Bill Schwarz charts the downfall of the Tories, and the collapse of the
conservative nation which lies behind it.
From Soundings issue 7 Autumn 1997
Three a.m. on Friday 2 May: there's no forgetting those minutes of primal
joy when Michael Portillo was sunk. Wild cheers emanated from street after
street. This was, finally, the moment when eighteen years of anger and
frustration were released. In the haphazard recounting of the days which
followed, it became apparent that in this moment an effective counter-community
had come into being. In the relief of the aftermath the most unlikely
figures came out as defectors from the Tory cause. A protracted build-up
of steady loathing had cohered, the extent of which wasn't clear until
the election itself. Maybe feelings like these, driven by vengeance and
a raw sense of Punch-and-Judy justice, are too primitive to be associated
with a sophisticated political strategy. But even for the sceptics it
felt good. It felt like a liberation. The Tories, ever-more complicit
in the myths of their own monstrosity and willing themselves to trump
one outrage with another, had been slain.
The night itself was rich with hyperbole. Cecil Parkinson, looking for
all the world like one of those benign creatures from Men in Black and
without a clue what was going on, broke the restraint of even Neil Kinnock
and David Steel, inducing in them spluttering hysterics. Tony King, abandoning
the norms of punditry, declared even before a single vote had been counted
that this was no landslide: it was more 'an asteroid hitting the planet
and destroying all known life'. The 18 per cent swing in Crosby carried
Peter Snow to the intoxicating limits of his electronic swingometer, opening
the vista of hitherto unknown psephological terrains. The BBC graphics
team, in homage to Luke Skywalker, zapped the blue redoubts one by one
- Edgbaston, Hove, Thurrock, all zapped. History, at last, was on the
The common refrain was that nothing had been witnessed on this scale since
1830, equating John Major with the unlikely figure of the Duke of Wellington.
But historical comparisons like this make no sense, for to think in this
manner is to ignore what politics is in each historical moment. In the
run-up to the election the founding director of the Institute of Contemporary
British History, Anthony Seldon, published a collection entitled How Tory
Governments Fall. The Tory Party in power since 1783. Distinguished contributors
were asked to consider nine factors - negative image of the party leader;
strength of feeling for 'time for a change'; confusion over policy direction;
and so on. This is an empiricism of cyclopian qualities. If nothing else,
mass democracy, the successive reorganisation of the relations of citizenship
and the interpenetration of mass politics with the mass media have transformed
the very nature of politics itself. Maybe Georgette Heyer would have the
imaginative capacities to transpose Peter Snow to the eighteenth century
as a rakish Wilkesite enthusiast, but there the comparisons have to stop.
In the 1830s the Tories were a declining faction within the multi-national
landed elite which dominated the state of Britain and Ireland. During
the decades which followed the party reconstituted itself to represent
the Union and empire, and against all expectations, to become a mass democratic
party. The Tories fashioned, as their intellectuals liked to boast, the
conservative nation. These are the historical realities - and it is this
history which has been overturned in 1997.
In the 1990s it is this - the conservative nation - which has been broken,
and which dispatches the Conservatives into uncharted waters. It has precious
little to do with numbers - in this instance truth does not reside in
some political Wisden, in which the defeat of 1997 is comparable to some
far-off catastrophe. In a sense the issue is more dramatic. The strategic
vision of contemporary Conservatism has become unhinged. The capacity
of the party to embrace a politics of citizenship is in genuine crisis.
Its carefully fashioned democratic project, which underpinned the bnguee
duree of the Conservative Party as a competitor in the field of modern
mass politics, has come to an end. The politics of the conservative nation
have been replaced by the politics of Middle England. These terms, banal
enough to be sure, may sound like the same thing. Or it may seem as if
the difference between them is merely rhetorical, dictated by the soundbite.
This I think is wrong. These terms, for all their spin, signal a shift
in historical realities.
