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Tories on the couch

Instead of rethinking its message, the Tory party has experienced a collective nervous breakdown.

By John O'Sullivan   October 2002

Until a few years ago, if anyone had predicted a nervous breakdown for the Tory party, it would have looked something like the scene in Brief Encounter in which an unhappy Celia Johnson rushes out of the station buffet to the edge of the platform just before the London express is scheduled to race past. For a few moments she hesitates-an emotional maelstrom in a fetching hat-then the express hurtles by and resolves the crisis for her. She returns to collect her packages and to take the local train home to her children and decent stick of a husband. Only the Rachmaninov soundtrack reminds us of the Freudian truth that, like all civilisation, home counties decency is founded on repression.

Emotional repression is rather out of style in today’s Tory party. Compare Celia Johnson’s anguish with this excerpt from Simon Walters’s account of the Hague years Tory Wars: Conservatives in Crisis.

“One week after the reshuffle in February 2000, Maude and Portillo went to see the leader and threatened to resign unless he sacked the three aides [Sebastian Coe, Amanda Platell and Nick Wood] upon whom Hague relied more than anyone else.

Hague knew that his leadership would not survive such a blow to his already weakened authority.

‘Why do you want them removed?’ he asked.

‘Because of what they have said about Robbie Gibb,’ replied Portillo.

Gibb was neither a member of the shadow cabinet nor an MP. He was a spin doctor… but a pivotal figure in the Portillo tribe. Portillo had wanted to appoint Gibb as his chief spin doctor… Hague, acting on the advice of Coe and Platell, refused.

Portillo and Maude then hit back, claiming that Platell was behind a newspaper leak that Gibb’s posting with Portillo had been blocked because he was suspected of being disloyal to Hague.

‘Robbie has not been disloyal to anyone,’ exploded Maude. ‘He is a dedicated public servant.’

‘I am told that he has,’ said Hague.

‘These are lies put about by Amanda,’ said Maude.

‘Can you provide any evidence?’

‘No, but we are certain.’

‘Well, I will not act unless you have proof.'”

According to Walter, such scenes occurred almost weekly. They were the common coin of relationships between top Tories in the Hague era-and they help to explain the present state of the Tory party. One is struck by the disproportionate emotional temperature of these scenes-the hothouse adolescent atmosphere of passionate loyalties and feuding over trivialities-less Brief Encounter than Daisy Pulls It Off.

This is not a coded reference to homosexuality. Some of the most robust heterosexuals in Tory circles have been swept up in this neurosis. Which is not to say that sexual confusion of various kinds does not play a role in Tory distress. When Francis Maude complains that Tory candidates are drawn too exclusively from straight white males, or when Iain Duncan Smith seeks to make the Tory party more attractive to women by replacing David Davis as party chairman with Theresa May, it is clear that this is a party with a very imperfect grasp on the facts of life.

Even when ostensibly important policy questions are under discussion-as when Portillo wanted Hague to disavow Lady Thatcher’s views on multiculturalism the week before the 2001 election-the participants lose all sense of proportion. Portillo’s insistence that Lady Thatcher’s mild critique would destroy the party’s reputation for racial decency was followed by the lightest of media interest in what she had said but an avid curiosity in his attack.

Most of the time, the rows were not about policies at all but about internal loyalties and the presentation of policies. This high-strung debate continues even now. A high percentage of the pamphlets, essays, speeches, and articles in what is supposedly a debate on policy consists of sour denunciations of other factions in the party as morally repugnant, existential doubts about whether any form of conservatism is viable in a postmodern society and passionate but tellingly vague appeals for the total transmogrification of the Tory party into-well, into something quite unlike its present or recent self.

All of this, magnified by unsympathetic media, resembles less the “rethinking” that the party has conducted on previous occasions than a collective nervous breakdown, in which thinking of any kind becomes diverted into obsessive-compulsive acts of guilt and accusation. That the carnivore Tories of all parties should have been reduced to this state testifies to the psychological buffeting they have received in the last 12 years. Consider the following symptoms:

Repressed guilt Their descent into breakdown began with the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher which prevented the integration of her achievements and ideas into the party’s history and self-image in the uncomplicated way that Churchill’s celebratory retirement permitted. Thereafter, she was both cause and symbol of the party’s divisions. Her admirers were astonished at the party’s coolness to its greatest peacetime leader. Anti-Thatcherites announced her political irrelevance with increasing desperation. She herself was able to command headlines with comments made at private gatherings. Successive party leaders have wanted to claim her achievements, with qualifications, and to establish their distance from her, provided it was not too far. This ambivalence is likely to continue, despite her withdrawal from public life, until the issues that provoked the rebellion against her recede into history.

