For the first time in its history Britain is the most right-wing country in Europe. Ian Gilmour, defeated in an earlier contest with the right, explains the failure of the One Nation Toriesby Ian Gilmour / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Has the tory left at last come back to life? Or were the faint stirrings detected over the New Year merely its death throes? While the government has drifted unsteadily rightwards over the last few years, One Nation Tories have remained remarkably passive. Ted Heath has continually spoken his mind and-except over Nolan-to good effect. Otherwise, with a few exceptions such as Hugh Dykes on Europe, the Tory left has not even been a stage army: it has been neither heard nor seen. The right maintains that the left has had every reason to be somnolent, as the Major government has been pursuing leftish policies. How can the government be right wing, scoff Messrs Portillo, Redwood and various rightist journalists, when there is a clutch of left wing Conservatives sitting at the Cabinet table? The conspicuous presence there of Sir George Young, Gillian Shephard, William Waldegrave and Kenneth Clarke is adduced as evidence that the government cannot be Thatcherite in intention or effect, let alone even more extreme. Yet poor George Young is caught in the coils of the government’s crazy scheme to privatise the railways, a wheeze dreamed up by Michael Portillo when he was a junior transport minister; Gillian Shephard, against her better judgement, found herself making indefensible proposals (later abandoned) to dragoon church schools into opting out without a ballot; William Waldegrave had to make draconian cuts in public expenditure in sensitive areas; and Kenneth Clarke, who has been an excellent chancellor, could not in his budget avoid maltreating single mothers in order to take 1p off income tax-from which the rich benefit most. Clearly the presence of One Nation Tory ministers is no guarantee of left wing Tory policies. The most such ministers can do is prevent policies being quite as extreme as they otherwise would be. On Europe the government has been ambivalent. Its rhetoric has been increasingly Euro-phobic. Its veto of Jean-Luc Dehaene as the president of the Commission was cheap; its opposition to any extension of majority voting when more countries join is childish. Its apparent desire to turn the EU into something resembling the old Polish Diet (where one dissenter could block everything) threatens to destroy whatever European credentials it still has. On the other hand it has not yet sold the pass on monetary union. The plan currently on offer is deeply flawed, as Charles Goodhart showed in Prospect (December 1995), because it provides for no new institutions to accompany the central bank. A single currency without corresponding political institutions will almost inevitably lead to trouble. So for the time being Major is certainly right to stick to his agnostic stance. Elsewhere, however, the government has often been more right wing than it was under Margaret Thatcher. None of Lady Thatcher’s home secretaries would have allowed the Conservative party’s annual conference to determine penal policy. They all knew well that to send the maximum number of people to prison for as long as possible is easy enough, but dangerous folly; and if they had committed the government to such atavistic nastiness they would at least have ensured that the prisons and their staff were able to provide tolerable conditions for the extra inmates. Not so Michael Howard. The conditions in Holloway and other prisons have been disgraceful. And then there is the Asylum Bill… Howard makes Sir William Joynson Hicks, the obscurantist home secretary of the 1920s, seem decent and sensible. In accordance with its free market ideology the government has abolished wages councils, which Winston Churchill set up to protect the least well off. To lower the pay of some of the poorest people in the country seems an odd way of promoting “the classless society.” Dotty privatisations such as the Stationary Office are a continual revelation of the government’s slavish devotion to its own Clause Four. Perhaps worst of all is its demented decision to sell off the Recruitment and Assessment Service of the Civil Service to a private company. The Thatcher governments went some way to politicising the civil service, but it is probably still the best in the world, and for the Major government to hack away at the 150-year-old tradition of public service merely to make a few pounds in tax cuts is unpardonable vandalism. Granted, then, that the right wingery of the Major government is not in serious question, the quiescence of One Nation Tories seems astonishing. Why were they collaborateurs with Majorism instead of its firm opponents? They thought Major was temperamentally less right wing than Thatcher, and they assumed that his more humane rhetoric reflected a desire (and the ability) to reverse the ratchet of Thatcherism. Such comforting attitudes were reinforced by the hard