Britain's New Right

A shift to the populist right could save the Tories. Experts say it should come sooner not later, writes Stephen Castle
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT THE time, his visit barely merited a paragraph, but a two-day stay in London by one of Newt Gingrich's closest advisers could have been a turning point. Frank Luntz, 32, may be a Washington pollster and former adviser to Ross Perot, but he was educated at Oxford, where one contemporary remembers him advocating handing Northern Ireland over to the IRA as the most efficient solution. Since then he has come a long way. After abandoning the Republicans to advise Mr Perot, he was back to help Mr Gingrich frame his now famous Contract with America - which helped sweep the Republicans to victory in last year's mid-term congressional elections.

So influential is Mr Luntz in right-wing circles that his visit to London in February featured meetings at the highest level of the Conservative Party and dinners with senior cabinet ministers. His message to them was partly practical - advice on the most voter-friendly ways of presenting a radical right agenda. (On welfare benefits, for example, he was able to explain that 40 per cent more people would agree that they should "not be given" than would agree that they should be "denied".) But his central theme was more ominous for those on the left and centre of John Major's beleaguered administration. If the Conservatives lose the next election, he said, there will inevitably be a rapid shift to the populist right. But since almost everyone now expects the Tories to be on the losing side, he argued, why not change now before it's too late?

This message was part of the background to the humiliation heaped on Mr Major by young right-wing MPs at a private meeting last week. It has also helped spark a battle to influence the likely next leader of the party's right, an ideological struggle dubbed by one Conservative as "the war for Portillo's ear".

THAT the right should be looking across the Atlantic is no surprise. The sweeping success of the Republicans last year altered the shape of American politics. And there is evidence from Canada (see below) that America's radical right thinking can be successfully exported. The British right today has something in common with the US and Canada. It is fighting back from a historic defeat, albeit one of a different sort: the eviction of Margaret Thatcher from office in 1990.

With her went confidence and certainty; there is no clearer evidence than the fate of the think-tanks that had dominated intellectual life in the 1980s. Of these the most prominent was the Centre for Policy Studies, founded by the late Keith Joseph. Mrs Thatcher's departure precipitated a bitter struggle over the soul of the think-tank she dominated. It divided into two camps: those who wanted to stay true to Thatcherism, and those who wanted to influence the new and rather different Prime Minister. The Institute of Economic Affairs experienced a similar implosion, while the Adam Smith Institute ploughed on along its free-market furrow, but close toDowning Street.

As one well-informed right-winger put it: "After the fall of Thatcher part of the right went slightly mad. There was a tendency to form single- interest groups, to get obsessed, particularly with one or two issues, such as Maastricht and the family. If you mention the words `the family', some of them would foam at the mouth. That led to Back to Basics, which was supposed to be a magic formula."

Paradoxically, while the ideological source was drying up, the centre of gravity of the Tory party was shifting to the right. As early as the summer of 1992, three months after Mr Major's election victory, this became evident over Europe - the issue which was to dominate the right. When sceptic MPs organised an Early Day Motion calling for a "fresh start" after the Danish referendum result against Maastricht, more than 90 MPs signed. Many of those were the solid centre-right, including former ministers in their fifties as well as members of the Thatcherite No Turning Back group.

As established politicians have moved rightwards, so have younger Conservatives, even as the party in the constituencies was dying on its feet. There was evidence of this last week when Baroness Thatcher addressed a packed audience in London: she may be yesterday's leader, but a large number of the audience were under 35.

The trend was strongly marked in the 1992 general election when the new Tory intake included a large number of right-wingers. It was, said one Conservative backbencher last week, "the first generation of new MPs who had been influenced by Margaret Thatcher in their early political careers". At Westminster the new intake produced a right-wing group who are in their thirties, hold safe seats and are anti-Europe. They include John Whittingdale, former political secretary to Mrs Thatcher, Iain Duncan-Smith, successor to Norman Tebbit in Chingford, and Bernard Jenkin, MP for Colchester North.

It is not a fully cohesive caucus and they might, for example, disagree over whether their favourite, Michael Portillo, is ready to lead the party. But last Tuesday some of their number drew blood. The Prime Minister had agreed to see the Fresh Start group in his Commons rooms. Instead of inviting a delegation he made it an open meeting, and was caught in an ambush. Not only were there more MPs there than had been expected (more than 60 turned up), but he had been poorly briefed and clearly had nothing new to offer them on European policy. His answers on the single currency disappointed, prompting a call from the former Chancellor, Norman Lamont, to come "off the fence". To his fury the Prime Minister found himself being heckled (Mr Jenkin was later blamed by pro-Major MPs).

Crucially, the New Right is detaching itself from the issue of Europe and is finding a wider agenda. Last month Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton, published a book called Saturn's Children which advocated a dramatic reduction of the powers of the state and, for the first time in Britain, used Gingrich-style language to propose it.

This was more than Thatcherism Mark II. The right-wing Tory agenda of the 1980s was dominated by the need to tame the unions, to privatise state industries and to control inflation (with the notable exception of the Thatcher-Lawson boom). Market mechanisms were introduced into the health service, ministers sought to give parents more choice in education, but social policy escaped unscathed.

That, believe many on the New Right, has to change. "The glowering presence of the state," wrote Mr Duncan and his collaborator Dominic Hobson, "with its laws, regulations and taxes, its officials and policemen, darkens every clubhouse and pub, lurks by the roadside and on the bridges, slips through the letter box in its customary brown envelope, issues forms to the supplicant and interrogates the taxpayer. Something must be done and the task is simply stated. Dramatic, immediate and sweeping reductions in public expenditure need to be combined with a new political vision capable of capturing the electorate's imagination and enthusiasm."

