Tories, please note: money isn't everything

Why the tone of the conference was all about material gain. Plus, getting to the bottom of localism, and the need for a Tolkien biography
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The Independent Online

If nothing else, this year's Conservative Party conference offered several answers to the vexed question of what the electorate wants, or rather – an important distinction – what right-wing politicians imagine it wants. Leaving aside the Prime Minister's tactful, and therefore unrepresentative, address, and concentrating on the noises emanating from platform speakers and fringe meetings, I think we can safely assume that the voters are supposed to want Johnsonian glamour and that they are (apparently) happy to allow practically any of their rights to be sacrificed to the needs of business if the economic situation demands it. That indefatigable corporate apologist Ms Elizabeth Truss could even be found suggesting that the schools curriculum needed to be focused on the qualifications that management demands from its recruits.

Everything, in other words, is subservient to "growth", whether it means digging up the countryside south of Birmingham for a high-speed rail link that may just shave a few minutes off the hard-pressed businessman's journey time or denying the workforce its hard-won privileges in the field of employment law in exchange for share options. Bracing as all these proposals undoubtedly are, their implications are far less alarming than the composite portrait of our specimen Tory-leaning voter that close inspection of them enables the neutral observer to build up. Extrapolating from the view of human nature laid out in the Chancellor's speech, Mr and Mrs Middle England – I didn't hear a great deal about anyone else – are deep-dyed materialists, whose chief interest lies in the amount of disposable income they have to spend on consumer goods and foreign holidays, the cheapness of the petrol they can put in their cars and the value of the bricks and mortar that surround them.

The Chancellor can scarcely be blamed for this worm's-eye view of the human spirit, for an only slightly superior version of it gets peddled several mornings a week by every Tory-supporting newspaper in the country. But one doesn't have to be a supporter of the Labour Party to wonder whether the majority of the British middle classes are quite as supine and as self-interested as these assumptions make them appear. If the members of the "squeezed middle" – a phrase we heard rather a lot of this week – can perform one service for the nation as a whole, it is to defy the expectations that Mr Osborne clearly has of them and ignore this fusillade of enticing taps on the swill bucket's upturned rim.


Another answer to an age-old question that seemed to be floating around the Birmingham rostrums was what Conservatives really mean when they talk about "localism". Speaking on Monday, the Tory MP Brandon Lewis declared that the Government must not "step in with hobnail boots" and interfere with councils attempting to foster growth in their areas. According to Mr Lewis, whose Great Yarmouth constituency could admittedly do with some growth, if the Government is genuine about localism and decentralising power, it will have to accept that some areas will perform better than others, and that the message coming in from business and council leaders is "give us the time, and don't keep changing and moving goal-posts".

"Localism", according to this definition, means not the unfettered ability of local communities to plan their own futures, but the unfettered ability of alliances of business people and politicians to decide those futures for them. Here in Norfolk, scarcely a week goes by without a newspaper reporting the near-unanimous protests of some beleaguered township desperate to avoid "development" being foisted on it by a planner on whom the county council smiles. And so "localism" turns out to be not a path to self-determination but the transfer of more power to those who already have too much.


Question: Who wrote this?

Arthur eastward in arms purposed

His war to wage on the wild marches

Over seas sailing to Saxon lands

From the Roman realm ruin defending...

Simon Armitage? Sir Andrew Motion, the morning after a late night out? In fact, the author can be revealed as the late J R R Tolkien, yet another of whose lost epics – in this case a poem entitled "The Fall of Arthur"– has now been discovered in a trunk and dusted down by the Tolkien estate to the bewilderment of his new-found 21st century fan-base.

I possess a Punch annual, published in the mid-1970s, which already, a couple of years after Tolkien's death, contains an article poking fun at the Tolkien estate's determination to grub up every last wastepaper-basket scrap and bind it up between hard covers. And so here, once again, is my annual plea for a proper biography to replace the original volume written by Humphrey Carpenter as long ago as 1977. This, though neatly written and benefiting from personal knowledge of the subject, was, as Carpenter conceded, blue-pencilled into innocuousness by Tolkien's son Christopher.

Tolkien died in 1973, which means that there are still any number of former colleagues, family members and friends around with interesting things to say about him. Having made tens of millions of pounds off the back of his literary achievements, his estate could now surely do his fans the service of slaking their curiosity in the smaller matter of himself. A N Wilson, among half-a-dozen suitable candidates, would do a splendid job and should be signed up forthwith.