BOOK REVIEW / From roast beef to old bull: 'The Faber Book of Conservatism' - ed Kenneth Baker, 17.50

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The Independent Culture
IN THE old days, Conservatives used to make quite a thing about being non-ideological, about preferring huntin' and shootin' to writin'. Eschewing introspection, they were content to be called the stupid party, and to govern.

Kenneth Baker, former Heathite minister turned Thatcherite loyalist, ex-Education Secretary and ex-Home Secretary, likes to see himself both as a traditionalist and as a thoroughly modern Conservative. In his introduction to this anthology of quips, poems and passages he makes the standard comparison between doctrines like socialism, liberalism and communism, which he lumps together as 'defined areas of political belief supported by volumes of dogmatic statements', and the thought-processes of the British Right, which he regards as subtle rather than simple and 'close to the natural feelings of mankind'. Nevertheless, in the spirit of contemporary, intellectualised Toryism, he declares that his object is to identify the main principles and ideas of the nation's most popular political faith, while also confessing: 'I suspect all I have been able to do is to show why I am a Conservative'.

Perhaps he should have stuck to one scheme or the other. For although, as this book shows, there is some overlap between the essence of historic Conservatism and the Baker credo, the two are not the same. In office, Mr Baker gained a reputation as a skilful politician: he was widely viewed as the master of the well-chosen platitude, who knew exactly how to home in on the erogenous zones of the party faithful. He liked power, he delighted in public attention, he enjoyed playing the game for its own sake (apparently this is kosher: 'The essence of Toryism is enjoyment', says Walter Bagehot on page 265). Hence the

question of why Mr Baker is a Conservative, though of some technical interest to psychologists, can scarcely provide much intellectual meat.

In fact, Mr Baker's choices in this anthology reflect the current state, rather than the origins, of his preferences. There is, for example, a key section on patriotism: 'The role of the Conservative Party is to argue for a European community in which individual nations co-operate on the basis of shared interests, rather than submerge their identities under the weight of some imposed federal goal', comments the editor pointedly. Many of his selected quotes sniffily warn of the dangers of excessive intimacy with foreigners, underplaying the powerful pro-European tradition that has intermittently dominated British parliamentary Toryism for three decades or more.

Such emphases are evidence of an intention not to identify or to explain, but to justify. Sentiments which average people might be tempted to judge old-fashioned or selfish are sanctified by some impeccably witty quotation: in this way, the greater part of the British cultural tradition can be turned into a celebration of Central Office values. The result is a baroque mix: alongside quotes from Mr Baker's own speeches and passages, from one Mary Baker (who may be his wife), from David Willetts (who gave advice on the book), from Lady Thatcher, and even from Sir Geoffrey Howe, there are lines by Sophocles, Aristotle (apparently a staunch defender of the middle classes), Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer and Abraham Lincoln. Brazenly, Baker even seeks to recruit Britain's greatest socialist writer, George Orwell, quoting him out of context several times on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding themes.

It's all done with mirrors. Read a few chapters, and you begin to think: 'Gosh, some of our contemporary cliche-spinners are in pretty good company.' The conjuror, in effect, equates Conservatism with virtue to convince you that virtue equals Conservatism. Press-ganging Orwell is only part of it: Baker has bigger fish to fry. Astonishingly, St Thomas Aquinas is wheeled in as a bastion of the Carlton Club, telling us: 'Whoever promotes the common welfare of the community promotes his own welfare at the same time.' But what is so Tory about that? The Grimethorpe Colliery Band thinks much the same.

The book is revealing in unintended ways. Winston Churchill appears half as often as Margaret Thatcher, possibly for the embarrassing reason that the Conservatives' greatest Prime Minister was never much of a Tory at all. When he is quoted, his remarks often have nothing to do with politics ('I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me') or are un-Conservative. Lord Tebbit appears as acid, Lord Hailsham as elegantly pompous as their public images suggest. Lady Thatcher's least generous remarks ('There is no such thing as society', 'We who are largely living off the Victorians' moral and physical capital can hardly afford to denigrate them', and the especially chilling 'There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation') appear no less stark with the passage of time.

There are some nice touches: Churchill on 'The Boneless Wonder' (Ramsay MacDonald as Labour Prime Minister), for instance, and P G Wodehouse on the hilarious British aristocracy fetish. Most of them, however, have little to do with Conservatism. What the book does not contain is a proper account of Tory tribulations as well as glories. A Conservative politician may be expected to give a favourable interpretation of his own party's history, but he does not do his own cause a service by passing over the difficult bits, the black side of the British Right: the episodes of jingoism, militarism, hostility to democracy, religious and racial discrimination, willingness to act on behalf of the rich and relative indifference to the plight of the badly-off.

Instead, we are presented with a sort of cosy, cricket-playing, forelock-tugging, port-swigging, self-congratulatory ruralist dream. Why has Britain declined during 30 post-war years of Tory rule? An answer is to be found in this pleasant chocolate box, which contains nothing to upset the digestion of colonels in Tunbridge Wells.

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