The failure of the Tory party to recover from its crushing rejection in 1997 has puzzled commentators. In the past, following heavy defeats in 1906, 1945 and 1966, it has always successfully repositioned itself to come back strongly at the next election. But it totally failed to do so in 2001, and until very recently seemed doomed to another debacle which might spell irreversible eclipse.
Even now, just denting Labour's massive majority would be hailed as a good result. Consequently we have a clutch of books examining where the party has gone wrong, what it now stands for and whether it can be saved. In a few weeks, of course, these gloomy premises may be disproved by an unexpected Howard victory; but in the meantime, at least two of these books offer thoughtful reflections on the party's plight.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's is by far the most readable: a good journalist's book, discursive and anecdotal, rattling through the party's history of reinvention with the irreverent eye of a hack who has covered the last four decades from perches on different papers. The critical year, he contends, was 1963, when the botched succession to Macmillan began a progressive loss of authority and confidence.
Kieron O'Hara covers much of the same ground, but from a very different angle - that of a computer scientist who studied the Tory party in his spare time. He has written a lucid introduction to conservative philosophy - with much emphasis on the difference between small and big "C" - apparently aimed at readers with little knowledge of either philosophy or political history, in an effort to rediscover the enduring values which the modern party has mislaid. It is lightly done, and rather refreshing.
By contrast again, Ted Honderich is a real philosopher who pulls no punches. His book, first published in 1989 and now updated, is an angry deconstruction of the sentimental rhetoric, inconsistency and plain dishonesty that passes for Conservative thinking. He is particularly hard on Burke - one of O'Hara's heroes - but equally dismissive of modern gurus like Anthony Quinton and Roger Scruton, and proves to his own satisfaction that the whole Tory intellectual tradition is a cover for arrant selfishness. The re-issue gives him the chance to assert, even more angrily, that New Labour is part of this conservative conspiracy which has betrayed the socialist "decency" inherited from Attlee's party. This is an exhilarating polemic, but not much help to the perplexed voter.
Honderich is right in at least one respect. The obvious problem for the Tory party is that Mrs Thatcher's overwhelming success in transforming the political landscape has allowed - or forced - Labour to become a second Thatcherite party, leaving the Tories nowhere to go but ever further right. Both Wheatcroft and O'Hara describe how William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard each, when first elected, tried to position themselves towards the centre but quickly reverted to shoring up core support.
But it is not just a matter of left and right. A more insidious part of Mrs Thatcher's legacy is the way that she smashed the old coalition of liberals and conservatives (small "l", small "c") which had been the secret of the Tory party's endurance. Thatcherism was a highly personal amalgam of hard-nosed economic liberalism with equally aggressive social conservatism. Previously social conservatives - the hangers and floggers - had tended to be paternalist or economically fairly wet; while economic liberals were often socially progressive.
Mrs Thatcher deliberately purged the more tolerant and inclusive Tory tradition; after 15 years she left behind a party that was narrower, less tolerant and less representative than she had inherited. Though her successor spoke of recreating a country "at ease with itself", it was too late. The market-led policies of the Thatcher decade had undermined the institutions of social cohesion - from local government to the NHS, the monarchy to the BBC - leaving behind a country fragmented and fractious, affluent but atomised.
Wheatcroft's explanation of the Tories' situation today is that Thatcher "won all the battles but lost the argument". By this he means that she won the economic argument, with the result that New Labour has made no attempt to undo any of her central achievements; but that the party's social attitudes - on personal freedom, race, sexuality and the like - have appeared more and more out-of-touch and "weird".
Despite the efforts of younger, more libertarian members of the Shadow Cabinet - who command little public attention - the party's image has remained elderly, old-fashioned and authoritarian. Voters accepted the necessity of most of what Mrs Thatcher did but, even in her heyday, she was not loved. Since 1990 her retrospective unpopularity has haunted her successors, and Howard daily reminds people of why they were glad to be rid of her. New Labour has been a huge disappointment; yet still it is not fashionable to admit to voting Tory.
O'Hara also addresses the liberal-conservative divide in the Tory tradition. He believes that the triumph of neo-liberalism hijacked the party from its conservative roots. Since New Labour has largely adopted the orthodoxy of free-market economics, he wants the Tories to go "back to basics". He would like to see them become again a sceptical party - not reactionary, not opposed to all change, but with a predisposition against it unless it can be shown to be demonstrably for the better: the tradition, he believes, of Burke and Disraeli, Salisbury and Balfour.
This is all very rational and in a way appealing. But in our hectic world of endless half-baked "initiatives" it is wishful thinking. Such a posture offers no credible campaigning programme for a modern party. The trivialising circus that is modern politics demands constant headlines and novelty.
The real problem, faced by all the parties but especially the opposition, is that the electorate is not listening any more: 20 years ago there was still a serious political debate between passionately-supported parties that represented opposed philosophies and interests, and the media still felt a duty to report it relatively fully. Today there is only spin, crude misrepresentation, platitudes and caricature. So all this earnest examination of political traditions is wasted effort which bears no relation whatever to this election as it will actually be fought.
John Campbell's two-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher is published by Pimlico
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