Bruce Anderson: The modernising, left-right labels put on the Tory leadership candidates are out of date

All are distinctive characters but in what sense would it be useful to classify them as left-right?
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The Independent Online

Leadership campaigns bring one benefit. They force political parties to conduct an internal audit; to review their operations and then improve them. In the Tories' case, there is an obvious place to start. The party should try to bin all the labels which are currently used to describe the shades of opinion within it. They are all either out-of-date or meaningless. They imply divisions which no longer exist.

Leadership campaigns bring one benefit. They force political parties to conduct an internal audit; to review their operations and then improve them. In the Tories' case, there is an obvious place to start. The party should try to bin all the labels which are currently used to describe the shades of opinion within it. They are all either out-of-date or meaningless. They imply divisions which no longer exist.

Over the past three decades, there have been periods when the Tories were divided. There were fundamental disagreements over Thatcherism, between the Dries and the Wets. By 1983, some of the Wets had more in common with Roy Jenkins's SDP than they did with Mrs Thatcher, and only their tribal Toryism kept them within the party. That was a potential split. A few years later, the division between Europhiles and Eurosceptics also proved the sort of issue which could break parties. But the Europhiles no longer matter. A few more puffs on Ken Clarke's cigar, and they will be in the ashtray of history.

So should the supposed left-right divide in the Tory party. Let us consider a few possible leadership candidates. David Cameron, David Davis, Alan Duncan, Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley, George Osborne; they are all distinctive characters, but in what sense would it be useful to classify them on a left-right spectrum? Most Tories would instinctively think of Malcolm Rifkind as being to the left of those mentioned above. Why? On what issues? The same is true of Michael Ancram.

Tim Yeo, another leadership contender, appears to be making a play for the vacant left-wing slot in the line-up. This is less a matter of ideology than of tone: not an appealing tone. Mr Yeo sounds as if he is simpering at the voters; as if he were wet in the pre-Thatcher, public school sense of the word.

All the serious leadership candidates are Fabians: Fabian Thatcherites, that is. On the economy, they all believe that year on year, the Government should spend a lower proportion of the nation's income and own a lower proportion of its wealth. As far as I know, none of them would claim that there could be a dramatic overthrow of current practice. If any Tory thinks that the Government's share of GDP could be cut at a stroke by 5 per cent, let him publish his public expenditure White Paper.

There should be vigorous debates over the pace of change. But a dispute over quarters of 1 per cent hardly constitutes a chasm between left and right. Every candidate would agree that the next Tory government should do everything possible to eliminate wasteful state expenditure and to work towards the goal of ensuring that every pound spent by public bodies on the taxpayers' behalf earns something like the same value for money as the pound he spends for himself. Where is the left-right divide on all that?

Or on Europe. Here again, all sensible Tories should be Fabians. In the spirit of Quintus Fabius Cunctator, they should avoid giving battle until they can win. Within a few years, Britain will win. History provides many examples of institutions which appeared most formidable when they were worm-eaten into decline. The Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British trade union movement; even - alas - the British Empire. The latest in the catalogue is the European Union.

Enlargement has seen to that. Official France believed that Europe should be a French jockey on a German horse and that the primary purpose of the European budget is to subsidise French farmers. Brussels ought to be an outstation of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. The EU exists to compensate France for Waterloo, Sedan, Vichy, Algeria; for being French. But official France lost. Gallic solipsism is doomed by enlargement.

In future, a Eurosceptic Tory government will find it easier and easier to win allies on the continent. As with public expenditure, there will be no dramatic victories, but over the next five, 10, 20 years, Europe will evolve into a complexity of bilateral and multilateral arrangements within an overall legal structure: that of a customs union. The UK will be able to join a Common Market. There was no scope for a left-right divide over that.

There is one final term which ought to be discarded: modernisation. Throughout its history, the Tory party has believed in modernising. Practical Toryism has always been a dialectic between principles and opportunities. In the past two centuries, there was only one moment when that appeared to have been forgotten: the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Two years later, Robert Peel effortlessly realigned the Tories with modernity. Seven years after that, he was back in government with a proper majority.

Since 1832, there has been no occasion in which the Tories found themselves on the wrong side of British public opinion for a sustained period. They have lost elections, but the explanation for that must be found in the interstices of long-dead politicians and long-forgotten issues. The Tories have always thought of themselves as the National party, and have never lost sight of that destiny for long.

In recent years Francis Maude, the new Tory chairman, has occasionally managed to talk about modernisation without sounding like a pseudo-intellectual. But Mr Maude still has to purge his contempt. In 2001, he ran Michael Portillo's leadership campaign: the silliest political campaign in modern history. In those weeks of footling and flibberty-gibbeting, all he managed to convey was the rooted dislike of the Tory party. Yet out there in the country, it is the Tory workers who not only sustain their own party, they are the ones raising money for the local hospice, ensuring that Granny Scroggins has a hot meal every day, and taking it in turns to do the flower arrangement in church. They are part of the decency of Middle Britain.

Yet it is not clear that they have a Tory chairman who is prepared to acknowledge their worth. Before he explains what he means by modernisation - if he can - Mr Maude ought to assure that the Tory party's workers feel confident in their chairman. If he fails to do that, he will turn out to be the worst Tory chairman since - David Davis.

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