Who said that a Dodo can't be reincarnated?
Sunday 31 May 1998
Lady Thatcher had disappeared in a puff of smoke two years before that Conservative decline had begun which was to reach its grisly end on May Day 1997. Mr John Major had to stump up for the reckless withdrawals she had made from the bank of institutional goodwill during the previous decade.
Here, however, we must be careful. The Church was a shadow of its old self not so much because of Lady Thatcher as because of its own internal government and administration. The same could be said of the BBC under Mr John Birt. Even so, few aspects of the 1980s were so striking as the way in which the then prime minister knocked away the props which had previously supported her party.
They were replaced by quangos, by their nature temporary structures, in that they could either be abolished by legislation or be staffed by members of a new, incoming party. Mr Tony Blair and his minions have so far made a few changes of the latter description, but hardly any of the former. We still live in the quango state which Lady Thatcher created.
These preliminary reflections have been brought about by another book I have read recently, Mr Hywel Williams's Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall 1992-97 (Aurum Press). Mr Williams's thesis, if I understand him properly, is that for various historical reasons, separate from the inadequacies of the politicians of the 1990s, the Conservative Party is finished, done for. Or, as Malcolm Muggeridge used to say frequently to me, though it was usually about books and the printed word generally rather than about the Conservative Party: "As dead as a dodo, dear boy."
If this indeed turns out to be the case - if, as Mr Williams confidently predicts, Mr Major has "the last Conservative Prime Minister" inscribed on his tombstone - it seems a little unfair to blame him and his colleagues as enthusiastically as Mr Williams does for being the agent merely of a process of historical inevitability: or, at least, of a process which was set in train by their immediate predecessors under Lady Thatcher.
Students of this column may have noticed that I take a less apocalyptic view of Conservative prospects. Political parties have a habit of regrouping, re-forming, presenting themselves before our wondering eyes as organisations bearing the same name but commending slightly different principles.
A hundred or so years ago it was widely believed that the Liberal Party was "finished". But it returned to power in 1905 (Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman took office a month before the general election of 1906) as a party of social welfare and reform rather than of classical liberalism.
After the activities of Mr Tony Benn and others in the early 1980s, it was predicted that Labour would never hold office again. When Lady Thatcher won the 1983 election with a majority of 144, and Labour had only 209 members, these predictions became ever more strident. I can remember Lord Skidelsky writing with all the confidence of a political biographer that, as a force, Labour was finished.
It can, of course, be argued that he and others who pronounced similarly were right, sort of. Neil Kinnock began to change the party, John Smith changed it still more and Tony Blair transformed it into something else entirely. It was a different party. So it was, and is. The Conservative Party can also be changed into something more appealing, though not, I suspect, by Mr William Hague.
There are two broad approaches. The one is in the direction of the European Christian Democrats, in which case the natural leader would be Mr Chris Patten. The other is in the direction of the United States libertarians - of opposition to Mr Blair's priggishness - in which case the leader would probably be someone of whom we had never heard. It would almost certainly not be Mr John Redwood, who is himself on the prim side.
It is perfectly possible to combine both approaches - to be at once welfarist and libertarian, as, for example, Anthony Crosland was. But Mr Hague shows no sign of adopting either approach. He seems to have settled for leading the Patriotic Party. One does not have to be a fervent admirer of Sir Leon Brittan to agree with him that this is a blind alley. Mr Hague is likely to end up leading a rabble composed of the fag ends of the late Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, of various small groups designed to guard the United Kingdom's sovereignty, in any case long ago sacrificed, and of assorted columnists (though Mr Paul Johnson is, I learn, to cease his connection with the Daily Mail at the request of the newspaper).
There is not much evidence that Mr Hague has thought deeply or at all about these matters. His chief contribution has been to change the party's rules so that, in future, it will be virtually impossible to get rid of him. His other contribution has been to make Mr Blair appear petulant at Question Time. This does not seem to have impressed the voters nearly as much as it has the parliamentary correspondents. Indeed, it may be that whatever Mr Hague does and however well he does it - great thoughts, eloquent speeches, sharp television appearances - the voters have simply made up their minds that they do not want him as prime minister, much as they did about Mr Kinnock.
I will, however, provide Mr Hague with some consolation. I have done so before, and I will repeat it. Radical governments in this country (and for all the changes he has made, I suppose Mr Blair just about leads a radical government) do not last for very long, six years at the most. The Liberals' majority of 130 in 1906 became no majority at all in 1910. Though they continued in office until 1915 (when H H Asquith formed the first wartime coalition), they were in a minority. Labour's majority of 146 in 1945 became six in 1950. By the standards of the 1970s, when Labour governed for most of the period without a majority of any kind, this earlier result was perfectly workable. But times were different then; the Palace took alarm; ministers were dying; and C R Attlee went to the country in the unnecessary election of 1951 which he deservedly lost. In 1966 Harold Wilson had a majority of 96 and four years later Edward Heath had one of 30.
Despite these favourable precedents, Mr Hague will now have an additional hurdle to clear: the reformed electoral system recommended by Lord Jenkins, which is likely to favour the alternative vote in single-member constituencies, with topping-up from a party list to attain proportionality. One consolation he can take is that electoral systems designed to favour one party often end up benefiting the other. Still, it will be a change in the voting system rather than in society which turns Tories into dodos.
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