Enoch saw the future when he shook Bill Haley's hand

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The Independent Online

It now seems to happen every three months or so, but whenever there is a defection from the Conservatives such as that of Mr Ivan Massow last week, the representatives of New Labour unite in song: There, see, just as we've been saying all along. The Tories under Hague have moved so far to the right that they're practically out of sight. Or, as our great leader put it at Bournemouth last year: weird, weird, weird.

It now seems to happen every three months or so, but whenever there is a defection from the Conservatives such as that of Mr Ivan Massow last week, the representatives of New Labour unite in song: There, see, just as we've been saying all along. The Tories under Hague have moved so far to the right that they're practically out of sight. Or, as our great leader put it at Bournemouth last year: weird, weird, weird.

But here is the strange thing. While lamenting, whether justly or not, Mr William Hague's move to the right, those very same representatives of the People's Party (if we can any longer call it that), including the chief representative himself, are intent on travelling in the same direction, if necessary giving Mr Hague a cheery wave as they overtake him on the road on their way to some new destination, such as depriving asylum-seekers of the right to work, reintroducing capital punishment in our schools, slaughtering the firstborn or whatever happens to be Mr Jack Straw's latest wheeze. If you wanted to extract a theme from all those leaked memoranda which appeared shortly before I went off on holiday, this would be it.

All politicians and all political parties promise different things to different groups of voters, so ending up by contradicting themselves. Those of us who, in the old days, reported by-elections at which a Liberal candidate was standing are only too familiar with the phenomenon.

With New Labour the tendency has become more pronounced. After the loss of the 1992 election and the Blair succession two years later, the people around him determined to win, if necessary at any cost. John Smith, had he lived, would not have proved so sympathetic to this philosophy - though equally he might not have won the last election by so generous a margin.

For inspiration, the new men and the new women looked to the United States and the success of Mr Bill Clinton. The trick was clearly to ditch old beliefs and older friends in the interest of building up a wider electoral coalition. While Mr John Major and the then Home Secretary, Mr Kenneth Clarke, were busily trying to dig up dirt on Mr Clinton to assist the Republican cause - an action as inept as it was disreputable, curdling, as it did, Anglo-American relations for the next four years - Mr Tony Blair's young persons were studying the United States Democrats.

This scrutiny seemed to produce success in 1997. In fact Mr Blair won the majority he did because the voters were thoroughly sick of Mr Major's government. No matter. Observing and imitating the new US President was, so it was supposed, clearly profitable in domestic politics.

The Conservatives are now studying Mr George W Bush with equal dedication on the assumption that he has something for them. His "compassionate conservatism" is supposed to be full of electoral promise. As well repose one's trust in The Mike Tyson Book of Manners, The Queen Mother's Guide to Getting By on a Budget or Hindley's Handbook of Paediatrics and Childcare! Mr Bush is about as compassionate as a Sherman tank.

But here is another strange thing. Mr Hague attained his recent successes, or apparent successes - at any rate inspiring Mr Philip Gould to put finger to keyboard and worrying Mr Blair - by not being compassionate at all, except to the shotgun-wielding farmer. In other respects he has won the approval of the public by wanting to be beastly all round, in particular to asylum-seekers. Mr Blair and Mr Straw have flattered him by imitation.

Why then, if there is so much profit in beastliness, should Mr Hague now want to be compassionate as well? It is a great puzzle. One answer is that British politicians imitate the Americans at every opportunity, though they have yet to acquire the clean, pressed white shirts, the permanent suntans and that appearance of having just emerged from the beauty-parlour which are displayed by their equivalents across the Atlantic. Another answer is that politicians have simply grown into the habit of asserting contradictory propositions.

And another answer again also originates in the United States, in pop music. This is one of those fields of endeavour where we have turned out to be as good as, if not better than, our masters; while football has gone in the opposition direction. Incidentally, the only game at which we are now any good at all, judged by world standards, is rugby. Only the other day England beat the Springboks in South Africa. And was there any congratulatory message to the team from Mr Blair in No 10? As far as I know, there was none.

It has often been remarked that modern governments lack personal experience of warfare or even of service in the armed forces. What has been commented on less frequently is that their members have sometimes been heavily influenced by pop music. Owing to its nature, dependent on its immediate effects, it tends to rot the brain. You have only to read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity to realise that. We are now living under our first pop prime minister, who was only three years old when Bill Haley and the Comets came on to the stage. Subsequently he devoted his leisure at Oxford to playing in a band rather than in speaking at the Union, which is what Mr Hague did. When Haley made his first impression in this country, I was 23. Over a decade later, I was in a television studio talking about politics in some aspect. Among the other guests, all doing separate turns, were Haley and his band, and Enoch Powell. Afterwards in the hospitality room I was chatting affably to Haley - biggish, plaid double-breasted jacket, kiss-curl, curved pipe - when Powell loped purposefully across the room.

"Mr Haley," he said, "may I shake you by the hand? Powell is the name, Enoch Powell."

"Why sure, go ahead," Haley said.

The action having been performed to mutual satisfaction, they talked with equal affability for a few minutes. Later I asked Powell:

"Why did you want to shake Bill Haley's hand, Enoch?"

"Why did I want to shake Bill Haley's hand?" Powell replied, for one of his conversational tricks was to repeat the question before answering it, if indeed he ever came round to doing so. "Surely the answer must be obvious. He is the most influential character of our age."

So he turned out to be, though others, more knowledgeable in this field than I am, may nominate a different musician. The moral is that we should not blame Mr Gould, Mr Alastair Campbell or any other villain of the week for the state of politics either here or in the United States, with its emotional catchphrases and its taking up of simultaneously contradictory positions. We should blame Bill Haley instead.

This may be unfair to him. He did not invent the psychobabble which began to infect the English-speaking world in the 1970s, which is now part of its politics and of which Mr Blair - more in tone than in content - is an acknowledged master. As a matter of fact, on the one occasion I met Haley, he struck me as a person of the utmost honesty, straightforwardness and good sense. But that is often the way with pioneers and their subsequent imitators.

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