There was a time when the late Enoch Powell enjoyed a high popularity among London taxi drivers. His name would often come up. In particular, he was widely assumed to be in favour of capital punishment. After some particularly gruesome murder of a child, the driver would say:
"Old Enoch would know what to do with him all right. He'd string him up, no messing."
My policy with taxi drivers was, as it still is, to be polite but non-committal; to reply that no doubt there are many ways of looking at a question. But I could not allow such a complete mis-statement of Powell's attitude towards hanging to pass without contradiction.
"There," I would say, "you find yourself in grievous error, my dear sir. Mr Powell has voted consistently against capital punishment in every Parliament."
Sometimes I would add that, in the 1966 Parliament, Powell possessed the most solidly libertarian record of any Conservative, together with Ian Gilmour and Ronald Bell. The driver did not believe a word of it or, rather, he was uninterested in the truth. He had a certain picture of Enoch Powell, and he was not going to have it disturbed by some know-all in the back of his cab.
"Nah," he would say, "Enoch would string 'em up, guv."
The taxi driver's approach applies throughout politics and, indeed, throughout life. It is for this reason that it is profitless to point out that Mr David Cameron voted in favour of the Iraq War and spent his formative years being a bag carrier for two impeccably old-fashioned Conservative politicians in Michael Howard and Norman Lamont, before embracing cut-throat capitalism at Carlton Communications, whose contribution to the national culture makes Mr Michael Grade look like Lorenzo de Medici. People have got a certain idea of Mr Cameron - polite, young, optimistic, vaguely progressive - into their noddles and, for the moment, the perception is the reality.
True, Mr Cameron's views on Europe have already landed him in trouble of a minor character. During his election campaign, he promised to withdraw the Conservative contingent of European MPs from the grouping, oddly named the European People's Party, which is dominated by the Christian Democrats.
They are the party of the Roman Catholic Church. They have come round, just about, to the acceptance of usury, but they - or some of them - are liable to deal with concepts such as natural law, the just war and the limitations of national sovereignty, which are as uncomfortable to Mr Cameron as they are to his neo-conservative allies in the United States.
Mr Cameron does not put things in quite this way but prefers instead to emphasise the present grouping's aspiration towards a federal Europe. Alas - or perhaps happily - the majority of the current Conservative Euro-MPs want to stay where they are. So Mr William Hague (who is, we are told, to become a sort of Shadow Deputy Prime Minister as well as Shadow Foreign Secretary) is to be dispatched abroad to pacify the unruly members. We do not know whether this is pacification in the sense of trying to arrive at some compromise or, rather, as it was practised in the British Empire, when the natives were bombed till they surrendered. Most people do not care about Euro-MPs one way or the other and, indeed, do not have the faintest idea of who it is that is supposed to be representing them. But the episode perhaps demonstrates that Mr Cameron is not quite as nice as he looks - or, at any rate, is liable to make promises which later turn out to be awkward.
It is difficult to assess the extent to which our society now values niceness or, what is not quite the same thing, politeness. It certainly values "sincerity" and arrives at bizarre judgements, based entirely on television, about who is sincere and who is not. Mr Cameron's defect may turn out to be that he looks a jolly sight too pleased with himself for his own good.
But he has restored a certain grace which has been absent from the Conservative Party for, I suppose, 40 years. It was constructed not so much around clubs or schools as around wives, as in the conversation:
"Of course, I don't always see eye-to-eye with Iain (or Alec, Reggie, Rab or Enoch), but I'm very fond of his wife."
"I'm devoted to her."
"Known her for years."
As the last might be taken to imply a pre- or even a post-marital liaison, "Known her since she was that high" could be substituted, though even this might now cause morbid suspicions. Still, Mr Cameron and his wife may be restoring something of the old order, where wives were a Tory social solvent.
Just as people see what they have decided to see in Mr Cameron, so they follow the same procedure with Mr Gordon Brown. In fact they were doing so even before Mr Cameron was elected to the Commons. Mr Brown was given socialist credentials which may have been valid at one stage in his life but which he had long since discarded. Similar medals for even more extreme campaigns were acquired by Mr Charles Clarke, Ms Patricia Hewitt, Dr John Reid and Mr Jack Straw, to name but a few, though quite enough to be going on with. But no one speaks of them as persons shortly to inaugurate the rule of the saints. Mr Brown's great contribution to Labour is to have brought back the means test, which the party of 50 years ago said it would never do.
The wise tell us that the "real" contest is not between Mr Cameron and Mr Tony Blair, which Mr Cameron won comfortably on Wednesday (so much for the abolition of the Punch and Judy show!). It is, rather, between Mr Cameron and Mr Brown, because Mr Brown will be the Labour leader at the time of the election. Yet Mr Blair still tells us he will keep his promise and serve a "full term". This has a perfectly precise meaning: the period up to the general election, which could occur in 2009 or even in 2010.
Winston Churchill was finally persuaded to go on 5 April 1955 and was succeeded by Anthony Eden, who held a general election on 26 May. If Mr Blair is to keep his word and serve a full term, that is the position in which he is bound to put Mr Brown. In Mr Cameron's place, I should continue to concentrate on Mr Blair for the time being.Reuse content