Conflict avoidance But those issues, especially Europe, remain points of division. The immediate post-Thatcher party leadership under John Major assumed that the party could be “managed” into accepting Britain’s participation in ever-closer European integration. That judgement wrecked Major’s premiership. Subsequently, the Eurosceptics gained control of the party at all levels, even including the shadow cabinet after the 1997 defeat, both because they reflected grassroots Tory opinion and because their predictions about how the EU would develop proved to be more accurate than those of the Major leadership. Major’s resistance to this trend maximised internal turmoil. But the painful rows that ensued seem to have instilled a nervousness of open disagreement. Although the Eurosceptics now dominate the party, they seem strangely exhausted and reluctant to drive home their victory. While the pro-Europeans realise that they lack the resources to reverse their defeat, they fan the hope that history will do it for them in the form of a referendum victory for Blair over the euro. Tories have accordingly adopted a policy on Europe and the euro about which they maintain a discreet silence.

Loss of self-esteem Not coincidentally, Europe was also behind the single greatest policy disaster that struck the Major government: its forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Major had made ERM membership the centrepiece of his economic policy even though it was clearly importing Germany’s deflation and thus aggravating a domestic recession. He even won an election against the odds by assuring the voters that this was the tough economic medicine needed to restore prosperity. Yet when Britain was ejected from the ERM by the currency markets the British economy promptly began a rapid recovery. What “Black Wednesday” had done was to destroy one of the Tory party’s most valuable assets-its reputation for financial and economic competence. This produced the extraordinary paradox that the more the economy prospered, the less credit the Major government received. The Tories were unable to explain why they deserved credit for the recovery based, as it was, on the collapse of the ERM they had declared to be a vital support. Having been re-elected in a recession in 1992, it lost by a landslide during a boom in 1997.

Sudden (but not unexplained) rejection That landslide was a deep shock. Tories believed that they were the natural party of government in modern Britain. The collapse of communism, and the accompanying intellectual collapse of socialism, had fortified that belief. And, however odd it now seems, their complacency went deep. Of course, the drift of the Major years, the in-fighting over Europe, the serio-comic Tory scandals of the mid-1990s and the revival of New Labour had forced the more realistic Tories to accept that defeat was likely in 1997. Some even relished the prospect as an opportunity for recuperation, rethinking and revenge. But almost none of them had expected the scale of the defeat. It transformed them in one night from a government to a parliamentary rump. The shock of doubt and self-loathing has held them in its grip ever since.

Manic depression William Hague’s leadership was the next victim of this mood-both its despair and its moments of groundless optimism. In reality, the British people were largely uninterested in the Tories after they had been ejected from office. British public opinion had, in effect, fallen in love with Tony Blair and New Labour and it fluctuated solely in response to the successes and failures of the new government. This continued until the 2001 general election when the voters gave Blair what may have been the most unenthusiastic landslide in political history-granting him a second term in order that he might fulfil the promise to improve public services that he had self-evidently failed to redeem in his first term. But the Tories, used to being the centre of attention since 1979, interpreted the opinion polls and the 2001 result as reactions to their own exercises in policy-making and image redefinition. Instead of taking advantage of the public’s lack of interest to invest in a long-term programme of policy reformulation, they fixated on the short-term impact of new initiatives. And when the voters returned Blair for a second term, they embraced the masochistic interpretation that the election had been primarily a rejection of themselves-and promptly fell to quarrelling over who in the asylum deserved most blame.

Project envy At first it seemed that this dispute might be resolved quickly by the Tory leadership election. But the election was soon transformed from a conventional fight between pro and anti-Europeans into a curious contest between sense and sensibility; Michael Portillo advocating sensibility and everyone else his own version of sense. Party images are deeply imprinted in the voters. Almost irrespective of current policies, they feel that Labour is the party of sensibility and the Tories that of sense. It is almost always futile to attempt large cultural transformations of the kind seemingly advocated by the Portillistas. This scepticism was apparently confirmed when Iain Duncan Smith emerged as the new leader. Yet Duncan Smith too was soon talking up sensibility, and the party was being urged to be inclusive and nice, and to reject those who whored after the darker gods of class, nation, race or moral authoritarianism. A hunt for extremists to expel was duly launched. It is hard not to interpret this as a feeble imitation of the New Labour “project.” Unfortunately for this logic, genuine political extremists had dominated parts of the Labour party until the New Labour revolution, whereas Tory “extremists” were either supporters of capital punishment (a penalty supported by two-thirds of the electorate) or refugees from an Ealing comedy. Some born-again Portillistas might have liked to include unreconstructed Thatcherites in a purge of extremists, but that would scarcely have been an imitation of the Blair project, which was rooted in converting Labour to market economics. The Blair project was itself an imitation of what Blairites believed to be the successful “ideological” project of Thatcherism. The Tories were reduced to imitating an imitation of themselves-and getting it seriously wrong. There is a postmodern novel in this somewhere, but not a manifesto.

