Shortly before the last election, a cabinet minister made an indiscreet prophecy over lunch. After Mrs Thatcher, he said, the Conservative Party, like a great river, would return again to its ancient course. When the past decade is far enough behind us for biography to become history, it will be interesting to see how many chapters the years alter Downing Street will comprise in any authoritative work on Margaret Thatcher, how far the Thatcherite silt will shape the river that flows beyond her.

Mrs Thatcher has already proved is difficult to judge since leaving office as she was when holding it. The voice of Britain in the Eighties has been most audible in recent months in the United States. In the Commons, where on the day of her defeat she carried all before her, she is now silent when not absent, but on the steps of her Eaton Square home, with Kurdish children clinging to her skirts, three sentences of Thatcherite imperatives mocked with their rhetorical certainty the serviceable prose of her successor and chided him to the most dramatic initiative of his premiership. Her voice rings as if from across the ages, yet it is immediately recognisable. How far that recognition is welcomed by those who sat at her knee for so long is a more difficult question. In the speech he made to the Scottish Conservatives in Perth, John Major remembered to mention her only once, in an ad lib from his text.

The Conservatives are trying to do in government what, historically, political parties do in opposition: to secure the future by re-inventing the past. The re-inventing of Conservatism must be seen to be done by John Major, but the risky business of defining what it is is being left to his Party Chairman, Chris Patten. If he and his generation are gently to prise themselves away from their immediate predecessors, without at the same time losing their grip on government, they must find a new language of Conservatism.

Again Mrs Thatcher makes the task harder. How is her successor to measure himself against her rhetoric – ‘Enterprise Culture’, ‘Value for Money’, ‘Victorian Values’, ‘Conviction Politics’? By contrast, John Major’s catch-phrases, ‘God bless,’ ‘Who’d have believed it,’ ‘Wait and see,’ remind one of the homely sentiments of Ronald Reagan. However, last October, in an extraordinary speech for a Chancellor to a Tory Conference, there was a glimpse of something more. Brushing aside his Treasury brief as swiftly as he decently could, he came out with an explicit statement, delivered within eight weeks of the fight for the leadership, in which he married a rough disdain for liberal intellectual preoccupations of which Mrs Thatcher would have been proud with a recognition of values beyond the scope of her utilitarianism. He paid homage at her altar of ‘choice and opportunity’, promised to build on it, but went on:

As we do so, the Labour Party will accuse us of being materialists. I plead guilty ... What materialism means for many people is that they are better fed, better clothed, better housed than ever before. They own homes, cars, washing-machines and televisions on a scale earlier generations never dreamed of. They live in a society where literature, art and music are available in abundance ... in which the class barriers that once strangled social mobility are gone.

Mr Major’s property-owning democracy, it turns out, is crammed, not just with cars and videos, but with works of literature and paintings too. Mrs Thatcher’s vision of homes fit for Tories appeared, however unfairly, to focus on the satellite dish rather than the bookshelves.

After a decade of rhetoric that admitted no alternative, we now hear the growing whispers of an older Conservative idiom, one that claims deeper, quieter preoccupations. Yet, once again, there looms the shadow of a woman perfectly happy not to get a decent night’s sleep in 11 years, irritated by holidays, for whom argument was recreation. Are the younger generation looking beyond her, or is it just that they haven’t got the stuffing to endure the bracing truths of her uncompromising vision? John Major talks of a nation at ease with itself, and Nicholas Ridley told Newsnight: ‘The British want a rest. They don’t want to have everything turned upside down, they want a quiet time. I’m not saying this is an admirable quality of the British, because that’s why we keep falling behind, but ... if that is what they want, they probably have the ideal person in John Major.’

The new Conservatives are looking tor a language powerful enough to counter the Thatcherites, and they are looking to the past for help. Put simply, they are reaching for a new definition of value beyond the price mechanism, for a subtler evaluation of political achievement than the bottom-line certainties of Lord Young’s Enterprise Culture. In looking for a patron, another pedestal in the Conservative pantheon is being brought out of the shadows, and the cobwebs dusted off. On it stands a long-neglected figure. In the Thatcherite world view, he represents appeasement abroad and evasive short-termism at home: he is Stanley Baldwin.

