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Comment: Why all radicals should support William Hague

GOSSIP among the more alert Conservatives is of a gathering in August at the home of Lord Howe, Sir Geoffrey Howe as he once was. Mr Kenneth Clarke was there. So too was Sir Leon Brittan. Mr Stephen Dorrell and Mr Chris Patten were there in spirit. Certainly Mr Dorell did quite a bit of summer briefing for the cause under discussion.

That leaves Mr Heseltine. He is these days too detached, perhaps even too serene, to plot in detail. But he is presumably available for any light work which the others may need done.

As can be gathered from the names I have mentioned, the occasion chez Howe was about Europe and the Tory party. There would have been, however, what is now called a subtext: Mr Hague. How hopeless he was. How little attuned to the tide of history flowing towards Europe which important men of affairs such as themselves understood so well: a tide which, like Othello's description of the Pontic and Propontic, "ne'er feels retiring ebb".

Mr Clarke is the rightful leader of the Conservative Party. Sir Leon is a Brussels magnifico. Lord Howe is an elder statesman. Mr Dorell is a premature elder who did not take the precaution of first being a statesman. Chris Patten is the rightful leader of the Conservative Pparty if it is not to be Mr Clarke. That is how these men see themselves and are seen outside the Conservative Party.

There is an element of snobbery in their attitude towards Mr Hague, as there is in the attitude of the well-heeled towards the Tory Eurosceptics and even to the Tory party itself now that it faces a Labour majority of more than 170 and is led by Mr Hague. He and his party are below the salt. His calling of the impending party referendum has made him more so in their eyes. What does it matter how that rabble votes, least of all on Europe?

It may be thought that life's tradesman's entrance is an unusual aperture for Conservatives to be directed to by life's doorman. But the party has been below the salt before. It could be argued that its origins were below the salt. In the game of Whigs and Tories it was the Whigs who were the greater nobs. Wanting a strong monarchy was a sign that one was a mere squire - and deferential with it - rather than a territorial magnate.

Territorial magnates do not like being ruled over by anyone. So long as the 18th-century monarchy was innocuous, the Whigs were the court party and the Tories the country party. When George III sought to bring back the strong monarchy, the country party became the ruling party. Pitt the Younger was not half as grand, and much less than half as rich, as Charles James Fox and the other Whigs who belittled what they saw as his somewhat naff war with Napoleon: an early example of the grand looking down on a Tory leader because of Europe.

After the Whigs used their wealth to win a parliamentary majority for the first Reform Bill, there was half a century of almost uninterrupted Whig-Liberal rule. The Tories became again the country party; run by that obvious loser, Disraeli, the Hague of his day. The idea that the Tories are the Establishment party took hold in the 1950s, at around the time of the invention of the word "Establishment" in its modern sense.

If it was ever true, it was because of the mass defection in 1886 of Whig nobbery and of Liberal imperialists as a result of Gladstone's embracing Irish Home Rule. There was nowhere for them to go except to the Tories, distasteful though that was to a lot of them.

Had that split within Liberalism not happened, the Establishment party of the 20th century would have been, as it was for much of the 19th, the Liberals. But by the time the century was a quarter old, the Liberals could no longer form governments. They were useless to people of Liberal or Whiggish disposition or lineage who wanted to become Cabinet ministers.

The present Lord Carrington's ancestors were Whigs. So were those of the present Duke of Devonshire, who served in the Macmillan government but later joined the SDP. A few great houses were always Tory. There were, for instance, the Cecils. Lord Cranborne, of their number, still is. But on the whole, down the centuries, the bigger the house, the more Whiggish the owners.

Most of the inhabitants of big houses are no longer Whigs, but since Mr Blair became Labour leader, they are no longer necessarily Tories either. They derive their wealth from the salaries and share options of international corporations and banks. Europe is their cause. They have a social and aesthetic disapproval of what they think are the passions of the Conservative Party conference: passions not shared, incidentally, by Mr Hague, who is rather more liberal about minorities than the chat at the average City boardroom lunch.

New Labour is the corporations' party. Since 1 May, 1997, corporate London has rushed to the aid of the victor. Some of it even lifted a finger or two on behalf of Mr Blair before that. The peer with the offshore funds from the oil conglomerate is in the Blair Cabinet, not Mr Major's.

New Labour, like the 19th-century Liberals before it, is the continuation of the Whig court party. Literally so. Mr Mandelson's friends now spin- doctor for Buckingham Palace and the Prince of Wales, Diana's death being especially helpful in persuading the court that only New Labour can save it from the mob.

Since our political parties have always had porous borders - with plenty of great figures such as Mr Chris Patten being easily envisaged as at home in one or the other of them - Lord Howe and his guests are now the court party's agents within the country party. All this is a measure of the wealth and power arrayed against the leader of the country party: Mr Hague.

Big business no longer pays the Tories much. It has nothing to fear from New Labour, which will try to ensure that the minimum wage and higher taxation hurt little business, not big. Without much money, with the BBC full of the New Labour nomenklatura, with all London's social climbers sneering at him, he must fight the massed resources of corporate fatcattery. All radicals should support him.

The author is editor of 'The Spectator'