Real leadership, Mr Hague, requires political principles

'Mr Hague is, I believe, capable of employing the moral compass necessary for a conviction politician'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At the end of a week in which Labour politicians surrendered the rule of law to the rule of the mob, it was refreshing to hear BBC Radio 4 stage a debate, in its new series Straw Poll, on the subject "Winning elections is more important than political philosophy". Anthony Howard, the broadcaster and journalist, convinced a studio audience and a wider telephone poll to reject this motion in favour of politicians who held true to a political philosophy or principle.

At the end of a week in which Labour politicians surrendered the rule of law to the rule of the mob, it was refreshing to hear BBC Radio 4 stage a debate, in its new series Straw Poll, on the subject "Winning elections is more important than political philosophy". Anthony Howard, the broadcaster and journalist, convinced a studio audience and a wider telephone poll to reject this motion in favour of politicians who held true to a political philosophy or principle.

Tony Blair has led the way by setting the winning of elections as the primary purpose of Labour politicians. This is fine as far as getting into government goes, but it leads, inevitably, to rule by focus group and to the failure of leadership on issues such as the paedophile debate. Last week's ugly scenes in Portsmouth, for example, are a classic result of an abdication of political responsibility by those in government who have no fundamental political principles other than to follow the perceived view of public opinion.

It was reprehensible that the local Labour Member of Parliament, Mr Syd Rapson, should have shrugged his shoulders and mouthed his support for "democracy in action" as the rabble took charge of the streets. His behaviour was a disgrace to parliamentary democracy. But Mr Rapson is a classic example of the type of MP spawned by New Labour's abdication of a guiding political philosophy of the sort which would once have resulted in unreserved condemnation of mob rule.

I dined last Thursday with the Tories' Gillian Shephard, who faced a similar situation in her own constituency of Norfolk South-west earlier this year, when an angry village was up in arms over the Tony Martin case. While there was a wide public debate over the issue, with talk of vigilantism in the absence of rural police, Mrs Shephard was faced with angry villagers threatening to turn ugly. In her mumsy but forceful way, she addressed their concerns at public meetings but squashed, stiletto-style, the more irrational of her constituents.

The more I see of Mrs Shephard, the more I wish that William Hague would abandon the cult of youth and put her wisdom and experience to good use in his private office. She could do wonders for ensuring that a restraining hand is put on those who think that he has to copy the focus-group and lifestyle-magazine method of Blairite politics. I am convinced that her bucketloads of common sense (the party's guiding theme, after all, is "the Common Sense Revolution") would have urged caution over the 14 pints and the 32 rum-and- cokes attempt to sell Mr Hague as more "blokeish" than Mr Blair.

But Mr Hague does not need to do any of this. As it becomes obvious that Tony Blair is showing a regal detachment from ordinary voters after only three years, Mr Hague looks more genuine, by comparison. Gentle reminders of his South Yorkshire upbringing and the gritty determination to work his way from Wath-upon-Dearne comprehensive to Oxford are enough to convey the natural image which the public will contrast with the lofty remoteness of the privileged Tony Blair.

In fairness to Mr Hague, the August silly-season interview in GQ magazine has given undue prominence to his drinking prowess while obscuring the growing emergence of a political leader who is, I believe, capable of employing the moral compass necessary for a conviction politician. His article, in a Sunday newspaper yesterday, made an attempt to address, responsibly, a public concern, without the overt populism of his earlier foray into the asylum issue. He deserves credit for recoiling in horror at the rule of the mob and is the first party leader to have the courage to even express a view as to a possible solution.

He neatly side-stepped, however, the issue of a "Sarah's Law", and showed his fear of being on the wrong side of the tabloids by "not dismissing the fact that a third of a million people have signed a petition to change the law". Yes, Mr Hague, I am afraid that this is precisely the problem with our politics in this Blairite age. You should dismiss the fact that a tiny percentage of a mass-selling tabloid readership signed this petition. In the focus-group age, the politics of the petition is a halfway concession to mob rule, and should be rejected.

Real leadership means convincing a sceptical public of a point of view they do not hold and arguing a case that changes their mind. If Margaret Thatcher had allowed her view that nationalisation was wrong, in principle, to be subjected to the focus-group mentality, we would still have state control of a plethora of bankrupt industries. The mass of petitions I received from steelworkers against denationalisation of the steel industry, and from the Women's Institute about the privatisation of British Telecom, would have led me to oppose these measures if I had been ruled by complaining constituents.

Apathy towards our political process stems from the refusal of politicians to stand up for what they believe. Arthur Seldon, one of the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs, wrote in 1968, when the Tories were in opposition after a long period in office: "The Conservatives should present a coherent structure of principles so that the electorate will not only have a choice between two systems of principles but also know what will guide the Conservatives in office. They are now offered only a choice of men. That will not suffice." He went on to recommend: "Not men, for that is not enough; not measures, for that is too much; but method, principle philosophy."

The return to a philosophical base led to "Selsdon Man" (after the 1970 pre-election shadow-Cabinet conference at Selsdon Park ). Although Edward Heath lacked the political courage to see the strategy through to its logical conclusion, it was, nevertheless, a philosophical alternative that gave voters a real choice. Margaret Thatcher followed the same path a decade later. Now that apathy dominates among the electorate, an opportunity exists for Mr Hague to recognise a yearning, once again, for "method, principle philosophy".

On all mainstream issues, Labour and Tory are so close together they seem to be virtually indistinguishable, leaving politicians and commentators to concentrate an exaggerated amount of attention on a few perceived differences. No wonder that our political leaders spend so much time trying to find out what we think rather than trying to persuade us to accept their guiding principles and philosophy. Anthony Howard successfully convinced the Radio 4 audience that if any party were brave enough to buck this trend, it would reap the benefit. "If there is no real choice, then what is the point of having elections in the first place?" asked Mr Howard.

The central Tory case, that public expenditure is more inefficient than individuals spending their own money, has already been proved. But still the party refuses to apply this policy to the Health Service, pensions and the welfare state. A philosophical debate should be initiated now by the Tories, in time to coincide with the failure of Gordon Brown's largesse to deliver results in our hospitals in four years' time. It may not be electorally appealing next May, but it will be very attractive the next time round.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

Comments