The conservative nation
The conservative nation was a complex political formation, created from
an authentic conception of civilization. At its core lay the principal
imperial nation: England itself. Organised around this core was the Union
of the British and Irish nations. And beyond that, sharing this ideological
firmament, was the white empire. The language of the conservative nation
was held in place by what was perceived as a shared ethnic inheritance.
For the conservative nation wasn't a nation at all. It was a multi-national
and imperial confederation, made up of distinct national units, but which
(with one or two notable exceptions) Conservative nation spoke the language
of English ethnicity. The idea of the conservative nation represented
a political project with ethnicity at its very heart. Indeed, Conservatism
embodied a politics organised to incite its citizens to become English
- in its ethnic, if not always its national, register. How else can we
understand the fact that every philosophical defence of British Conservatism
for the past century turns on the potency of the nation? In the official
pronouncements this can still be heard today, untransformed and unadorned.
Thus David Willetts -'Two-brains Willetts' to his friends, owing, it seems,
to the repute of his colossal IQ - closes his 1997 appeal to the British
electorate, Why Vote Conservative?, with these words:'... Conservative
patriotism is not quite the same as the blood and soil nationalism of
the Continental variety. We love our country because we love our institutions
and the way of life they sustain.' The concept is Disraeli's, the idiom
Baldwin's. Either way, the antiquarianism is evident, taking as axiomatic
the putatively un-axiomatic instincts of the English.
From the late nineteenth century, when the state was slowly democratised
and the Conservative Party as a mass party effectively came into being,
citizenship came to be deeply imbued with ethnic obligations. To be a
citizen of the conservative nation was to be an ethnic. It was to subscribe
to the ancestral rituals encoded in the language of the crown, in the
inherited verities of a nation which was genetically constitutional, and
in which a concocted conception of kith and kin bound together the anglophone
white races of the empire.
This was the citizen whom Beatrix Campbell (with acceptable chronological
leeway) has termed 'the Home Service citizen', listening-in to the wireless
with his family around him, the interior, domestic life of the nation
given ideological shape by Reith's BBC. Or this is the citizen whom Virginia
The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker,
golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering in the desert, a mystic
staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier
heading a revolution, a pariah howling with scepticism and solitude. When
he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his
umbrella in the stand like the rest.
Patently, the ethnic and patriarchal logics which held these ideals in
place excluded as they included. The democratic impulse of the conservative
nation, drawing the unenfranchised into the public realm of the nation,
was shadowed at every turn by those who were deficient in their ethnic
dispositions. At every moment the respectable citizen was confronted by
an entire gallery of grotesque others who failed to function as true citizens:
aliens of all stripes; hooligans and agitators; common prostitutes and
good-time girls; male homosexuals; the feckless, the inebriated, the wilfully
unemployed; even, in more contemporary argot, the single mother.
yet at the same time the idea of the conservative nation could provide
a genuine radicalism, creating citizens for a democratic polity which
functioned by universal principles. Nowhere was this more evident in the
history of Conservatism than in the person of the erstwhile Birmingham
Radical, Joseph Chamberlain. He created a language which spoke to workers
as workers; which denounced with bravura the customs of the ruling caste;
but which turned on allegiance to empire and enmity to all manner of alien.
Chamberlain's turn to Conservatism in 1886 marked the apotheosis of his
Radicalism, and transformed forever the prospects of Toryism, forcing
it to confront the imperatives of mass democracy. The cities of Belfast
and Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool, are testament to the historic force
of what the conservative nation, in its popular incarnation, once meant.
The rhetoric of the conservative nation - drawing on the belief of the
providential nature of English history, on the mystical powers of crown
and constitution, on the liberality of the English - may have seemed unconvincing
to those hostile to Conservatism. But they conveyed a truth about the
historical realities which underwrote the success of Conservatism as a
mass political formation.
The decline of the conservative nation
These historical realities vanished long ago. The rhetoric alone remains.
Indeed, in the current disintegration of Conservatism all that remains
active in its imaginative dynamic is the ghost of this ethnic memory.
