Andy McSmith: The natural order of things has been restored

The Tory party is again the preserve of people from privileged backgrounds
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The Independent Online

Was it clever, or was it smart? Was it David Cameron's "Clause IV moment" when he announced yesterday that he is putting his Built to Last document to a vote of party members - or was it, to quote Lord Tebbit's dismissive phrase - "a bit of clever marketing"? Can David Cameron do for the Conservative Party what Tony Blair has done for Labour by making a complete break with the past - or is he just a Tory toff?

You may have spotted the fault in each of these three questions. They resemble certain parts of the Blairite reform agenda, in that they contain a hint of choice, where no real choice is on offer. They contain paired opposites, which on close examination are not opposites at all: smart/clever; Tony Blair/Tory toff; Clause IV moment/clever marketing - all go together like Ant and Dec.

A "Clause IV moment" refers to Tony Blair's decision, nearly 12 years ago, to hold a vote among Labour Party members on whether to remove the section in the party's constitution which supposedly committed Labour governments to achieving "common ownership of the means of production".

Removing that ancient clause was a very adroit way of advertising a truth about the Labour Party that most of the public had already grasped. Clause IV was a dead letter years before Tony Blair decided to be shot of it: the manifesto on which Labour fought the 1992 election had not included a promise to nationalise anything, not even the utilities privatised by the Tories. Tony Blair did not fundamentally alter the Labour Party, for all the claims of his admirers and cries of "traitor" from the left. He broadened its appeal, which had to be done because the party needs middle-class votes to stay in power. In the process he has made it sound more right-wing than of old, but if Clement Attlee or Hugh Gaitskell were alive, they would be signed-up Blairites.

The point at which the Labour Party departed from tradition was after the crisis of the 1970s, when Britain went through such dire economic convulsions that political consensus broke down. All the trauma that Labour went through under Neil Kinnock and John Smith was essentially a painful journey back to base.

The Conservative Party was also profoundly affected by the crisis of the 1970s. How deeply was brought home to me not very long ago when I was talking to one of the more thoughtful, liberal-minded Tory MPs who vehemently opposed the rise of David Cameron. "Whatever else it does, the Tory party can't afford to be led by an old Etonian," he pronounced. Actually, as events are showing, it can. Until the emergence of Edward Heath, it was unheard of for the Conservative Party to be led by anyone who was not a public schoolboy. Indeed, if Eton College cannot turn out leaders of the Tory party, what - you wonder - is it for?

However, there was a phase when the old Tory elite became overwhelmed by the problems besetting them and gave way to a generation of hard-nosed, state-educated, "school of hard knocks" types whose parents had been grocers, or railwaymen, and who had the ruthlessness to handle the crisis. But they were not a self-regenerating phenomenon. Though they wore their lower middle-class backgrounds like campaign medals, they all moved up into the county set and sent their children to private schools. Meanwhile, they were spectacularly successful in three general elections, whereas all Labour got out of its Bennite convulsion was the ghastly humiliation of 1983. That is why it has taken the Conservative Party so much longer to revert to type.

But it was bound to happen sooner or later that the Conservative Party would again be the preserve of people from privileged or comfortable backgrounds, who instead of wearing a big chip on the shoulder think that the country is basically well-governed and want it to remain so, who have no wish to stir up antagonism between social classes, and would quite like to help improve the lot of people at the bottom, so long as that does not cause too much disturbance. What Nicholas Soames calls "the natural order of things" has been restored. When Harold Macmillan or Alec Douglas-Home look down from heaven upon David Cameron and George Osborne, I am sure they are saying "that's our boys!"

So, yesterday's event was indeed a clever bit of marketing by David Cameron. It was, in effect, a Clause IV moment. However, the original Clause IV vote was the finale to an open political struggle that had consumed the energies of one Labour Party leader after another. Tony Blair inherited the twin benefits of a party that wanted to win, and a government whose condition was terminal. It is not yet obvious that David Cameron has either.

a.mcsmith@independent.co.uk

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