Conservatives, with and without an upper case “c,” have still not recovered from last year’s electoral disaster. Even the drama of the Conservative Party leadership election, and the surprisingly comfortable Conservative victory at the subsequent Uxbridge by-election, have not removed a general feeling on the right of shock and bemusement. Even now we cannot believe that the tedious Mr. Blair is actually Prime Minister (of Great Britain!), and that the Cabinet is composed largely of hard-faced women or politically correct dullards, few of whom seem to have said or done anything interesting in their hard, working-class existence as barristers, social workers, teachers, local government officials, and professional feminists.
Although the feeble John Major had done his best to emasculate the philosophy which his party ostensibly represented (how was he ever Prime Minister, while we are on the subject?), there was an indefinable feeling which made many of us campaign for his government nonetheless, despite all the broken promises and wasted opportunities, or at least which made us feel guilty about supporting the two anti-European Union parties which took one million votes from the Tories and helped lose them several seats. Unfortunately, all the effort was of no use, faced with the public’s restlessness, Labour’s professionalism, the aura of “sleaziness” hanging over the party, and Mr. Major’s own irredeemable dullness. Hundreds of thousands of life-long Conservative activists reluctantly deserted the party, fed up finally with the consistent refusal of the hierarchy to do something about crime, Europe, the welfare state, immigration, political correctness, etc., and with the party’s general reluctance to conserve anything. The Conservative powers that were seemed interested only in the economy. Spoiled by power, they almost totally neglected the moral and national questions which interest normal people much more than “competitive tendering,” which was all that John Major “wunted.” The work that needed to be done was not even attempted. The Conservatives created many petty capitalists and shareholders, but these people did not necessarily—or even ordinarily, it seems —become convinced conservatives. Nobody had thought to educate them in the philosophy of conservatism, so that when Labour made its emotive, attractive appeals to “community” and “justice,” few had a ready answer.
Labour’s idea for a “stakeholder partnership,” a civic (and nationwide, but not national) bond based on sub-New Testament platitudes and exulting in its “diversity,” sounds good but is actually an enormous weakness. The Conservatives should have opposed this mystical mish-mash with the concept of the nation-state, and come out strongly against Labour’s love for the European Union, its fondness for international moralizing and warmongering, its pandering to minorities (whether racial, sexual, religious, or physically disabled) and multiculturalism (which often strays into actual dislike of England), and its fondness for steamrolling tradition. The attempt by powerful Labourites to ban fox hunting is a case in point. It often seems as if Labour does not like anything to do with the countryside —it has already banned the sport of shooting, and it has decided to relax building restrictions in the “Green Belt” areas around our major cities.
There is plenty of scope in all of this for the Conservatives to make headway. Socially conservative, even reactionary. Labour voters in mining villages in south Wales or inner-city areas of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to take two classic Labour-voting groups, did not vote for the age of homosexual consent to be reduced to 16, but that is what they are likely to get, if the waxing zoophyte caucus within the parliamentary Labour Party has its way. Nor do all Scots and Welsh necessarily want to be parted from England, but this is what they may get, if some powerful Labour ideologues have their way. There are millions of Labour voters who only vote Labour because the alternative party is perceived as being made up of heartless ideologues and Hayekian pedants—and there is some truth in this stereotype, as in all stereotypes. These voters could be parted from their traditional allegiance quite easily, like Southern whites were parted from the Democratic Party in the United States, if only the Conservatives went some way toward meeting them by espousing a new patriotism, a revived and spirited nation and a glorious, unashamed heritage. The Conservatives need a “Southern strategy” of their own.
But new Conservative leader William Hague, although undoubtedly Euroskeptical, is no charismatic leader, nor are his views very well known (except about homosexual “marriage,” which he supports). An MP told me bemusedly that he cannot think of any one idea or concept associated with Hague, for better or worse; this suggested to my contact that there was some essential ingredient missing. Hague is young, however, and is undoubtedly intelligent. He may be amenable to new ideas, unlike his fossiliferous predecessor. But any ideas, even if they were being espoused now, will need time to filter through into the party and then the popular subconscious, let alone into policy proposals. For the time being, the Conservatives are almost certain to focus on any examples of Labour “sleaze” to the exclusion of more important things, thus making themselves look both sour and ungentlemanly.
Who, if anyone, will organize an intellectual counter-revolution, and who will fund it, now that the gallant Sir James Goldsmith is dead? It seems unlikely that it will be anyone outside the party. Sir James’s Referendum Party would probably have transformed itself into a campaigning group to work for a “No” vote in the referendum on the Single Currency. It seems unlikely that this work will now go ahead. The other anti-E.U. party which stood at the elections (even against anti-E.U. Tories), the United Kingdom Independence Party, led by an academic from the London School of Economics, appears to be imploding after its disastrous election results, a television program which claimed neo-Nazi infiltration, and an internal split, caused mostly by ideological differences within the party. Such think tanks as there are (John Redwood’s Conservative 2000 Foundation has closed, the Centre for Policy Studies is too close to the party hierarchy, and the Adam Smith Institute is working with Labour) are still concentrating on welfare reform and the free market—all very well, but where are the pamphlets on family law reform and tax breaks, crime, nationalism, immigration, the environment, inequality, manners, taste, and abortion, to take just some examples?
The Conservatives must rediscover the spirit of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, when, as Sir Alfred Sherman put it, “we gave people the idea that ideas counted, and that there was a better way.”