The conservative nation was founded on the twin pillars of industry and
empire. From the 1950s these structures weakened, and with them the coherence
of the conservative nation. The end of empire, combined with the precipitate
decline in manufacturing, dislocated the conservative nation at its core.
With it we witness, as Tom Nairn predicted presciently, if prematurely,
the break-up of Britain. The great imperial cities and bastions of Unionism
had their economic life-lines cut. This historic Unionism had given credence
to identities which could be, simultaneously, Scots, Welsh or Northern
Irish, and British-imperial. With neither industry nor empire union with
England became increasingly anachronistic.
Put simply, the tribunes of the conservative nation in England reacted
to this loss with a recharged radical politics in which invocations of
ethnicity redoubled. We see this from the 1960s, in the protracted bid
first by Enoch Powell, and then by Mrs Thatcher, to reinvent the conservative
nation for new times. The corporate system which had once given life to
Labour - the imperial economy based on the staple industries of the first
industrial revolution, with a state formation to match - were to be uprooted.
This was, one might say, a postcolonial politics which worked from a conception
of ethnic life whose colonial foundations had shifted not at all.
When first Powellism and then Thatcherism cohered it did indeed seem as
if they were in the business of creating a new hegemonic project. Their
vision of Conservatism was based not merely on the tinkering of electoral
calculus. They were going, as Stuart Hall argued, for a radical recasting
of the conservative nation. Time and again they declared that theirs was
a politics which was universal in its aspiration, devised in order to
break Labour and to allow all citizens to sign up to the prescriptions
of a newly resurgent conservative nation. And in the election of 1970,
and then again in those of the early Thatcherite period, this bid to win
over the traditional Labour voter did pay dividends.
But this universalism was flawed in its very foundations. It created an
idea of the nation confronted by a frenzy of enemies within and without,
a radicalism driven by the imperative of exclusion. With Powell, of course,
this was most evident in terms of race. But it was he, on the eve of the
1970 election, who also codified the roster of invisible enemies within
- embracing not only students and kindred spirits, but also the patrician
guardians of the old order. These were enemies of the conservative nation
not on account of pigmentation but because they defied the deepest codes
of English ethnicity, either by subversion on the cultural front, as in
the case of students and the hoi-polloi of 1968, or by being insufficiently
vigilant in matters of authority, on the part of the old guard. And it
was Powell, in one of the great dramatic turn¬arounds in British political
history, who voted for the Labour Party in February 1974, in order to
extinguish the spectre of Europe. This was a radicalism which reached
out to an evermore indignant minority, a universalism which time and time
turned in on itself.
Here, in its essentials, the language of Middle England began to take
shape. Powell and Thatcher, both devout Unionists, found themselves invoking
the Union, but in effect unwittingly calling upon the ancestral truths
of the English. In this respect, Powell's excursus to County Down was
more troubling than he had anticipated, the shared ethnic language of
Ulstermen and the English doing nothing to mitigate the adventures of
an autonomous, anti-Westminster Ulster nationalism. This new generation
of Tory radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, owing more to Chamberlain than
they ever conceived, were living out the historic contraction of England:
seeing first the empire go, then the subaltern nations of what was once
Great Britain, and even too some of the recalcitrant regions of England
itself - those at any rate some distance from the Home Counties. If there
had once been some territorial and political substance to the idea of
the conservative nation, the invention of what has now come to be known
as Middle England was, from the start, of a different order: 90 per cent
in the mind and 10 per cent the friction of discernible geographies. It
is, at most, the old conservative nation hollowed out, reverting to the
image of the party of the 1830s, when all it commanded were the rural
If the twin collapse of industry and empire destroyed the conservative
nation structurally, the coup de grace came in the 1980s from the Thatcherite
Jacobins themselves. Unhinged too was the Tory Party which - also - had
been given life by the old regime. The Thatcherites unleashed a bid for
hegemony which repeatedly stalled, incapable of generating a level of
popular mobilisation sufficient to break the impasse bequeathed by the
corporatist state. As we can now see this was a radicalism which heralded
not the recreation of Conservatism for the new century, but its burn-out.
