Major's deepest ambition was to create a country at ease with itself. The New Right was no longer fashionable, and there was a rush to desert it. The new conventional wisdom said that radical conservatism was finished, and that the future lay with politicians of the centre.
It all looks different now. The Right has found new purpose and energy.
Under Newt Gingrich, it swept to victory in the mid-term polls in the United States, humiliating Clinton's New Democrats. In Britain, it is the right which is now openly challenging for control of the Conservative party. John Redwood has unfurled a manifesto of populist right-wing measures. The left and centre of the party deride it, Kenneth Clarke claiming that the party will be out of office for a thousand years if it goes down this path. But the Conservative left has no comparable programme to put forward. Momentum and ideas are found on the right.
Conservatives were once expected to conserve. Now they are radicals. It is liberals and socialists who find themselves trying to defend existing institutions. The New Right wants to tear down institutions and refashion societies more comprehensively than most socialists ever dreamed.
The reason for the change is the great growth of the state in the 20th century. The new conservatives want to reverse that growth and return to minimal government, which means taxes as low as they can be and public spending devoted only to those things that are absolutely necessary. Some conservatives, like the anarcho-capitalists in the United States, want to go much further and abolish the state altogether, decriminalising drugs, abolishing police forces and fire services, setting the people terminally free.
This rage against the state is at the heart of modern radical conservatism. Fed by the writings of Hayek and Friedman, it was articulated by a new generation of populist politicians.
Early forerunners such as Barry Goldwater and Enoch Powell were derided as out of time, hopeless reactionaries. But they were succeeded by Reagan and Thatcher, who swept to power in the Eighties. Both succeeded by knitting together political nationalism and economic liberalism.
Conservative parties had once been interventionist, collectivist and paternalist. The New Right of the Eighties set out to roll back the state and remove all obstacles to the workings of the free market and the rights of private property. Privatisation, deregulation, sound money and low taxes became its watchwords.
The hype surrounding Thatcher and Reagan was always much greater than their concrete achievements. Reagan pledged to create a balanced budget, but achieved instead the biggest deficit in US history. Thatcher was determined to reduce the share of government spending and taxes in the economy, but both were higher when she left office. John Major spoke bitterly of the golden age that never was.
But the Eighties was a golden age for the right. It created a myth, a political style and a series of benchmarks for the future. It demonstrated that a right-wing programme aimed at reducing the role of government could win popular support.
The conservatives of the Nineties are now seeking to do the same again. They are moving beyond Reaganism and Thatcherism to create a new agenda that draws increasingly on the radical ideas of New Right libertarians. The mood now is isolationist. Involvement in world affairs through international bodies and agencies is resisted. Reasserting national identity is the key.
Enoch Powell showed the way years before. He was a cultural nationalist, who opposed immigration, entry to the Common Market, and the break-up of the UK. At the same time, he was a radical free marketeer, proposing denationalisation of all state industries long before it was popular, and the halving of income tax to 20p in the pound.
Many different strands have fed the New Right in Britain and the US - economic liberalism, Christian fundamentalism, high Toryism, libertarianism, political nationalism, cultural elitism, anti-Communism.
The post-Eighties New Right focuses above all on the need to cut taxes and end the culture of welfare dependency. Many of these ideas have been spread on both sides of the Atlantic by New Right ideologues such as Charles Murray and George Gilder, and they encourage the kind of stigmatisation of the poor and single mothers in which John Redwood indulges.
The model for the new politics of the right that is emerging has been pioneered by Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan in the States. The Republicans fought the 1992 elections on a set of very specific pledges - the Contract with America. At its centre are plans to cut taxes and reduce drastically the level of federal spending. What it also possesses is a very strong moral agenda of social issues concerning families, crime, and social disorder - all of which are blamed on government policies and spending.
Radical conservatives in Britain such as John Redwood and Michael Portillo believe that support can be won back for the Conservative party only if it adopts an aggressive, populist programme, which pledges deep tax cuts, an attack on welfare dependency, and strong measures on crime, coupled with a halt to any further moves to European integration. The recovery of national independence and the assertion of an English nationalism are seen as indispensable elements in the revival of Conservative support.
This programme is not so different from that of Thatcher or Reagan in the Eighties, but it is more single-minded in its concentration on tax cuts rather than on monetary stability, and also in its targeting of welfare spending. But for many Conservatives, it does not go far enough. A new set of radicals, such as Alan Duncan, want much more drastic action to cut out whole areas of state activity.
The demon that has been unleashed by the conservative revolution will not go away. The successes of the Republicans in the States are a harbinger of what could happen in the UK. The Conservative Right feels confident that sooner or later it will capture the party just as the Right captured the Republicans. The deep material and ideological roots of the conservative revolution mean that it is far from being a spent force. It sees itself as the wave of the future.Reuse content