed the only one who was unquestionably qualified for the job. Yet Conservative MPs preferred William Hague, who should not even have stood that time round, let alone have been the winner. As the Conservative Party in the country clearly favoured Clarke, the Parliamentary Party’s gratuitous act of unilateral leadership disarmament was, so far as I know, the only occasion in the 20th century when either the Conservative or the Labour Party in Parliament was more extreme than its members in the country. The rejection of Clarke was also suicidal: the Party is now condemned to another four years of largely impotent opposition, whereas Clarke would either have won the recent election against a very vulnerable Labour Government or come close to doing so.

The Blair Government had undoubted achievements to its credit. Most of its constitutional reforms of our over-centralised country were needed, though not of course its ludicrous ‘reform’ of the House of Lords. A Party that once was considered ‘progressive’ should surely have been able to see that a wholly elected second chamber was the only proper solution; or, at the least, a largely elected one – some room could perhaps be legitimately provided for a few retired politicians, the rationale being that even though they might not do much good in the Upper House their elevation would benefit the lower one. But to make the whole House of Lords a retirement home for placemen and superannuated politicians (like me) and a haven for younger recipients of political patronage is a regrettable example of what Cobbett would have called ‘Old Corruption’ and which should now perhaps be called ‘New Corruption’.

Economic policy, too, was a Labour success, if not an unequivocal one. Building on the strong economy bequeathed to him by Kenneth Clarke, one of the best Chancellors of the Exchequer since the war, Gordon Brown managed a respectable if unspectacular rate of growth without inflation and did so, remarkably, without running into an economic crisis. Yet he was lucky. Until the last few months he was greatly aided by a benign economic climate in the West, and low inflation was partly the outcome of a grossly overvalued pound which damaged British industry and which is unsustainable – the pound is already falling.

It was in the social field, though, that New Labour had its greatest successes. The minimum wage, even if probably set a little too low, was an important step. Elsewhere, however, the Government, much as it preferred to tax by stealth, preferred to do good by stealth and did not trumpet its deeds. The minimum guarantee for pensioners, increased child benefit, increased income support for children, the working families tax credit, the children’s tax credit and other measures did a great deal for the poor and took more than one million children out of poverty.

Notwithstanding these achievements, the Government was highly vulnerable. So far from the public services being improved as Labour had promised, they either stayed bad or got worse. Nothing seemed to work. The quality of life declined, and Britain became increasingly like a Third World country. Foreign journalists were astonished by our huge reservoir of forbearance when faced with seemingly universal incompetence and perpetual failure. As calamity succeeded calamity, culminating in the outbreak of foot and mouth, any even moderately effective opposition would have been poised for electoral victory. Yet by then the Conservative Party had been painstakingly and skilfully positioned to repel any voters who had been disappointed or disillusioned by the poor performance of the Government.

The electorate were fed up because they had voted in 1997 to get rid of the Thatcherism of the Conservative Party only to find that, instead of seeing the better public services they had been promised, they were getting the same article from the Labour Party – with the important exception of Labour’s creditable treatment of the poor. The Government was even insisting on introducing to the London Underground the disastrous form of privatisation that its Conservative predecessors had inflicted on the rest of the railway system. That seemed an act of madness but was probably just an act of spite against Ken Livingstone. To give Gordon Brown his due, however, he stopped short of reviving the poll tax.

As soon as it became clear – to bring Milton up to date – that in many respects, at least in its first term, New Labour was but old Thatcherism writ large, a modestly competent opposition could have made itself popular by adopting centrist policies. Such an opposition would have seen that, despite New Labour’s rather pathetic adoption of much of it, for the Conservative Party to stick to the Thatcherite agenda of low taxation, worship of the market, starved public services and obsession with Europe would be electorally disastrous and that to attempt the virtually impossible task of getting to the right of New Labour was anyway futile.

