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.

Willetts shows himself well practised in explicating the market and its relation to civil society. So he should be, having written already on these themes in publications to which he acknowledges a debt here. Still, he deserves credit for distilling his argument in such lucid and accessible terms. His strategy is to point up four fallacies. First, he contests the idea that a particular theory of self-interested human motivation is required by a free market. No, just that economic agents are motivated to compete. Second, he denies that the market is a zero-sum game, with winners benefiting at the expense of losers. Instead, he insists that the dynamic process of exchange actually generates growth and creates new wealth. Third, he scorns the Galbraithian vision of a cosy circle of oligopolistic corporations fixing their markets: ‘try telling that to the management of Texaco or Dunlop or Pan Am or British Leyland, once proud companies brought low because they failed to keep up with the competition.’ Fourth, he challenges the notion that it is immoral to put prices on such activities as healthcare, since ‘in a world of limited resources it is right to find the best way of using them.’ And this parcel of maxims is then tied up with the paradox that we look after our interests better, even as producers, if we first look after our interests as consumers.

None of this is new; but if it is true, it offers an important guide to policy. Moreover, Willetts boldly gives his analysis a social dimension by tackling head-on the proposition that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ Of course there is. Whoever thought otherwise? The popular answer is that this was the general proposition asserted by Margaret Thatcher when she uttered this phrase – which, once uttered, she was never allowed to forget. Like many famous quotations, it has been snatched out of its original context. The fact is that in an interview with Woman’s Own in October 1987, Thatcher made the rather banal, but far from shocking, point that it was no good simply looking to something as amorphous as ‘society’ for solutions to the problems faced by the individuals who composed it. It seems gratuitous that someone who has undoubtedly said so many genuinely silly things should have this particular canard hung around her neck. Willetts is right, therefore, to come to her rescue, even if it is probably too late to put the record straight.

Such a thing as society is needed by Thatcherites because they are not, when it comes down to it, thoroughgoing libertarians, ready to surrender a whole range of moral and personal issues to free choice between competing strategies for individual self-fulfilment. In economics Thatcherism has often purported to stand for rules as against discretion – in commitment to nominal monetary targets, for example, rather than the pragmatic pursuit of growth, employment and other real economic ends. This is what Nigel Lawson meant when, in Seventies-speak, he proclaimed: ‘Rules rule, OK?’ Admittedly, when he rose to his dizzy pinnacle of power at No 11 Downing Street, he found that his famous neighbour had her own, crucially different, conception of what Thatcherism meant. It meant whatever she said it meant. It meant pleasing herself. It meant, in short, asserting the primacy of her own discretion in bending or breaking such rules as she saw fit. Her hostility to Europe, which remains her most troubling legacy to her Party, was naturally couched in these terms, insisting that we should not ‘bind’ ourselves and that we must always be ‘free’.

But the same gut instinct which made her a rule-breaker in economic policy often made her a strict if arbitrary rule-upholder on social issues. The moral authoritarianism of Thatcherism has often been noted. The Victorian values Thatcher invoked – however selectively or unhistorically – were nothing if not social values, inculcated as rules within traditional communities. Willetts develops a sophisticated version of this argument, stressing the importance of a stable civil society as the historic seed-plot for the market economy: ‘The Conservative understands the importance of the instincts and institutions which sustain and shape capitalism.’ Seen through these spectacles, the fact that ‘the suburbs comprise rich networks of voluntary associations, from the Rotary Club to the British Legion, from the rota for driving children to school to the firm’s social club’ helps impart the appropriate partisan nuance to the general insight. He appeals to ‘values which are widely shared amongst the British people and which they expect public institutions ranging from schools and the benefits system through to the BBC to transmit and sustain’. In this way he seeks to square the circle between his strong axiomatic defence of free-market individualism and his claim that Conservatives have a peculiar claim on the civic virtues.

