I have never seen what's so Great about the Train Robbers, so I'm not hugely exercised about what happens to Ronnie Biggs. The man, we are given to understand, is close to death and I'm nerving myself for the outpouring of public grief reserved, in this country, for brutal thugs who always wore a clean shirt and were nice to their mums. Whether he spends his remaining days in a prison ward or in a nursing home (I'm guessing he won't be among the poorly pensioners who can't afford the care fees) seems, now, of predominantly political importance.
What bothers me, no, unnerves me, about Biggs' latest bid for freedom is the sight of Ann Widdecombe rallying to his cause. "The prisons are bursting at the seams," reasoned the Tory MP for Maidstone and the Weald. "The courts are being urged to let burglars go free, but one doddery and very frail old man is being kept in prison."
The effect of this compassionate speech, coming from the same Ann Widdecombe, who, as Prisons minister in 1996, defended the chaining of women prisoners to their beds in the labour ward, is downright eerie, a bit like hearing a dog miaow. The Twilight Zone soundtrack rings ever louder in your head when you realise that the unbending Home Secretary in the Biggs case is the same Jack Straw who led the criticism of Widdecombe's inhumane policy just a decade ago.
Have party politics fallen through the Looking Glass? David Cameron seems to think so. This week the Leader of the Opposition delivered an apology, on behalf of the Conservative Party, for the infamous Clause 28 legislation which banned the promotion of equal consideration for homosexual relationships in schools and became the focus of gay rights campaigners throughout the late 1980s. Clause 28, Cameron now realises, was "offensive" to some 2.65 million gay voters.
This eye-wiping liberalism is in no way confirmed by Cameron's voting record on gay issues, but he's getting awfully good at apologising. In 2006, he said how sorry he was that his party had been beastly to the Scots in imposing the poll tax on them a year ahead of the rest of us. The year before, he expressed his regret at Baroness Thatcher's having called Mandela's ANC party a terrorist organisation.
It seems likely that the "leaner, greener" Conservative Party will go on turning its policies inside out until it has apologised to every last blade of grass bruised by uncaring Tory feet. Or until it wins a general election. Whichever comes first.
I suppose one should approve these convulsions of conscience. Good things can spring from dubious motives. But I can't help it. Cuddly Conservatives give me the willies. The idea was trialled in the US where "compassionate conservatism", springing from the religious Right, was wrapped around the Bush administration as a kind of moral invisibility cloak.
As Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson put it, with no apparent irony: "Compassionate conservatism is the theory that government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself." Bill Clinton was probably nearer the mark when he summed up the political philosophy as: "I want to help you. I really do. But you know, I just can't."
Here, as Left and Right take their places for the ideological square dance that precedes an election, conviction politics have never looked more confused. The Labour movement, in all its sins and serial debasements, had something lovely at the heart of it, high dreams of fairness and fraternity which have all but given way to crabbed notions of self-preservation and PR. Conservatism, before the touchy-feely stuff set in, did what it said on the tin, grasping capital in a iron fist, and the devil take the hindmost.
With the economy in tatters for the foreseeable future, no matter which party gets to rattle the empty tin, there is only the feel-good factor left to fight for. The compassion creep of the Tories might be seen, on a good day, as evidence of the long awaited "consensus politics". A more cynical mind might view the rise of the caring, sharing Tory as a sharp-elbowed scramble for the moral high ground.
For my money, the compassionate Conservative is and always will be an oxymoron. In Cameron's case, I'll waive the "oxy". He may have knocked gays, Scots and blacks off the official hit list; he may join Ann Widdecombe in her crusade to keep a frail old gentleman from dying behind bars (and, to be fair, the party has form here – remember how they closed ranks to prevent Pinochet's extradition), but the Tory party's fundamental have/have not proposition remains untouched.
Of course, it could be that, even now Dave, Friend of the People, is planning to parade Norman Tebbit on the election platform in an "Eat the Rich" T-shirt. We can but hope.Reuse content