The authors called for pounds 20bn of spending cuts, including the wholesale closure of government departments. Listing the intrusive powers of the Inland Revenue, Duncan and Hobson described its officials as "the moral equivalents of the Stasi, the Gestapo and the KGB".

IS THIS an agenda which Mr Portillo and his right-wing cabinet colleagues might embrace? There are signs that it is gaining acceptance. Mr Duncan, Mr Jenkin and their right-wing colleague Barry Legg have been given seats on departmental groups covering spending and social security for the next manifesto. Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, recently told Conservative students that Mr Gingrich had articulated exciting ideas and an interesting agenda. There is talk of Mr Gingrich himself paying a visit to the Conservative Party conference in October.

Meanwhile in Wales, John Redwood, Secretary of State, has cultivated his own right-wing social and economic garden. He is the cabinet minister most gripped by Mr Gingrich's hi-tech vision of "cyberspace", the world beyond the information superhighway.

AT WESTMINSTER, however, there are reservations about Gingrichism. Many Tories on the right doubt whether the recipe can be applied in Britain, or at least they believe rapid implementation would be impossible. Hence the battle for Mr Portillo's ear.

In Britain, argue the Gingrich-sceptics, there is much less antipathy towards Whitehall and government in general than in the United States. Welfare is much more entrenched here; its central structures, such as the National Health Service, do not even exist in the US while in Britain they are regarded with affection and pride. Moreover, few of the American middle classes are locked into the welfare state as they are in Britain through a range of benefits from the NHS to child benefit.

And, while Lady Thatcher, freed from the burden of office, can call for a switching of resources from welfare "dependency" to law and order, this is devilishly difficult to achieve in practice. Witness the experience of the arch right-winger Peter Lilley, who has notably failed to cut the budget at the Department of Social Security, succeeding merely in slowing the rate of growth. Mr Lilley told the Independent last month: "People say to me, `come on Lilley, you're spending pounds 80bn or more, you must be able to lop pounds 5bn off that almost overnight'. I say to them `pounds 5bn is 1 million people losing pounds 5,000 a year, or a larger number losing smaller sums or fewer losing even more'."

There are other problems aside from the sums. Some point to a rather basic fact: no one knows whether Mr Gingrich's ideas will succeed in the US, let alone the UK. Moreover the politics are different. The Gingrich social critique hits relatively small sections of American society, attacking (predominantly black) single parent families, many of whom do not vote. Here the targets are far more numerous.

Those who urge caution point to recent research by Frank Field, the Labour MP, indicating that half of all households are on some form of means-tested benefit. That, allied to the thousands whose jobs depend on the welfare state, adds up to a population which at present would not stand for the wholesale dismant-ling of the state.

Daniel Finkelstein, director of the Social Market Foundation, argues: "It is no good people pretending there are easy intellectual solutions. If there were, there would be no problem implementing them. If we want to reform the state we have to have an intelligent strategy which must have a beginning as well as an end, including private provision within the NHS and incremental reform of the welfare state."

Mr Lilley's agenda, like Mr Finkelstein's, is more gradualist, concentrating on a change in the terms under which the British people relate to the welfare state. That can be done by the increased use of vouchers in education, for example, more contracting out of services in the NHS and a go-ahead for private companies to provide state-funded schools. Only after piecemeal privatisation and gradual charging, can the assault begin.

Mr Portillo has little first-hand experience of the departmental reforms that Mr Lilley has attempted. That could leave him free to deploy the rhetoric of the Gingrich right should he choose. But so far he has not expressed his view on this debate, even to his close allies. And, one says, such is its sensitivity that he is unlikely to over the next few months - ahead of a likely leadership challenge to Mr Major.

WILL the Gingrich agenda shape British politics? The left as well as the right is asking this question. The Fabians are intrigued by what they call a "post-right" Republican agenda, the notion of striking a deal with the electorate and pledging to achieve several deliverable policies. Stephen Pollard, the Fabians' research director, plans a document for this year's Labour conference which proposes that Labour does just that.

It is also a concept which Mr Major's government could embrace in its election manifesto. It might promise to hold, or reduce, public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, year-on-year.

But this type of bargain with the voters is markedly easier for a party in opposition than a government which has been in power for 16 years and a Prime Minister who has been in Downing Street for nearly five. Mr Gingrich's Republicans can claim to be different from the Bush administration which went back on its famous pledge of "no new taxes". For Mr Major, disowning responsibility for broken Tory tax promises would be more difficult.

Dangerously for Mr Major, the New Right agenda has focused attention on two of his administration's failings: its lack of populism and of clear definition. On both counts a change of leader is attractive. Ed Miller, of Mr Luntz's company Luntz Research, points out that change is possible for the Tories and points to the achievements of the Republicans who reinvented themselves and, within two years, moved from a position of weakness to dominance. The British Conservatives, by contrast, "are not showing a clear difference between themselves and the opposition. Mr Major is reacting rather than showing a lead. He's too much like Bill Clinton". If the right is to turn its back on the past it probably needs a new face, but there is a problem. The only man likely to provide their party with a fresh start and a populist Tory approach is not, for now, Mr Portillo, but Michael Heseltine, the champion of the centre-left.