The defeat of the Heathites
There were alternatives, as there always are. A quite different strain
of Conservatism can be charted, with its roots in the 'middle-way' nostrums
of the 1930s. This was a tradition of Conservatism which, in the postwar
world, came to be increasingly sympathetic to Europe. Churchill was an
intellectual presence here - even if ambivalently, as in all his manoeuvres
to underwrite a philosophical justification for Conservative Party politics.
With more gusto, Harold Macmillan was critical in making this tradition
happen, as was his chosen lieutenant, Edward Heath.
Too often now the divergence between the old Heathites and the prominent
Tories of today is accounted for in terms of Heath's personal bile. The
folklore of contemporary Conservatism thrives on new disclosures of his
bad grace, and - it seems - Heath is content enough to adopt the role
of folk-devil. But this is a serious simplification. The distinctiveness
of Macmillan, Heath and their successors is their determination to recast
the strategies of the conservative nation, and to privilege state over
nation. The matter of sovereignty for them is of secondary importance.
Their opponents, from Powell onwards, have championed nation against state,
in a scenario in which the oppressed English - often appearing in the
guise of a nation defeated - are at odds with a state in the process of
incremental Europeanization. Even when leader of the party, it was uncommon
to hear Heath embellish the rhetoric of the conservative nation: it was
there, touching the syntax of his politics; but he showed no evidence
of being transported by the rhetoric itself. Enoch Powell, on the contrary,
loved nothing more than to present himself as mystic soothsayer of the
English nation, uttering truths no mere politician could even see. Heath
is happy to have on record that his deepest innermost desire was to have
been a hotel-manager. Heath and Powell are different beings, with different
politics: the difference is of more than biographical significance.
One of the pressing questions about the history of contemporary Conservatism
is how in the past twenty or twenty-five years this Heathite project -
to use a short-hand - has come to be so thoroughly vanquished. So far
as Heath himself is representative of this Tory tradition, he's been written
out of, and written himself out of, contemporary Tory politics. As father
of the House of Commons and a former prime minister he has some prestige;
as a Tory ideologue he has none.
Four reasons for the defeat of this tradition can be outlined. First,
the pro-Europeans remained closely tied to the old corporatist order of
the post-war settlement, understanding Britain's move to Europe as merely
an extension of the existing arrangement –to be brokered from above
by the sympathetic servants and bankers. Second, while committed to the
principles of the postwar settlement, Heath and many around him found
themselves, to their consternation, in practice undoing the very system
to which they gave allegiance. Despite these commitments, Heath - like
Wilson and Callaghan - found himself pulled into the vortex of a proto-Thatcherism,
confronting the unions, allowing unemployment to rise, restraining welfare
expenditure. With such policies, the Heathites' resistance to the more
full-blooded Thatcherites in their midst was compromised from the outset.
Third, although the Europeans inside the Conservative Party were happy
to take a pragmatic line on sovereignty, the deepest rhetorical resources
of Conservatism, for them as well as for their opponents in the party,
still resided with the party's identification with the nation. Yet the
moment they began to mobilise this language, which lay at the very heart
of Conservatism, they were trumped on every occasion by those who could
speak it with greater authority, summoning up the spectre of an oligarchic
Europe ready to gobble up little England. Fourth, neither Heath nor later
generations of pro-European Tories were able to turn Europe into a popular
issue, generated by a distinct conception of moral and intellectual aspiration:
it is an issue which has resolutely remained in the hands of the managers.