The essential Conservative appeal is thus to the ‘hard-working classes’, with their ethic of decency and self-improvement. According to Willetts, they feel their efforts mocked by ‘clever people’ who have spent much of the 20th century ‘thinking of ever more ingenious arguments which in the long run undermine these values’. Conservatives, he enjoins, need ‘to make it clear that we are on the side of those decent people and their much-mocked principles’. Only someone as clever as Willetts could hope to get away with this final twist in his argument. It is as though he is trying to reclaim the Tories’ old reputation as simultaneously the stupid party as well as the patriotic party. Above all, he deplores European entanglements, and if forced to look abroad, prefers the Asian tigers and the USA as his economic model. His is a populist appeal to a Janus-faced Middle England: looking back to a sepia-tinted suburban lifestyle of yesteryear, while looking forward to a market-driven future for this country as the jackal of Europe.

It is now clear that the prime object in a fifth Conservative term would be to tear up the last remaining plank of the pre-Thatcher consensus: British participation in the European Union. Willetts’s case in favour of what four successive doses of radical Thatcherism have done for the country does not necessarily support the conclusion that this fifth dose is now necessary. A different conservative option might be for a period of consolidation. His best point is retrospective: 18 years of Conservative government have changed many things, and not all for the worse. Who now mourns state-owned monopolies in those many markets where the customers are indeed better served through privatisation and competition? Who now sees council housing as the only fit and proper tenure for most working-class families? Who now proposes to restore a range of peculiar legal privileges to trade unions?

Almost nobody in Britain today wants to go back in a political time-machine to 1979. True, in Why Vote Liberal Democrat?, William Wallace openly opposes the privatisation of Railtrack and favours phasing out mortgage interest tax relief. But, interestingly enough, both these arguments can be defended on the sort of impeccably 19th-century liberal principles that Thatcherites often invoked. Railtrack, the national infrastructure of the system, is a quasi-monopolistic asset, and thus a suitable case for public control, to permit the development of a better market in franchising. And abolishing the anomalous British tax loophole on mortgages – itself a largely accidental historical creation – would be to go further in the direction of a truly free market. It would favour what Nigel Lawson used to call ‘tax neutrality’ between different forms of investment – a reform too far for Thatcher herself, though not, it seems, too radical for the Liberal Democrats, if they form the next government. If.

Tony Wright, in Why Vote Labour?, is more cautious about what to expect from a Blair government, no doubt partly because he has left the infinite world of ‘if’ for the finite world of ‘when’. Thus Wallace declares a commitment to raise income tax on incomes of over £100,000 a year to 50 per cent, and to pay for extra spending on education with an extra penny on income tax. Wright, however, is more circumspect, speaking much the same language but in muffled tones (which might have had to be gagged altogether had he been writing after Gordon Brown’s pronouncements last month on taxing and spending, or rather, not taxing and not spending).

Wright’s message is a very simple one. This may be the fifth consecutive general election for ‘the New Conservatism of a Thatcherised party’, but ‘it is the first election in which New Labour is the alternative.’ This remaking of the party system is clearly the result of two strong personal influences: that of Thatcher in transforming the Conservatives into a restlessly radical force and that of Blair in persuading Labour that ‘its duty was to become a new kind of party.’ Is the implication that the only way to counter a small-r radical party is with a small-c conservative party? Wright shies away from putting it that way. He speaks instead of Labour committing itself ‘to the creation of a dynamic market economy’ as the means of fulfilling its traditional social agenda, and thus requiring ‘a radical consensus’, in which the Right teaches the Left about the infirmities of markets, while the Left teaches the Right about the infirmities of states. The fundamental difference between the parties, he concludes, ‘is the choice between more community or less, responsibility or irresponsibility, mutuality or individualism’.

In staking his argument on ‘community’, Wright may not have reckoned how adroitly Willetts was ready to finesse the issue by arguing for ‘such a thing as society’. To say that Willetts makes out the best case, of course, is only to say that he achieves a value-added dialectical and rhetorical triumph, starting with a barely defensible record and representing it as almost worth taking seriously. This feat may well stand him in good stead when his party regroups in opposition under new leadership, in need of all the brains at its disposal. Meanwhile the outcome of the forthcoming general election will clearly turn on less subtle points, as the Wirral South by-election amply confirms.