Chris Patten has had a very different icon of Baldwin in view for some time. In The Conservative Case, published on the eve of the Thatcher landslide in 1983, Patten carefully placed Baldwin at the centre of Conservatism: the steady voice of enduring English values, whose instinctive grasp of the weft of provincial life, the prevarications, decencies and quiet compromises that held society together, offered a vision as evocative in its way as the revivalist truths of Thatcherism. Significantly perhaps, it is Baldwin’s most recent biographer, Roy Jenkins, who brought to light the forgotten power of his prose.

In a speech to the League of St George in l923, Baldwin spoke of ‘the sounds of England, the tinkle of the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of the hill, the sight that has been seen in England since England was a land ... these are the things that make England. The love of these things is inherent in our people. It makes for the love of home, one of the strongest features of our race.’ No matter that the countryside of Mary Webb, his favourite writer, disappeared while he was prime minister, it was Baldwin’s voice that Patten, then Environment Secretary, echoed as he spoke to the Bournemouth Conference.

With his Green Portfolio as an excuse, Patten conjured once more the powerful, if sentimental images of provincial stability so long the backbone of Conservatism. ‘What is the challenge for tomorrow? It is nothing less than to have a right to inherit those things which help define our own nationhood – “the meadows, the lanes, the carved choirs”.’ (He must have judged that he might safely quote Larkin to such an audience without being recognised, except perhaps as a character from The Darling Buds of May). ‘Like many others, I believe, unfashionable though it may be, in original sin. And there’s no shortage of that. But, as a Tory, I also believe, in every fibre of my being, in original virtue.’

Patten of course is a political insider who, by 1988, had made his peace with Mrs Thatcher, but you only have to listen to another of Baldwin’s reflections, and then try to imagine Mrs Thatcher saying anything like it, to understand where the Party Chairman stands in the Conservative bloodline. ‘Do not let us ever be confused,’ Baldwin warned, ‘by the advance in material prosperity and material knowledge, and let us never confuse mere acceleration with civilisation.’

At the Carlton Club in 1922, it was Baldwin who stuck the knife into Lloyd George, with a sentence which would serve his successors well, though they would be too polite to use it, in then battle with the Ancien Régime: ‘The Prime Minister is a dynamic force, and it is from that very fact that our troubles in my opinion arise. A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you but it is not necessarily right.’ No one in the past six months could have provided a better summing-up of the various reasons why the Conservatives abandoned Mrs Thatcher last November.

The Conservative virtue they seek, above all, to recover is not exactly the stuff of electoral slogans. It is the 18th-century concept of scepticism, and it was disinterred last January in the Somerset village of Limpley Stoke, on the outskirts of Bath, Chris Patten’s constituency. The Conservative Political Centre spent a weekend there in conclave, and John Vincent, a professor of history at Bristol and sometime intellectual figleaf of the Sun, gave a lecture entitled ‘The Seven Voices of Conservatism’. It has been reprinted as a party publication and is on sale in the foyer at Central Office. In its language every bit as much as its content, it marks a breaking-point with the idiom of Thatcherism.

Vincent defines terms: it was not a Conservative government that ruled in the Eighties, but a ‘Thatcherite Conservative’ coalition in which the first principles of Conservatism ‘became hushed’. He draws a careful distinction between Mrs Thatcher herself and Thatcherism. His opening paragraphs conclude: ‘Despite her authentic personal Conservatism, there was a distinctive Thatcherite voice that ruled the Eighties, and, as in all heroic phases, it was at a tangent to tradition.’ One straight away notes the subtext: heroic ages, from Troy to Camelot, are only regarded as such once they have receded into the mists of history. Tradition, having been viewed with Thatcherite suspicion, is re-lit as a beacon of Conservatism.

