Toothless Tories should look to their fearsome forebears

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The Independent Online

The etymology of the word Tory isn't uninteresting. Those who had vaguely thought it had something to do with Conservatory can go to the back of the class (we'll have a fag together).

The etymology of the word Tory isn't uninteresting. Those who had vaguely thought it had something to do with Conservatory can go to the back of the class (we'll have a fag together).

The Shorter Oxford says it means bog-trotter (no letters please). It comes from Irish toraighe meaning "pursuer". In the 17th century it was applied to those dispossessed Irish who became outlaws and made their living by chasing and killing English settlers. A good livelihood to be made, no doubt, and plenty of fresh air.

The term came to be applied to papists of all sorts, particularly English papists who supported James II's claim to the throne. Royalists became known as Tories, and finally this traditional tendency was identified with the 19th century Conservatives resisting the liberalisation of everything ("Why do we need change, things are bad enough as they are"). However, the original meaning of the word connotes a violence and recklessness that sets an excellent example to the modern Opposition. We could do with much more of the terrier in the Tory these days. Much more chasing and killing. Much more running to earth and savaging.

Andrew Tyrie – a long, languid Tory – chased Gordon Brown down a hole in a post-Budget Treasury select committee meeting last week. He had managed to track down the amount of spending the Chancellor has moved off balance sheet.

There are contingent liabilities in the accounts at about £44bn. Is that a lot or a little? I think we can safely say it's a lot. You could take 15p off income tax with £44bn. The Chancellor has underwritten various public projects that private firms have contracted to undertake. By listing them as contingent liabilities he gets schools, hospitals and a new London Underground system but doesn't have to admit to having increased public spending.

Thus, when the Prime Minister jeers at Iain Duncan Smith, asking how public services can be improved without raising taxes, he's been quite lucky not to have had this thrown back in his face.

In the committee, Mr Brown defended himself by saying that moving items off balance sheet was a practice commonly used by the private sector.

Mr Tyrie stirred himself (he has the idlest manner in the House) to observe that this was hardly much of a recommendation. Enron moved items off balance sheet and collapsed in a smoking pile of ruins as a result.

It was a brief encounter in an obscure committee room, but it's rare for Gordon Brown to have points scored off him. Everyone should be grateful to Mr Tyrie as a result.

The Tories – or more accurately, the Conservatives – have no sense about them of a keen and hungry opposition confident of their place in the world, a party ready to slaughter. No, they have a lie-low policy, waiting for things to go bad for the government. Their moment is coming, they feel.

Perhaps it is coming. At this rate, it will always be.

How to make things worse - pass new laws

We anarcho-rainbow types enjoy the idea of unintended consequences because they subvert the certainties of central planners, pan-national regulators, bulk legislators and all the other crypto-authoritarians who insist they know what they're doing.

When the Government passed laws to give tenants more security, landlords stopped renting out properties. Fewer flats became available and those that were available were more expensive. Legislating to make things better for tenants made things worse for tenants.

There is a bed crisis in hospitals. Beds are blocked by old patients who have nowhere to go. Why? Some 46,000 beds have been lost in the care home industry. Why? The government regulated for higher and more expensive standards in care homes, marginal homes closed down.

So, pensioners lie on hospital trolleys for days because the government has legislated to improve things for pensioners.

We heard last week that the number of beds blocked had recently reduced a bit from 6,000. This was because £300m of public money had been applied to the problem.

When you do the maths that turns out to cost £50,000 per bed.

Wouldn't it have been cheaper to give the money to the care homes to make the improvements in the first place?

My undercover attempt to hold court with the Duke

There was an embarrassing leak last week; word got out that the Queen had asked me down to Windsor for a tête-à-tête. The person responsible has been disciplined.

In the event, 700 others turned up. Some were grandees from the big circulation Sundays, others had come from Basildon. We all shared equally our subject status.

I wanted to talk to the Duke of Edinburgh. Yes, I wanted to reassure him that his recent remarks about Aborigines spearing each other – far from being a reactionary gaffe – were in the forefront of indigenous peoples' rights theory. If an indigenous Australian is arrested, he or she may choose not to go through the normal court process, but instead be tried by their tribal elders. If found guilty of a serious offence they may be speared, painfully, in the leg.

Alas, I didn't manage to get the story out. He saw that I was trying to conceal my name tag, and when I told him I was there undercover he barked: "Well I'm not talking to you then!" and beetled off. You can't fault him.

The Queen was delightful. She has the nicest smile. And she is the cause of the nicest smiles in others. When people speak to her, their faces relax into a goofily benign expression, half parental (she is ours, after all) and half childish (she's been there heading the state for ever).

It's clear the Queen is infinitely preferable as a head of state to any of our washed-up, clapped out parliamentarians. Her smile – so different in kind from the smile of our Prime Minister – didn't try to persuade you of anything, or attract your vote. Her very irrelevance to the vast part of the nation's activities is absolutely the reason why she should remain its head.

The perils of name-calling

In an excess of bonhomie, the Sketch described the Speaker as "auld haggis-head" some weeks ago and that drew a letter of complaint from a Scots reader who found the language "unmistakably racist and ethnically insulting".

Would you condone the use of the term "old chapatti head" in reference to an Asian MP, or "old bagel head" in reference to Jewish MPs, he asked. "I think not."

Put like that it does seem a bit out of tune with the times. On the other hand, it doesn't feel unmistakably racist. Racism theory suggests I could call someone "old chapatti head" without being racist if I were Indian myself. Jews tell Jewish jokes. That Asian sketch show makes Asian jokes. The white man at the BBC calls the BBC "hideously white".

Being partially Scottish myself I would claim to have sufficient racial proximity to the Speaker to be able to gently mock and insult him in this way without being guilty of racism.

Maybe we are less sensitive to this than we should be in the ethnically English middle class, having been hardened by years of mockery – our cuisine, our voices, our psychological flaws, our obvious absurdities. But carping criticism and vulgar abuse are so much an essential part of our cultural heritage that we'd be deracinated, disenfranchised and disempowered without them.

¿ Modernising trends in government: lacking a useful working model of human nature, Labour's racy initiatives rarely get anywhere. The ones that work tend to revive old ideas previous modernisers had discarded.

Thus we're being offered matrons to run wards, bicycling bobbies to patrol streets, male teachers back in the classroom, vocational training schools (academies, they're to be called) to do what apprenticeships used to, and park wardens to tell us to get off the grass.

The young, energetic, forward-looking post-Cool Britannia is heading straight back to the 1950s.

¿ The young Queen Victoria was extraordinarily unpopular in the early years and press criticism grew so loud that she once threatened to abdicate if they didn't pipe down. When she married, a yellow press satire had her wedding train "setting out from Waterloo, passing by Virginia Water and passing through Maidenhead, leaving Staines behind."

They were very rude, those mid-Victorian satirists. I can't approve.

¿ I am sent an web address for the Scottish Executive. What comes up is a series of photographs of young women in short skirts performing domestic tasks. One is wearing a little French maid's apron and she bends forward in order to use the vacuum cleaner more effectively.

"Discover more about this brand new form of global staffing agency, a mix of traditional secretarial and IT temping agency with Escorts, Hosts, Translators creating our famous Sexetaries," the site says.

If this is a new initiative to reconnect the political class with the people it is almost certain to work.