Margaret Thatcher said, not in her ‘Mummy returns’ speech at Plymouth during the election campaign but shortly before her fall in 1990: ‘Do not say it is time for something else! Thatcherism is not for a decade. It is for centuries!’ That showed not only a misplaced confidence about the future but also a serious misjudgment of both the present and the past – a misjudgment that is still common. For, as opinion surveys have shown, Thatcherism never took hold of the British people even when the lady herself was in power. If anything, indeed, public opinion moved to the left during the Thatcher era. Lady Thatcher’s unique feat of winning three general elections in a row was thus more the result of a divided opposition, her own qualities, and the failure of Old Labour to appear a credible alternative to continued Conservative rule than of any electoral enthusiasm for Thatcherite ideology or attitudes. Similarly, New Labour’s victory on 7 June was achieved by New Conservatism’s failure to offer even a remotely credible alternative to the Government, not by public gratitude to Labour for what had been done in the last four years.

If Thatcherism was not popular even in its heyday, the British people were plainly not going to welcome the mummified Thatcherism adopted under William Hague. That truth was glaringly obvious to most people with any knowledge of recent history, yet the Conservative Parliamentary Party, its strategists in Smith Square, its aged followers in the country and its North American press supporters were too paralysed by ideology to accept it.

Over Europe, too, much of the Conservative Party has been gazing selectively at the past. It seems to regard England (not even the United Kingdom) as a latter-day Kingdom of Mercia – the word originally meant ‘boundary folk’ – cowering behind an Offa’s Dyke, in the form of the English Channel, that will keep the Europeans at bay and enable it to remain a satellite of the United States.

Maybe Hague’s Shadow Cabinet was in agreement with the chief economist of the Institute of Directors, Graeme Leach, who informed us during the election that God is against a single European currency. Evidently God is an extreme Thatcherite, as is Mr Leach, who believes that ‘the entire EU project shows conspicuous signs of God’s absence.’ His complaint is that, as well as making ‘no reference to God’, the EU ‘weakens our links with the US where Christians have a huge impact on public policy’ – presumably, therefore, God agrees with George Bush’s tearing up of the Kyoto Protocol and is in favour of bespattering Alaska with oil wells. Furthermore, according to Mr Leach, EU integration runs ‘counter to a Biblical model’, for apparently ‘Biblical government is minimal [and] decentralised’, though neither King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents nor the various genocides of the Old Testament seem all that minimalist.

The Institute of Directors is perhaps not meant to be taken very seriously, but the Conservative Party does have that ambition. Yet the official Conservative Europhobic view of the single currency is not all that different from Mr Leach’s. Whether or not they believe their Europhobia to be sanctioned by God, they are as certain as any sectarian bigot that they are right and that their belief is shared by nearly everybody else. A respectable case can of course be made against the single currency. A great deal of power is given to central bankers who are for many people some way from being models of wisdom; the British system is better since its central bank is advised by outsiders. In addition, the fiscal rules agreed at Maastricht are absurdly restrictive and could not survive a severe recession, which there may soon well be, without inflicting unacceptable damage on many European economies.

But, characteristically, the Conservative Europhobes do not make that case; they merely bleat in Mercian style about national sovereignty and national independence, talking what the Conservative EU Commissioner, Chris Patten, calls ‘unutterable bilge’ about a European superstate. Even the heavily ideological, right-wing Wall Street Journal felt bound to point out to Lady Thatcher that her claim in Plymouth that Britain would give up the power to govern itself if it joined the euro zone was simply ‘wrong’, adding that ‘autarkic pretensions’ would be better left to North Korea.

The Conservative Party can either remain the same as it was in the last four years, in which case it will go on dwindling in the wilderness, or it can abruptly change course and return to what it was thirty years ago: a civilised slightly-to-right-of-centre Party in touch with the contemporary world and fit to make a serious bid for power. Obviously Ken Clarke would be far the best leader for a Conservative return to the centre and to credibility. His hands are clean; he was in no way responsible for the 7 June disaster. Regrettably, as in 1997, there may be too many in the Parliamentary Party still bent on suicide to prevent him winning or even standing. Ann Widdecombe is now out of the race but, like her, Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis would be good leaders for a further spell in the wilderness, as would the old Michael Portillo. But evidently the new model Portillo would be second best only to Clarke as the leader of an overdue Conservative revival. The trouble is that, not merely in the Parliamentary Party but in the Party in the country as well, there are many Far-Right Little Englanders who, as the old American saying goes, ‘would rather be right than President’, which is the political equivalent of a death wish. Hence, even a sensible leader will have a mountainous task. The Party’s road back to political sanity is unlikely to be either smooth or short.