This is a continuing story inside Conservatism. In more recent times it
has been exemplified by Chris Patten. On leaving university Patten (so
the story goes) wrote to both the Conservative and the Labour parties
offering his services: the Tories responded more speedily, and he signed
up. He started out, reputedly, as the brightest of Thatcher's critics,
in direct continuation of the Macmillan-Heath lineage. But by the 1983
election his dissidence had diminished and he accepted the Thatcherite
mantra that there 'had been no alternative' to the crazed deflationary
onslaught of 1981 -2. When Major became prime minister in 1990 Patten
saw the opportunity to turn the party to a less sectional, and a more
pro-Europe, outlook. In cahoots with Sarah Hogg, he devised a plan which
would have transformed the Tories from the outmoded champion of the conservative
nation to a more modest, more modern and more centrist party, emulating
the success of the Christian Democrats within Europe itself. This was
both too tentative and too late. And also, perhaps, his previous compliance
with the prevailing successes of Thatcherism in the mid-1980s may have
complicated his standing as a force for a new Conservatism. Patten himself
lost his seat in 1992 - to the delight of Lady Thatcher and her entourage
who, we are told, cheered as the result came through. But by 1992 the
anti-European right inside the party was already more formidable than
their critics realised.
In retrospect it is clear that the decisive moment occurred in the summer
of 1990, when the patience of Sir Geoffrey Howe finally snapped, and he
determined on his break with Thatcher. This marked the fracturing of Thatcherism
at its very centre, culminating in Howe's resignation and in his public
denunciation of his erstwhile leader, which shortly after led to the rebellion
which turned Thatcher herself out.
Two things followed. On the one hand, pent-up personal enmities were unleashed
within the Tory hierarchy. As the collapse continued, these became ever-more
influential, a substitute for politics itself. Everything came to turn
on personalities and on personal scores. The hustling in the perennial
leadership crises was all but entirely negative. Candidates found favour
not on merit but on their capacity to destroy someone down the line more
loathsome than themselves. Especially for the humiliated Thatcherite loyalists
the overriding aim was to shaft first Heseltine, and then Clarke.
On the other hand, in a larger sense, Thatcherism defeated - as an ideological
legacy - transmuted into a barely restrained xenophobia, given force by
the battle inside the party on Europe, but signifying little else. In
terms of language and rhetoric, there were obvious continuities with the
earlier traditions of the conservative nation. But the substance had shifted
markedly, for as we have seen the electoral strength of the party had
contracted to the rural heartlands of England and to a few select suburbs.
This was a politics which was defensive and sectional, driven not by the
attempt to universalise its programme but by an obsession with manifold
enemies and subversives. Historically, Tory democrats had never been shy
about demarcating citizens of rectitude from those of more deficient disposition.
The line dividing the two turned on race and ethnicity, enemies of the
conservative nation being perceived as failing to conform to an ethnic
ideal of citizenship. In the Conservatism which now confronts us the pale
of citizenship has been drawn tight. The inherited ethnic absolutism of
historic Conservatism has come home, the sole rationale for a party which
speaks to a declining constituency.
The idea of Middle England started appearing in the press in the early
1990s, and has come to signify the archetypal conservative readership
of Paul Dacre's Daily Mail. Dacre, a one-time socialist, has been courted
by the right, as one might expect, but also - with greater assiduity -
by the front-liners in Blair's new Labour team. For all the significant
differences between Labour and Tory on Europe and on constitutional matters,
no-one in the Labour leadership has been coy in making these overtures
public. The Mail clearly functioned as the most contested terrain of the
election. The Middle England of Paul Dacre's imagination, of Labour's
electoral strategy and of the anti-Europe Tory right is barely an entity
which can be verified socially. It is the invention of journalists, PR
wizards and politicians, with plenty of spin on it. But politics operates
by such inventions, the myths and the issues inseparably one. My own sense
is that whatever inroads Labour have made or hope to make on the terrain
of Middle England, at the very least it functions as one of those myths
which legitimates the politics of the beleaguered Tories, alerting us
to the historical transformations underway. Whatever else the notion of
Middle England suggests, it signifies an ethnic politics incapable of
imagining a future for itself and, insofar as this is the case, it conforms
precisely to the politics of the principal ideologues of the current Conservative
We can see hints of these developments in some of the formal features
of the national culture. In a recent issue of Soundings Phil Cohen suggested
that soaps contained within them a Utopian impulse which genuinely speaks
to a wish for community and an ethos of lived collectivity. This insight
can be given a historical gloss. Citizenship in twentieth-century Britain
has operated on many different sites, the cultural as much as the narrowly
political. One dimension of the cultural relations of citizenship has
depended upon new members of the political nation possessing the opportunity
to see an image of themselves projected in the nation's media, and thus
come to be recognised - by themselves and others - not merely as voters
but as actors and participants in the larger theatre of the nation's imaginings.