Vincent’s Conservative voices communicate a philosophy whispered only in Tory priestholes in the past decade. There are three Conservative negative doctrines: the frailty of man, the recognition of evil – and ‘we support property, and since property is unequal, we support inequality.’ Inequality is the precondition for stability and the protection of the insecure, ‘untalented, unexceptional majority’. There are four Conservative virtues: ‘stability, opportunity, community and identity’. According to Vincent, Mrs Thatcher, for all her heroism, has bequeathed an England lacking in the most fundamental of these. In a world ‘where England means too little and Europe less ... identity is not what it used to be. Its constituents, locality, belief in a common culture, have been weakened.’ Only with a common culture, he argues, can economic liberalism work within the protection of a moral framework. Mrs Thatcher once told us the Good Samaritan could not have done as he did without money, and later added that there was no such thing as society. Vincent warns: ‘Men do not live by bread alone; they live in a world of recognisable public symbols. And the great statesmen of England have always seen this, have always generalised and had the gift of painting with the broadest brush.’

One does not have to look far for such a statesman. The unknown who became prime minister in 1923, ‘a new man, a nobody of nobodies, created an era of good feeling, a lurch towards the practical centre that was to calm, steady and unify the nation through two decades’; Stanley Baldwin was ‘the greatest healer among prime ministers’

Vincent, however unwittingly, gives the game away. The great tapestry of Conservative history is being brought down from the attic. The new men of Central Office are unlikely to go into the next election with the slogan ‘Back to the Future’. However, that is the gamble they are taking. The strains of Conservatism Mrs Thatcher dismissed as wet and antediluvian belong to the traditions the Party must re-invent if it is to survive her.

If the Tories can find a way of giving this new language popular appeal, it may yet acquire a compelling political power. But they cannot shy away from the problem with which it presents them. So far, John Major has concocted, for party and public alike, a great Tory fudge: is he in effect carrying on the Thatcher mission with a new voice, or will the change of language enforce a departure from that mission? It may make Conservatives feel better to hear Professor Vincent assert that ‘Conservatism is, always has been, and for ever should be, a place where enriching contradictions meet’ – but the line between contradiction and confusion is very narrow.

Nothing so effectively destroyed the common culture Professor Vincent now seeks to restore than the marketing culture of the Eighties. The Conservative election victory of 1979 merged the advertising and political cultures, ushering in a decade in which fresh swathes of British life were carved up into the advertisers’ and pollsters’ domain of As, Bs, Cls, C2s, Ds and Es. Mrs Thatcher was patron to the age of corporate logos – the livery of the enterprise culture – and to the inexorable subjugation to market branding of that provincial diversity which traditional Conservatism cherished.

If the old Toryism thinks it can elevate and educate its rank and file once again, it must risk ‘enriching contradictions’ becoming damaging division. Would a Central Office run by Norman Tebbit and Lord Young have given house room to a pamphlet which argues, as Vincent does, that

since the war politicians have mostly spoken to us about the economy, especially industry, in which 75 per cent of us do not work. No wonder they bore us. They take their politics from the City Pages. How many of their flock read them?

Mrs Thatcher’s greatest strength as a politician was that she was never interested in a settlement. Her power was couched in the language of conquest. It seemed, for most of the past ten years, that her victory was complete. But read again a paragraph in Chris Patten’s book, produced in the floodtide of Thatcherism, and you see how provisional was the Tory acceptance of the free marketeers. In an aside, he quotes Baldwin’s description of his family business, ‘where nobody ever “got the sack” and where we had a natural sympathy for those who were less concerned with efficiency than are this generation’. Conservatism, Patten argues, in large part defines itself by what it is against; Tories ate the true radicals because they distrust the enthusiasm of the prevailing orthodoxy. In this way he is able to justify the adoption by Eighties Conservatism of the arguments of 19th-century liberal utilitarianism which it so resisted a century ago. It ‘does not represent a fundamental change in conservatism, but a change in the doctrine to which it is opposed’. In the Nineties, however, the doctrines of state socialism and union power have passed away. In the true Tory view, it would be foolish to rest on enthusiasm for the doctrine of the free market which has replaced them.

It is a brave party chairman who embarks, in the months before the toughest election for a decade, on what amounts to a Conservative counter-reformation. If he pulls it off, he will create a party not dissimilar from a politically-aware National Trust – not a bad model, perhaps, in a nation of theme parks and garden centres.

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