When all is said and done, the simple question is whether a Government that has already completed four terms deserves an unprecedented fifth. ‘Time for a change’ may be a hoary election cry; but for the good reason that it has served so well and so often in the past. It sums up a presumption about a cyclical alternation in government which will surely guarantee the Conservatives’ undoing this time. Under what circumstances will they ever deserve to lose if not these? To ask the question is to answer it, for the only conceivable reason to keep one party in power for over twenty years would have to be that the opposition really was unfit to take power.

Whatever was the case in the Eighties, when a struggle for legitimacy between the opposition parties was raging, much to Thatcher’s advantage, by 1992 the choice was between an already dishevelled Conservative government and a Labour government under a leader who had led the Party since 1983. The fact is that any leader who had been chosen by Labour back in that era was almost bound to have been compromised by either his former stance and associates or by his subsequent attempts to live down the whole experience. For reasons that may not have been wholly just, in 1992 the prospect of a Labour government remained sufficiently worrying to sufficient voters to let in the Conservatives by default. John Major’s historic feat was to mobilise widespread and unallayed fears – not least among potential Liberal Democrat voters.

Yet the unexpected outcome of that election has cast a pall that obscures the essentially different situation of today. In particular, Labour sympathisers are superstitiously afraid to believe the evidence of their own eyes about the scale of their impending triumph, ever mindful of their nasty experience last time. The fact that Blair has dispelled any real apprehension about a Labour government (except perhaps on the left) has been slow to sink in. And because of his positive success in achieving this, the negative factors working against the Government have come fully into play for the first time since 1979 – time for a change again.

Moreover, the Government’s big story – economic recovery – will not wash. This is not because it is untrue. The economy has indeed shown resilient growth since 1992. It is certainly in better shape than during the ‘economic miracle’ of the Eighties, from which Thatcher reaped such extravagant electoral rewards. The present Chancellor may be the best for a quarter of a century – just about the only minister in the present Government who inspires genuine respect. The ‘feel-good factor’ may well be abroad in the land, but it is simply not helping John Major, wait as he will for it to wreak its magic. It is this gap between economic perceptions and voting intentions that has doomed his Government, breaking a reliable predictor of political trends that worked well enough until September 1992, but works no longer.

Black Wednesday, when sterling was spat out of the ERM, seems to have been a moment of truth for the electorate. The fact that the Government thus inadvertently acquired a viable economic policy, thereby creating the conditions for sustained recovery, has weighed little in the electoral balance, compared with a fundamental loss of political credibility which the Government has never begun to repair. The succession of Blair as Labour leader capitalised on an already strong electoral trend, with the polls putting Labour in a rock-solid lead, month by month, and producing an unprecedented string of by-election upsets which have successively eroded the Government’s Parliamentary majority as well as its political confidence.

Now the Wirral result puts the Conservatives into a minority in the Commons. An anti-Government swing of 17 per cent is formidable even when it can be attributed to hard times and mid-term blues. Coming as it does, virtually on the eve of a general election in which the Government hopes to ride a wave of economic prosperity, Wirral could foretell an electoral landslide on the scale of 1945 or even 1906. In 1945, nobody took the polls seriously, despite the fact that for three years they had reported a Labour lead in double figures. It was not Churchill’s last-minute scare-mongering about a Labour government that lost him the election, though it did little to enhance his reputation; and, instead of a new Gestapo, the incoming Government introduced a welfare state, in substantial continuity with wartime policies. The ghost which should really haunt John Major’s last weeks in office is that of Arthur Balfour – a master tactician, who had kept his divided Government in office with a series of ingenious if demeaning dodges, but who in 1906 found his Party swept away after nearly twenty years in power. And here, too, the British electorate turned out the Tories while clinging to continuity in fiscal policy, showing conservative instincts that have not always benefited the Party of that name. Time for a change? Perhaps even David Willetts will come to agree that the Tories have been found wanting.