right’s hostility to Major-which was in itself enough to provide One Nation support for his government. Thus, while the Tory left were closely marking the Thatcherites, the government sneaked through and scored a series of rightist goals. Not until two MPs had crossed the floor of the House did the One Nation Tories wake up to the fact that they had been comprehensively outplayed; without realising it, they had been diligently supporting a government which was in many ways more extreme than Lady Thatcher’s had ever been. The Tory left are in general intelligent and well-intentioned people, so the only explanation of its long sleep is that it became-if not quite brainwashed-severely disorientated. There were two reasons for their lost sense of position and direction. The first has already been touched upon: because they thought Major wanted to follow a centrist or even slightly left of centre course, they thought he actually was doing so. The more important cause of their disorientation was the people they mixed with and the papers they read. Unfortunately, One Nation Tories were not the only ones who were confused; most of the government and many of the dwindling number of Conservative activists were similarly afflicted. Ideology blinds people to reality, and even those Conservatives who were not ideologues had their political faculties impaired. They did not recognise their illness because there were always other people who were more right wing than they were. Thus their relative position was the same as it had always been, but their real position had sharply shifted. The only people who were not affected by this disorientation and who steadfastly retained their sense of direction were the voters. So strong is British insularity and so inbred is the belief that the British constitution and British politics are unimproveable that many Conservative politicians have no idea of how far things have gone wrong or of how far they are out of step with civilised politics elsewhere. They think everybody is out of step but themselves. It does not occur to them that Britain is now easily the most right wing country in western Europe, something which it has never been before in its history. Making Britain “the enterprise centre of Europe” is an ingenious soundbite, but its practical meaning is that British workers will have fewer rights and the British poor will be worse treated than their continental counterparts. The alleged enterprise centre will be Two Nations Thatcherism. Right wingers attribute the contrast between Britain and our European neighbours to Europeans being socialists at heart. In reality, of course, they are nearer to being the One Nation Tories than any government we have had since 1979. Even more disturbing for the Tory left is that both Tony Blair’s New Labour and the Liberal Democrats also show signs of being closer to One Nation Toryism than does Major’s government. Much of the Conservatives’ disorientation can be ascribed to our hard-right newspapers. The Conservative press in Britain has usually been well to the right of Conservative governments, but the Conservative governments pre-1979 were far less rightist than those since, and there were more countervailing forces. Nowadays the Conservative press, largely foreign-owned, trumpets home and foreign policies fully appropriate to North American ideas and conditions, but discordant to those of Britain and Europe. That the hostile press campaign against the EU should be led by our foreign-owned newspapers is only superficially paradoxical. As we all know, the nation state has grown ever weaker against global market forces and multi-national corporations. In consequence only larger groupings such as the EU have much chance of taming them. Hence the enmity of the Murdoch and Black empires to the EU; they are, after all, multi-nationalists. And they are not alone in promoting the agenda of the far right. As Jeremy Deedes recently pointed out, the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre’s editorship has become “increasingly nasty.” Rupert Murdoch wanted Dacre to edit The Times; instead, Dacre has Murdochised the Mail. So the outlook for the Tory left is bleak. They have no press support and little backing among the party activists. After the next election most of the new Conservative MPs will be Thatcherites who, if the party is still in office, will force the government still further to the right. And if the party is in opposition they will probably choose Portillo to be leader. National Liberalism will be the party’s ruling ideology, a National Liberalism which will not be akin to National Socialism but which will still be deeply unappealing. Its Nationalism will take the form of being stridently offensive to our European partners-as in Portillo’s gutter speech at last year’s party conference-while not jibbing at selling off our finest public buildings and our remaining industry. Its Liberalism will take the form of undeviating laissez-faire capitalism. One Nation Tories may wish they had never woken up.