Historically, developments in the mass media have mimicked the protracted
development of mass universal politics: first the Archers and Dales in
the rural counties, then the petty bourgeois and respectable working Mancunians
who inhabit the appropriately named Coronation Street, and belatedly the
more hapless, transient and ethnically diverse population of Albert Square
in the East End.
Judging by the pronouncements of the current Tory ideologues, Albert Square
represents a cultural world which simply doesn't enter the Conservative
field of vision. Ethnicity is a critical signifier here, at odds with
the immovable whiteness which underpins the imaginings of Middle England.
Even those awarded recognition in the nation's soaps, it would seem, are
destined to be written out of the Tory future.
The intensification of such sectionalist sentiment within Conservatism
has been extraordinary to watch. It isn't simply the preserve of a handful
of individuals on the right of the party: it cuts more deeply than that,
finding a ready voice in all sections of the Tory press and touching those
in the putative centre of the party as well. In April 1992 the Sun, famously,
was taking credit for John Major's election victory, announcing the following
month that he was 'monarch of all he surveys'. (The paper's niftiest,
if under-reported, stratagem during the election had been to disclose
the findings of a spiritualist who had consulted the deceased on their
voting intentions. Churchill, Field-Marshall Montgomery, Queen Victoria,
Elvis and Sid James declared themselves for the Conservatives, while Labour
had to contend with Mao, Marx, Stalin, Trotsky, Brezhnev, Andropov, John
Lennon and Robert Maxwell) Within a matter of mere weeks the Sun had turned
against Major first on the incompetence of his chancellor, Norman Lamont,
and secondly on his prevarications over Europe. The rest of the Tory press
joined the fray, reflecting and amplifying the dissension which had moved
to heart of the party itself. With 'Black Wednesday', in September 1992,
Major's career as a credible Conservative leader of the future came to
an end - and not even his subsequent resignation as party leader and trouncing
of John Redwood could put him back together again. For five years, from
the summer of 1992 to the spring of 1997, Major tried to hold the party
together, reconciling two antagonist traditions of Conservatism. Like
Balfour before him, at the beginning of the century over tariff reform,
Major's attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable finished him.
This is not the place to detail the growing confidence of the anti-Europe
evangelicals in these five years. The party could be run neither with
them nor without them, allowing all manner of pretender to emerge. Major's
'bastards' - Bill Cash, George Gardiner, Teresa Gorman and the rest -
were one thing. Quite another were those who carried with them the glint
of ambition for the leadership - Michael Portillo, Michael Howard, Peter
Lilley, John Redwood - that is, those professing to be politicians with
a genuinely national programme and national appeal.
On the specifics of Europe they could offer the party strategists nothing
which wouldn't have ripped the party apart. But on other matters - on
what might be termed the politics of Little Middle England - it was precisely
'the bastards' and their allies who made the running.
The bastards dominant
Look first at the BSE crisis. On the morning of Tuesday 21 May 1996 John
Major took the panic decision to 'declare war on Europe' (as the Mail
delicately opined) in order to bring an end to the European Union's continued
restrictions on the sale of British beef. This marked a moment when Major
himself steadfastly marched into the camp of his erstwhile enemies, the
militantly sceptical opponents of the EU. For long he had been an undeclared
prisoner of the Tory right, each settlement of the internal party struggle
gradually pulling him further away from the centre. On 21 May he crossed
In this he was not alone. Malcolm Rifkind, one of the new pretenders,
had been bending to the right, and sanctioned his leader's shift. So too,
if with a touch more circumspection, had Stephen Dorrell, a man of hitherto
unblemished progressive Tory sympathies - a move, subsequently, which
spelt the end of his chances for the leadership, on the slightly curious
grounds that this was an opportunism too far. Even Kenneth Clarke felt
compelled to support Major's tactic of non-cooperation with the EU while
still attempting to trumpet the virtues of the single currency. The shift
was not Major's alone: it represented a larger political realignment in
which the instincts of the right prevailed.
