I'm sorry, Mr Hague, but your British Way is another dead end

He is unwise to use language that appeals to crazed nationalists, little Englanders and muttering old men
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WILLIAM HAGUE has a lamentably low public profile, so it is not surprising that he wishes to raise it by any possible means. His speech to the Centre for Policy Studies yesterday was the rhetorical equivalent of the rampage on which Michael Douglas embarked in the film Falling Down.

You may remember that Mr Douglas played a quiet man of regular habits who loses self-control because no one will listen to him. Mr Hague's thoughts on Britishness were a similarly desperate attempt to make us listen by shouting some startling things very, very loud.

"New Labour is a threat to Britishness," warned Mr Hague. "Our Prime Minister is a threat to Britain." Things, apparently, are worse than we thought: "... a dagger at the heart of what it is to be British. If he is left to carry on unchecked, he will drive it right through that heart."

Mr Blair as the Norman Bates of British identity? Maybe not. The edge of hyperbole in Mr Hague's pronouncements sounds odd from such a reasonable man. The British Way sounds like the title of a speech Oswald Mosley once gave on a wet night in east London to a lot of disgruntled men in home- made black shirts. When the Tory leader first strayed into this soundbite in his conference speech last October, I hoped that it might be a passing fad. Sadly, it was not. He can't be blamed for picking up the theme of Britishness.

It is likely to become one of the dominant themes in political discourse, as the consequences of Scottish devolution, for Scotland, England and the United Kingdom as a whole, become apparent. But he is unwise to pitch his thoughts on the dangers of devolution and deeper European integration in language that will appeal to crazed nationalists, little Englanders and old men muttering on the top decks of buses. The Conservative Party has enough of those already. It needs to attract cosmopolitan, open-minded people to make its revival.

I know that this is what Mr Hague thinks he is doing. When he defines the Britain of good restaurants, Ricky and Bianca and the Notting Hill Carnival as "urban, sporty, fashion-conscious, multi-ethnic, brassy, self- confident and international", it is a timely attempt to counter the chimera of a Cool Britannia eternally governed by the centre left.

But both New Labour and the Conservatives hitch their discussions of Britishness to a set of rigid assumptions. In the battle for Britishness, our every habit, tic, joke and insecurity is a weapon. By the time they have finished mauling our sensibilities and analysing what we really mean when we eat fish and chips, we may well conclude that what it means to be British is sharing an irresistible desire to tell our politicians to shut up about it.

There is something dubious about politicians seeking to nail down national identity. Defining what we are is particularly difficult, beyond a desire to live comfortably with overlapping identities and not to force divisions where they do not need to exist. The premiss of Mr Hague's particularism, however, is that we are a bloody marvellous mongrel race, slow to anger, quick to make friends and loath to take the state's hand-outs.

Oppositions can afford to entertain these pipe dreams of national character and to suggest that it is only the evil distortions of the Government that prevent us from being damn near perfect. But it is one piece of denial too far for the leader of the Tory Party to speak of the welfare state sapping our vitality and to suggest that all it needs is another he-man to set free the unfettered potential of the long-term unemployed. If it were that easy, the Conservatives would have done it in their 18 years of office.

One of Mr Hague's natural advantages is that he speaks in a plain and forthright manner, a contrast with the woollier parts of New Labour's lexicon. If he concentrated his attacks on the areas where the Government is weakest - such as the unacknowledged consequences, politically and economically, of precipitate EMU entry - or questioning the cost-effectiveness of the New Deal job creation, he will build up a reputation for puncturing government froth.

If, on the other hand, he plays the tired old game of blaming this government for failing to achieve things the last ones couldn't, we will ignore him some more.

The Tory leader knows that he needs a distinct narrative and one which cannot be co-opted, as so many others have, by the Government. But the British Way is the wrong path to take. New Labour will have little difficulty in responding; it will claim that the Tory vision is backward-looking.

Indeed, this Forest of Arden irrationality and the idea of a Conservative birthright are the legacies in Tory thought of the late Enoch Powell's half-inspired, half-mad musings on Englishness: "Tell us what binds us together; show us the clue that leads throughout a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England that we in our time may know how to hold it fast."

It is telling that Powell was obsessed by English particularism, whereas Mr Hague seeks to extend his efforts to the less controversial territory of Britishness. But the Tory party is still trapped by its own logic on constitutional reform.

If devolution is so bad for our collective identity, why are they not committed to reversing it? And what if, despite the warning of "waking up in what feels like another country" (not such a terrible thought in January), we find that in fact we rather like a more loosely connected United Kingdom? Mr Hague will be seen to have howled in the wilderness by overstating his case.

He has backed away from the original proposal to create an English parliament, leaving only a commitment to "find sensible political outlets for a new- found English consciousness... compatible with our open, multi-ethnic British identity." I'm afraid that the clumsy attempt to craft a bit of political correctness on to the demand of English nationalists in his party shows up the dangers of Mr Hague's position.

For such a fluent speaker at the dispatch box, Mr Hague's speeches are rather forced affairs, a strange mixture of erudite references to historical works and the-causes-of-the-industrial-revolution pull-yerself-up-by- the bootstraps rhetoric. At such times, he sounds like an unholy hybrid of precociously opinionated undergraduate and ghost of Norman Tebbit (circa 1985).

This is not an accurate reflection of the Tory leader's common sense and pragmatism. But he needs to loosen up. Political speeches are less about what is said than about the projection of a voice. Many of Mr Blair's speeches are slight in content, but he has the knack of sounding both reassuring and challenging. The very worst position for a Tory leader to adopt is one that sounds fearful and resentful of what is happening, yet unable to suggest a calm and credible alternative.

Comments