Emerging from these emotional traumas, gradually seeking to cope again, the Tory party under Duncan Smith seems to have decided on a three-pronged political strategy. It is determined to win the niceness stakes, to repackage itself as a party better suited to improve public services than New Labour, and to demonstrate that it is a party of normal people free of any “obsessions” with matters like tax-cutting and Europe.

Any political consultant, however, would have to advise caution on all these scores. John Major is still regarded as nice by the majority of voters. But his niceness was established at the expense of his fellow conservatives, who are regarded as nasty for disagreeing with him. Nor did he persuade the voters to go to the lengths of actually voting for him in 1997, since competence, authority and sensible policies are even more valuable qualities in a government than niceness-and Major’s government lacked two and a half of them. If the Tory party is to recover, it must tackle practical problems in practical ways. Voters will be open to liking the Tories only after they have reasons to pay attention to them on other grounds.

Insofar as a policy of improving public services is an expression of such reality-based politics, it is a modest advance. Insofar as it is part of a cultural makeover of the Tory party, it is doomed to disappoint. Party identities, like national identities, are not malleable images open to wholesale transformation. It is a foolish vanity of the spin doctors to think otherwise. Voters “know” at a fairly deep level that Tory MPs do not “care” as much as Labour MPs-just as they “know” that Labour MPs are not as patriotic as Tory MPs. The only thing likely to alter these deeply-rooted perceptions is events in the real world. If a Labour government picks fights and wins wars for Britain, then it might challenge the Tory hold on patriotism-and Blair’s decision to join the US in attacking Iraq might conceivably achieve that, if his own backbenchers do not spoil his efforts. In the same way, a Tory government might begin to reverse the party’s “uncaring” image if it were to succeed in raising standards in health or education. But a Tory opposition cannot do anything so profound because it can only propose reforms-and talk is cheap in politics. Indeed, if improving public services becomes the main election appeal of the Tory party, it will have succeeded in the perverse project of concentrating voter attention on Labour’s traditional strong points. A successful political party is one that concentrates the minds of voters on issues where it has a natural advantage.

For the Tories, those issues historically include opposition to government waste and over-regulation; tax reduction and support for private enterprise; defence and patriotism. If they have temporarily lost the issue of economic competence, that should encourage them to stress some of the others, such as patriotism-which, in current circumstances, equals “Europe.” Europe has the additional advantage that it enables the party to exploit not only patriotism but also opposition to government waste and over-regulation (not to mention outright fraud in the EU). Hardly mentioning such a central issue as Europe is far more “obsessive” than dealing with it straightforwardly. Exactly the same applies to tax cuts and over-regulation. For the Tories to allow themselves to be morally bullied by the media and New Labour into avoiding the precise issues where the voters think them most competent or trustworthy is simply silly. And if they coolly decide that some of these issues are no longer productive of votes, then they need to seek new issues where the right has a natural advantage.

To a significant number of Tories, however, all such arguments are no longer the stuff of politics. They have taken the nation’s pulse, detected a growing warmth in the blood, and proposed a more emotional style of politics. Here what matters is not getting the right policy on health, but getting the right words on it-words that will persuade people that you are at one with the more relaxed, libertarian, multi-ethnic culture of modern Britain. This is the message of Portilloism. And although Portillo’s politics of sensibility was squarely beaten by the rival versions of sense offered by Duncan Smith and Clarke, he seems in defeat to have converted the victor to his cause. Apostles of Portilloism now hold the high ground in central office and David Davis was allegedly ditched because he was unsympathetic to the new politics.