Lying just below the surface of this realignment was a nationalism intent
on making ever fewer pretences to represent the nation. The symbolic ordering
of this nationalism, in the midst of the crisis over British beef, was
not as arbitrary, nor as crazed, as might first have appeared. The roast-beef-eating
Englishman has a long history, the no-nonsense carnivore an active figure
in the myths of the English. David Willetts, in his civilised English
voice, may have regretted the excesses of 'other' nationalisms, evoking
an elemental belonging fixed by blood and soil. The spring and summer
of 1996, however, was a time when the imagined frontiers of the English
nation were marked out in the traffic of gelatine, tallow and bull semen.
The blood of roast beef and the blood of the Englishman have intermingled
in many symbolic repertoires of the nation. Beef. Blood. Semen. This is
very far from invoking a genteel history of Englishness. It summons a
more rebarbative history, in which the purity of true English stock is
what makes the nation.
Secondly, one might look at the increasing prominence of Michael Howard
during these years. In May 1993, after the sacking of Lamont, Howard replaced
Clarke as Home Secretary. Major was trying to hold the line on Europe
and allowed his new Home Secretary a free hand. Howard's appointment coincided
with the heart-breaking killing of the young James Bulger. Outrage and
confusion touched everyone, and Howard moved in. While the government
as a whole stood paralysed, he was one of the few senior ministers seen
to be doing something. Many of the things he chose to do, according to
the country's senior judges, were about as legal as the Great Train Robbery.
And previous home secretaries, the Conservatives Lords Carr and Whitelaw,
ganged up in the upper chamber in an attempt to restrain him. While keeping
his head down on Europe Howard, by virtue of his dedication to old style
law and order, was still able to present himself as tribune of Middle
England, voicing an authoritarianism which none in the cabinet felt compelled
This vision of Howard as the sole activist in the Conservative hierarchy
was most apparent at the party conference of 1996. The 'schizophrenia'
over Europe, which Kenneth Clarke denounced and which dominated press
coverage, remained suitably medicated, inducing occasional hallucinogenic
outbursts on the fringes but leaving the centre drugged and listless.
The main architect of this listlessness was Clarke himself, content for
nothing to be seen to happen which might open public strife on Europe.
The cost of this quiescence, however, was to give Howard yet more free
In Howard there rested the authentic residue of Thatcherism, shorn of
its radicalism, but driven by an inventive vindictiveness toward those
who refused to conform to the fantasised protocols of Middle England.
Whereas John Major looked back with relish to the respectable cultures
of suburban England of the early 1950s, Howard emerged as the hit-man
prepared to bend back the urban cultures of our own day in order to transform
the world into his master's vision. In him one can see a politics abjuring
universalism in favour of breaking those who fail to live up to a phantom
conception of civilisation.
Thirdly, one can see similar transactions at work in Major's declarations
on Unionism. In his own mind the 1992 election was won due to one principal
fact: defence of the Union. As he told an audience in Glasgow two years
after the event: 'It was here in Scotland that we drew the line in the
sand. We declared we could not, we would not, whatever the cost, whatever
the risk, compromise our deepest core beliefs and put our nation at risk'.
Yet this is a Unionism which is as phantom as the imagined protocols of
Middle England. After the Framework Document of February 1995 the Conservatives
in Westminster couldn't even count on the Ulster Unionists - let alone
the Welsh or the Scots. Notwithstanding these realities Major tried to
play the same hand in 1997. On the Monday before the election, in what
seemed a desperate attempt to prove to himself the realities of the Union,
he touched down with his soapbox in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Back in his more familiar heimat of College Green, right by Westminster
itself, he issued the warning: 'You have 72 hours to save the Union'.
