A conundrum: is it possible to be enlightened and a Tory?

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Everyone has blind spots - blanks in the field of vision. Some are congenital and some develop with time or glaucoma. What matters is to acknowledge them, before there is an ugly accident.

This is why I have never worked as a Westminster correspondent. My blind spot, which is a disabling one, is that I do not understand how anyone with a normal share of virtue and intelligence can be a Tory. I have tried to overcome this. Working as a political correspondent in Scotland was possible because it was relatively Tory-free. But even there the blind spot hindered me. For example, I felt real affection for two prominent Scottish Tories, Michael Ancram and the late Alick Buchanan-Smith; they were wise, warm and funny, and while I was talking to either I almost forgot their allegiance. And yet, as soon as I walked away, I realised that I did not understand them at all. How could men like that belong, by choice, to such an awful party?

Few other journalists seem to have this blind spot. To them, Tories are a perfectly natural species, seeking their prey in the political bush as legitimately as Labourites, Liberal Democrats or Greens. If I ask colleagues from Westminster how otherwise normal men and women can be members of the Conservative Party, they would reply - slightly astonished at the question - that there are many reasons.

Sane adults (they might answer) become Tories because of their class origins, because they believe in the free market, or because they think that Tory equals patriot. They may join the party because they subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, because they have political ambitions (rather a rare motive these days), because they think there is too much freedom or because they think that there is too little. I see all that, and yet I still don't understand.

To me, British Toryism is about something very simple and shameless. It is the voice of those who have something (or hope to), and intend to keep it out of the hands of those who haven't. This is the one connecting strand that unites across time the Majorites, the Thatcherites, the Macmillanites, back to the distant landowning nobs of Victorian Conservatism. It is the end to which everything else is the means. The defence of privilege - the constant maintaining and modernising of institutions which ensure that the minority is better taught, protected, housed, healed and rewarded than the majority - is the most enduring of these means. But the general rule with tactics is that they change.

Muddle has constantly arisen within the party because some people mistake means for ends, confusing tactics with strategy. For example, there are those - like Macmillan or the "Wets" - who have sincerely believed that the Tory mission is to restore "One Nation", an organic community that transcends social divisions and leaves no group excluded. Correspondingly, there are those who are convinced that Toryism is about a laissez-faire notion of freedom: small state, big police, low wages and a bold acceptance of inequality as the condition for wealth creation.

In the previous generation, fruity Tory voices sang hymns to the defence of the Empire and global naval power as the guarantees of British greatness. Further back still, Liberals were nervous about universal suffrage but Tories - some of them, at least - saw that the vote would pacify the masses and divert any attack on the existing social order. All these positions were proclaimed in their day as eternal principles. But in reality they were no more than successive tactics - sound in one period, inappropriate in the next - for securing property against revolution, redistribution or foreign challenge.

Even the Tory belief in order, history and tradition - the whole majestic cult of continuity - is no more than instrumental. The past is an inspiring country because the common people knew their place. So let us praise solid centuries when wealth and power were safely God-related rather than performance-related.

This last proposition raises two interesting points. One is that Tories would not be half as keen on the past if they lived in France, where recent history is largely about guillotines and barricades. Continuity with struggles for liberty, equality and fraternity - as opposed to the enormous patience the English, especial- ly, have shown to their masters - would not be the thing at all.

The second point is a nasty question. How would Tories feel if loyalty to traditional order suddenly became a threat to the defence of property and privilege, instead of its bulwark?

Suppose it became clear that the Prince of Wales was determined to become a populist, social-democrat monarch. Suppose he was Charles-Egalite, a leveller supported by a royal clique of reformers with a sacred mission to abolish poverty and the excesses of unearned wealth. Which way would the Tories jump then? Some, I'm sure, would stay royalist even with death in their hearts. But others - I think most - would begin to fancy a republic. Conservatism and monarchism are not inseparable.

This is the portrait of a flexibility that is almost monstrous. Adjectives like "unprincipled" or "oppor- tunistic" falter at the reality of the British Conservative Party. On the Continent, Christian Democrats regard our Tories with priggish distaste. For years, they kept them out of the "European People's Party" group in the Strasbourg parliament, and even now they are only "allied" members of the EPP. The European right comes fully equipped with a Weltanschauung and a Konzept, armed to the teeth with high-minded cliches about social responsibility and cohesion. The Tories, who don't seriously claim to be more than a party of organised selfishness, national and personal, give Christian Democrats the creeps.

But there is a case for lack of principle in politics. In an unpredictable world, the mighty Konzept can become a ball and chain while flexibility can be a virtue. Tories love Pope for writing "For forms of government let fools contest;/ Whate'er is best administered is best". And they have another favourite Pope couplet on the matter of selfishness: "Thus God and nature linked the gen'ral frame,/ And bade self-love and social be the same".

There are two main arguments in favour of organised selfishness. One - Pope's and Adam Smith's - says that selfishness is a sort of altruism, because Smith's "Hidden Hand" makes wealth trickle down from the few to the many. The other argument says that altruism is a sort of selfishness. The theory of "enlightened self-interest" claims that serving the general good is the best way to serve one's own.

But none of these clever defences seems to help the British Tories. Having no principles does not make them more flexible. Instead, wrong tactics are pursued with disastrous obstinacy (look at the Mad Cow affair) until each ends in calamity and U-turns. Social divisions have been widened in order to accelerate wealth creation - but the trickle-down has dried up, while the Hidden Hand appears to be suffering from repetitive strain injury.

This coming year, I hope, will at last bring the fall of the Tories. New Labour, though frantically modest about its ambitions, can open the way to a broadening torrent of changes to the British state and our methods of governing. But before they go, I wish I could understand how enlightened men and women - and there are many in the Conservative Party - remain loyal to so crudely unenlightened an idea of self-interest. My blind spot is nothing to be proud of. But nor is theirs.

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