One sympathises with Davis and wonders at the insightfulness of Duncan Smith. For Portilloism is one of those doctrines that becomes less intelligible the more one understands it. It is not so much a programme, more a disposition, an attitude, an openness to emotions, experiences, and other people that manages all the same to be extremely self-regarding. It is, in short, the Dianification of Toryism. This comparison is made explicit by Andrew Cooper in one of the best essays in a recent collection A Blue Tomorrow:

“In 1997 Hague-aptly representing the attitude of most Tories-showed that he simply didn’t understand what Diana represented in British life, and therefore had no comprehension of how the nation would react to her death. Not getting the point of Diana was a motif for our cultural out-of-touchness. The revulsion of most Tories at the weepy pose struck by Blair-which brilliantly anticipated the unprecedented collective grieving that was about to follow-underlined the point. He got it. We didn’t.”

Except, as we now know, that collective grieving was not the majority view at all. It was rammed down the throats of many people who disliked the way it was exploited to attack the Queen and launch a cultural revolution. The revolution did not “take” and Labour’s New Sensitive Britain retreated until, at the Queen Mother’s funeral and the jubilee celebrations, it vanished altogether. Those fiestas of out-of-touchness revealed a different national self-understanding, a set of cultural sympathies that is both older and newer than the Diana cult-home and colonial, multi-ethnic yet accessible to the most traditional Tory, and based on institutions that expand to accommodate new arrivals-symbolised by the grandchildren of New Commonwealth immigrants singing “Land of Hope and Glory.”

What is more, they involved emotions that point directly to Tory conclusions. They affirmed a distinctive national identity, the monarchy, a historical grand narrative that reconciles conqueror and conquered on terms of modern equality, the encouragement of continuing links between this country and its former colonies, and a political tradition of ordered liberty. It is hard to see exactly where the emotions celebrated in the Portillista canon lead us. What policies do emotional openness or “inclusiveness” dictate? When it comes to specific proposals, most analyses keep coming back to gender and race quotas for candidate shortlists. But the real significance of such ideas is not that they bring more strivers from minority backgrounds into the magic circle, but that they shift the selection of candidates from local people to the national political elite. What is then likely to happen is that identikit candidates, ethnically varied but politically uniform, will rise smoothly into parliament.

Otherwise-and it is possible that this prediction will be happily falsified by a string of practical proposals from the C-Change think tank- a Portillista politics is a mystery. It is large and generous-sounding, but missing the last page where all will be explained. One sometimes entertains the fantasy that Duncan Smith will lead a Portillo-esque party into the next election on the slogan “We must love one another or die,” while Blair leads the nation in a chorus of “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do/We’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.”

What these fanciful politics reveal is how the Tory party is still struggling to make sense of the post-cold war world. It is odd but true that the left adapted much more quickly to post-communism than the right. Social democratic parties won power throughout the west, apparently against the tide, by presenting themselves as more likely than the capitalist parties to administer capitalism compassionately. It is only in the last year that the right has been able to put together coalitions that win majority support without relying on the dying appeal of anti-communism.

Those coalitions have brought together three broad electoral groups: economic conservatives and classical liberals, both wedded to the free market; moral traditionalists; and patriots or nationalists (according to taste). Parties that obtain support from all three groups generally win elections; if they lose even one group, the left wins. Tories have no grounds for complacency towards any of the three.

Take nationalist voters. In recent years, mainstream conservative parties have lost the support of nationalist voters throughout the west. Indeed, very often they have rejected such support in order to reassure “modernising” elites that they were untainted by xenophobia. As a result, in a large number of countries, new parties have sprung up to appeal to these scorned groups on such issues as crime, immigration and loss of sovereignty to supra-national bodies. A brief list of these parties illuminates the danger to mainstream parties: the Reform party in Canada, the Progress Party in Denmark, Pim Fortuyn’s party in the Netherlands, the National Front in France, the New Zealand First party, the One Nation party in Australia, the Freedom Party in Austria, the National Alliance in Italy, and on and on. Their votes range from about 8 per cent (Australia) to almost 30 per cent (Austria). Their effect is to divide the right and allow the left to slip into power.

At first glance, the Tory hold on nationalists looks strong by comparison. In 2001, the United Kingdom Independence Party won only 1.5 per cent of the national vote-and 2.5 per cent on average of the votes in the seats they contested in the Tory heartland. But that was a high percentage for a fourth party in Britain and the UKIP vote will rise if the Tories prove half-hearted in defending British identity and institutions.

And there are some signs of this. As well as shrinking from a fight over Europe, the Tories have also been reluctant since the election to raise such issues as crime, immigration and asylum seekers. This seems to be part of their attempt to shed an image that is alleged to be racist and intolerant. But they may also believe these to be issues of the past when, in reality, they are the issues of the future. Immigration is a different issue from when Enoch Powell first raised it. In the hands of Pim Fortuyn, restricting immigration became a defence of liberal values against the intolerance of Muslim immigrants and the cowardice of the establishment. David Blunkett has responded to it in exactly these terms. And public concern about both the rising numbers and the possible cultural incompatibility of immigrants is rising.

