Profile William Hague : Boy-king of his own planet
Sion Simon on the man who will be leading the muddled charge against the euro this Thursday
Sunday 06 June 1999
If that near-Gonzo prose has set your heart beating faster at the thousand years of history you've inherited, then hold on to your patriotic fervour - there's more: "We are obsessed with weather forecasts but we wear T- shirts to football matches in the dead of winter; and we are the only country that could have come up with the Ministry of Silly Walks."
Well, there you have it. Now you know what it means to be British. Never mind Noel Coward in In Which We Serve; forget about "this teeming womb of royal kings", and all the rest of Shakespeare; let's not drone on about the Mabinogion, Coronation Street and Doncaster Rovers. Bollocks, if you will, to two world wars, one world cup and all the rest of it.
If you should ever wake up screaming with uncertainty about what it means to be British, you can console yourself with Monty Python and not wearing a jumper.
When the leader of the Conservative Party - this was a William Hague oration - is so spectacularly unable to speak to Britain's soul, then both he and his party are in trouble. As he marches towards Thursday's European elections - Eurosceptic standard outstretched - the boy-king has no inkling of this. He thinks he becomes more popular the more anti- European his posturing. But he's wrong.
John Major was widely satirised in 1993 for his own evocation of what he called Britain, or rather England: "Long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog-lovers and pools-fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mists'."
Whoever wrote that obviously did not have his "New Britain for a New Millennium" hat on that day. But at least it's coherent. Even though it has little to do with our lives, it is still a recognisable picture of an idealised past which we all know and may still cherish. It may be the wrong image, but at least it is a likeness of something, and quite elegantly drawn.
Mr Hague's pompously uncomplaining queuer is none of these things. It has no resonance whatsoever. Which is at the heart of his problem as a politician. As personally flat as his imagery, Mr Hague not only cannot speak to, but does not really understand, the national psyche. In that same "brassy Britain" speech he identified four threats to British identity: "Constitutional vandalism, European political union, the nature and size of the state, and indifference to the fate of institutions like marriage." It would be hard to think of four things which have less to do with the British identity, and about which ordinary people are less interested.
In the past month Mr Hague has hardened his party's already isolationist stance on the euro. He has urged Labour to declare its opposition in principle to the single currency and to abandon the national changeover plan; and he has argued for an extension of what used to be called variable geometry, while stressing that his mix-and-match conception is profoundly different to Mr Major's "multi-speed Europe". On Europe, Mr Hague claims to be "where the British people are".
But he does not know where that is. Polls like the recent MORI which showed 39 per cent in favour of complete withdrawal from the EU, have convinced him that the euro will be the rock on which New Labour founders, and from which the Conservative renaissance will be launched. Yes, more people cite Europe than anything else as the most important issue facing Britain today, but they constitute only 17 per cent of the sample. And that includes the pros as well as the antis. All other statistical data have consistently shown that the proportion of Brits who are seriously exercised about European integration is between a fifth and a quarter, including the strong supporters.
In other words, three-quarters of Britain simply doesn't care. Unprompted, people will choose to keep the pound rather than lose it, but it is a matter of grave concern to only a hard-core of anti-Europeans. We are not, as John Redwood said last year, proud of the pound. One cannot sanely take pride in a currency. It is an abstract, a convenience, which only in the crassest, most simplistic sense is a national symbol. The practical British are more likely to rise up in defence of a detergent than of a medium of exchange.
And then there is the Kinnock factor. The author of New Labour was a clever and courageous politician, and is a decent and congenial man. But the voters just didn't like him. It wasn't his fault, but he was a barrier to victory. It's the same with Mr Hague. Any Tory would struggle in the Blairland that we used to call Britain. But it takes a special kind of voter alienation for a Tory leader to maintain, for nearly two years, an approval rating lower among Conservative supporters than that of the Labour prime minister. Unprecedented unpopularity is Mr Hague's unique characteristic.
With his middle-class, south Yorkshire background - he went to Wath upon Dearne comprehensive - Hague seemed like the Everyman the Tories thought they needed to beat Blair. But he is actually a rather odd character. Since becoming party leader he has strongly "de-emphasised" the daily dose of transcendental meditation by which he used to swear.
But in substituting a diurnal roll on the ground with Sebastian Coe, each clad only in white pyjamas, the PR benefits have rather been squandered. His judo-playing chief of staff notwithstanding, the rest of Mr Hague's private office is young and prone to error - which also reflects badly on their boss. The acolytes - Mr Coe, David Lidington, George Osborne, Danny Finkelstein and now Amanda Platell - were even seen by one horrified Tory MP to squabble over who would sit with William in the back seat of the car.
Nor was the marriage done quite right. The stag-night picture was of the young leader, alone, on a cairn. On the wedding day itself, he was up at six doing everything a man can possibly do on his nuptial morning - buttonholes at Covent Garden, kippers at Whites, champagne at the Savoy - as if he were terrified of missing something out.
Yet, however hard he tries, Mr Hague cannot disguise the truth, that he is a monomaniacal political automaton. The youth who made the nation cringe with his adolescent address to the Tory conference had other unhealthy habits. While his peers were copulating in bus shelters, the young Hague was memorising parliamentary majorities; and when normal teenagers were spitting at Sham 69, William was shut in his bedroom listening to records of Churchill's speeches.
Even last month, the best he could do to dispel the notion that he's weird was to tell the Daily Telegraph that "he unwinds by reading e-mails from his nieces about their travel adventures and problems at school which, he says, put his own troubles into perspective".
More to the point, he has been aimless in office. On top of misjudgements like "Lord Mandelson of Rio", and boomerangs like the Dyke letter to the BBC, we have had "compassionate/kitchen-table conservatism", "the British way" and "being in Europe, but not run by Europe".
But there has been no real engagement, despite the rhetoric, with the central questions of why the Tories lost in 1997, and what they have to offer now that New Labour has seized the centre. Mr Hague's frantic aping of Blairite communications techniques will yield nothing till the Tories learn the core lesson: Mandelsonian Labour continued to lose elections, in spite of Conservative unpopularity, until it became a party with an ideological story to tell. Now is not the time for policy; it is the time for honest self-appraisal.
Some influential Tories discern in Mr Hague's new-found combativeness on the euro the first stirrings of a Conservative reawakening. A strong showing in the European elections is anticipated, and thereafter, they argue, who knows? They are deluded. It is a syndrome only too familiar to those involved in Labour politics during the 1980s. In the words of one Labour MP - "you get so desperate you start believing mad things". And the mad things are only ever followed by a period of recrimination, then more mad things.
The Tories have many years of mad things left in them. But there's only so much false optimism one man can generate. Mr Hague will probably still be around when his party finds its marbles, but he won't be its leader.
Sion Simon is associate editor of the 'Spectator' and a 'Daily Telegraph' columnist.
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