The break-up of the conservative nation
Bill Schwarz
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 move again.
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 Woolf describes
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 heartlands.
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.

After Thatcher
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.

Middle England
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 rump.
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 the threshold.
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 to question.
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 rein.
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 right.
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