The election confirmed what his critics already knew. The old Tory vision
of the Union had, by the 1990s, come to mean little more than the politics
of a contracting England. The asteroid came. Wipe out occurred in Scotland
and Wales. It didn't seem much to matter which faction of the party MPs
supported: they were cut down in equal measure. Electorally, the conservative
nation resembled nothing so much as the geographic cluster of subscribers
to Country Life. Party membership had fallen to some 300,000 - down from
the one and a half million of 1979. The average age of party members has
crept up relentlessly, and currently stands at 62. Financially, as well
as politically, the Conservatives are bankrupt.
The result brought the party to the cusp of vertiginous collapse. Day
after day the letters pages of the Telegraph throbbed with the melodrama
of indignation. Treachery was on many lips, including those of Norma Major.
John Major himself made his exit as speedy as humanly possible, leaving
the squabbling rump to sort themselves out. In the internecine battles
which followed vengeance predominated, with all the blood- letting of
an unabashed renaissance drama. No sooner was an alliance made than one
of its brokers reneged. The representatives of Middle England seemed past
caring. Destruction of rivals meant more than political alliance on matters
of policy or principle. Ann Widecombe was happy to go on public record
in her determination to destroy Howard, telling the press of her intention
to 'hurt him politically and to wreck his chances of the leadership',
and hinting of a personality subsumed in darkness, which most of the rest
of us had spotted some while back. Early on, Howard himself and William
Hague stitched up a deal, which fell apart when the effects of the champagne
wore off: in all the collapse of civilised norms there was comedy too.
But in all this the centre of gravity of the party was pulling to the
Kenneth Clarke, the upholder of the European tradition in the final days
of the last Tory administrations, sensed this all too keenly when, at
the last moment, he befriended John Redwood to create the dream-ticket.
In the event Clarke's prognostication of two years earlier on Redwood
proved telling: 'I don't think the Conservative Party could win an election
in a 1,000 years on his ultra rightwing programme'. Coquetting with this
'ultra rightwing programme' did Clarke no good. Having endeavoured to
hold a principled line for all his time in government, in the final moments
he saw the forces stacked against him and made his compact with the right.
Sufficient numbers of both Clarke's supporters and those of Redwood couldn't
find the stomach to continue with their respective loyalties: defeat for
Clarke quickly followed.
In the end Hague slipped through because no-one hated him enough to want
to destroy him. That was his principal virtue, an act of wanton desperation,
self-destruction and spinelessness on the part of those who voted for
him. One can't help but agree with the pithy verdict of Edward Heath:
'no ideas, no experience, no hope'. On the other hand, Lady Thatcher came
out of the wood to give Hague her imprimatur - Mrs Favisham giving Pip
her blessing - in order to ensure that Kenneth Clarke would be dispatched.
So far as politics touched these events Hague did all that was required
to ensure that his credentials with the right held steady. On 16 June
he made it known that membership of his future shadow cabinet would be
restricted to those who signed up to a ten-year veto on British participation
in the single currency. There was no discussion, nor any outrage. Such
was the state of the party it seemed entirely uncontentious and obvious.
The ploy was his own invention, codifying the post-Thatcherite instincts
of Middle England into party policy. If any future Conservative government
were to happen, the 'war' with Europe and all it stands for would be quickened.
Factionalism on an increasingly rightist and xenophobic platform is what
the Tones face. They haven't yet hit meltdown. There is no reason to suppose
that they will split to a significant degree. But the traditional slogans
of the conservative nation have now proved anachronistic beyond all measure.
The only alternatives in sight - Hague; Portillo, a continuing presence;
Howard, Redwood and the rest still with some power and with scores to
settle - look distinctly menacing. Maybe even yet the Conservatives could
revive in some as yet unknown form. The idea of those cheers of 2 May
coming back to haunt us doesn't bear thinking about