As for moral traditionalists (aka moral authoritarians) they face two rebuffs: Tory policy is gradually drifting away from them on such matters as drugs and family values, and some libertarians argue that the party would gain ground if it were to drive them out altogether. That last seems a counterproductive solution, for moral traditionalists bring more votes to the Tory party than economic libertarians do. Though it is hard to assess their relative electoral strengths directly, the operation of continental proportional representation gives us some clues: neo-liberal parties like the German FDP generally get something like 6 to 8 per cent of? the total vote, which is considerably less than the percentage of moral traditionalists. A decent respect must therefore be paid to the latter’s opinions even when they are rejected. It might mean, for instance, arguing the case for any limited drug decriminalisation not on grounds of liberty, but on the very strong evidence that the drug war on balance imposes heavier costs on society than the drug problem it affects, but fails, to solve. Besides, the moral traditionalists are often right and their voice is essential to the counterpoint of Toryism. The evidence is unambiguous that single parenthood is worse for children than a family that includes two parents. And although it may be politically risky to say as much in a society with so many single parents, a party that genuinely cares about the welfare of children must be prepared to tell the inconvenient truth.

Finally, economic libertarians (like Rupert Darwall, the author of “Paralysis or Power,” the recent Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet on Tory economic policy) are nervous that Toryism’s philosophical preference for limited government and low tax rates has been sacrificed to a dubious political imperative of improving public services that is anyway uncertain of achievement. All in all, the party needs to keep its links to its core supporters in better repair.

But the Tory party’s main problem at present is that it has nothing particular to say-or rather that it has nothing general to say. As Matthew Parris wrote a few years ago, Tories in the Commons pursue a variety of causes, but the causes do not seem to proceed from a common set of principles. You cannot give a short answer to the question: what do the Tories stand for these days? And that is partly because they cannot give a short answer to the question: what is it we stand against?

Two years ago in the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, I answered that question by suggesting that the Tories should stand against the gradual erosion of democracy that was proceeding below the radar screens of everyday politics. Serious then, this democratic deficit has widened as power has been steadily transferred from elected parliaments to non-elected courts, bureaucracies and NGOs.

Francis Fukuyama recently pointed out that one cause of the rifts between Europe and the US is their different view of the source of democratic legitimacy. Europe believes that it flows down from “a willowy, disembodied international level” whereas the US sees it as flowing upwards from “concrete, legitimate democratic publics.” Yet as Fukuyama observes, this European view positively “invites abuse on the part of elites who are then free to interpret the will of the international community to suit their own preferences.” We see this every day in the EU and in UN conferences like the recent summit on sustainable development, which make far-ranging commitments on matters which voters have never considered.

John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has analysed the ideology that unifies “the elites”-the academics, lawyers, NGO spokesmen, foundation executives, judges and international civil servants-who wield this unaccountable power. What Fonte calls “transnational progressivism” is a coherent body of thought which, while presenting itself as a development of democracy, is in fact an alternative to it. In place of majority rule in a sovereign democratic state, it substitutes permanent negotiations between ethnic groups; in place of citizenship in the nation state, it offers several citizenships in overlapping jurisdictions; in place of international law to regulate relations between states, it establishes non-accountable legal and regulatory bodies that deal directly with citizens and companies. It is a system in which power is located everywhere and nowhere and is therefore beyond the control of democratic parliaments.

This is a challenge to constitutional democracy, which insulates its beneficiaries from political competition and its decisions from challenge. There is little prospect, however, that New Labour will oppose these anti-democratic forces, or even admit their existence, because it is too closely enmeshed in the structures of this supra-national regulatory Leviathan to consider its real political character in a clear-sighted way. So the way is open for the Tories to make the defence of democracy the underlying theme that gives coherence to all their other policies. Not only that, defending democracy makes great political theatre since it boasts a stage villain in the political elites who seek to escape democratic constraints. It would provide constant opportunities for principled opposition-since once you are sensitised to the erosion of democracy, it seems to crop up everywhere. It would satisfy the very different tastes of nationalists (the defence of sovereignty), economic libertarians (opposition to international regulation), and moral traditionalists (distaste for the UN’s moral agendas). Like the long opposition to Soviet communism, it would elevate the daily business of politics to a morally higher and more strenuous level. On top of everything else, it really is the right thing to do.

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