Community life begins at home: These are strange times for politics. David Starkey defends radical Conservatism against those who declare it a betrayal

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Is Conservatism, so invincible in the Eighties, already a fading, even a dying force? Certainly there are straws in the wind. In the Euro-elections, the party obtained its lowest share of the national vote since the 19th century. And between John Major and Tony Blair, the soon-to-be-anointed leader of the Labour Party, there seems to be no contest: more than 55 per cent of the electorate, a recent opinion poll found, want Blair as Prime Minister.

But Conservatism is not only facing a psephological disaster, but a philosophical one as well, at least according to John Gray, who, back in the Eighties, was himself a leading conservative thinker.

Gray, in his new pamphlet The undoing of Conservatism (Social Market Foundation), sees Conservative philosophy as having committed suicide by its recent extravagant and exclusive devotion to the freedom of the market. This, he argues, amounts to selling its birth right for a mess of potage. For the free market is not a Conservative doctrine but a neo-liberal one. Its assumptions and aims are fundamentally unconservative, since it believes in the perfectibility of human institutions and promises perpetual economic growth.

Its effects are more radically unconservative still. The free market destroys traditional cultures; renders immemorial skills obsolete and plunges individuals, institutions and communities into a state of permanent uncertainty. All this might have been bearable if the promise of prosperity had been delivered. But the economic failure of free-market economics combined with their social consequences confronts us with the real possibility of national disintegration and political crisis.

It would, I suppose, be cruel to say that Marx said all this better and more briefly in the Communist Manifesto. But it would be true. Gray speaks as the prophet in the post-Thatcher wilderness, recalling Conservatism to its true essence. He seems, to me, on the contrary, to be both a false prophet and to present a false vision of Conservatism. Indeed, there is no paradox in his final Powellite call to Conservatives to vote Labour. For Gray has clearly become a socialist himself.

The fact shows plainly in his partisan analysis of our present plight. He puts the blame for everything - crime, family breakdown, educational collapse and beggars in the street - on the 'paleo-liberalism' of free-market economics. Now there is no doubt that the nostrums of the right must assume some of the responsibility. But so must those of the left. Indeed, a more balanced analysis would show that to virtually every problem the contribution of the two sides has been equal and oddly complimentary.

Gray's approach reminds me of an exchange I had with Tony Blair. As Shadow Home Secretary, he was a witness in a Radio 4 Moral Maze discussion on crime. I tried to get him to admit that Labour's hostility to private property had played its part in the current crime wave. After all, if you preach that property is theft, it would be surprising if some, at least, did not draw the conclusion that theft is no crime. Not a bit of it, insisted Blair, though he was keen to blame Thatcherite devil- take-the-hindmost individualism.

Blair, a politician, is entitled to be partisan; Gray, a philosopher, is not. Indeed, his bias makes it impossible to take his analysis of the British disease at all seriously. Nor does his proposed remedy carry more conviction. We need, he tells us, to rediscover community. Oh, community, what verbal crimes are committed in thy name]

Community is one of John Prescott's 'warm words', intended to produce a glow in the parts other slogans can't reach. The reality is colder. 'Care in the community' means leaving the mentally ill to rot in the streets, a 'community worker' is sometimes a sectarian agitator paid for by a local authority; while the 'gay community' is a sleight of hand, designed to turn a group of people who sleep together into one that votes together.

Community, in short, is a word corrupted by usage and, moreover, hijacked by the left. No sensible Conservative would wish to dispute their possession of it - with one exception, the communities they have formed themselves through Neighbourhood Watch Schemes. My own will serve as example. Around lie the wastelands of Islington. These, though they are the residence of Tony Blair, knew nothing of his 'tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime'. Instead, life, for a car radio or domestic hi-fi at least, was nasty, brutish and short. To this Hobbesian situation my neighbours reacted as Lockeian men and women. They came together to form a community for the defence of their life, liberty and property.

My neighbours are not a particularly Conservative bunch (it is Islington, after all). But their action, and the genuine mutuality and neighbourliness which have resulted from the defence of our private property, offer a crucial lesson to the rudderless right. For free markets, balanced budgets and reduced direct taxation are mere abstractions unless they are rooted in a society of confident property holders who are zealous to defend the rights and to assume the responsibilities of their position.

Once that was axiomatic: the Englishman's home was his castle and it was his duty to feed the poor man at his gate. But half a century of socialist propaganda and confiscatory taxation has taken its toll. The poor man demands his doles as of right, but the rich man feels no need to be provide them as he's already discharged his public duties and more in the tax he's paid.

The Conservatives, until recently at any rate, reduced the burdens of direct taxation and expected - if they thought about it at all - the earlier attitudes to return of their own accord. But they haven't. To restore them will take sustained effort. This, if the Major's government had any sense, would form its central policy platform for the remainder of its term. And it will become crucial if the party goes into opposition against a Blair Labour government.

The foundations are already laid in the rather fragmentary campaign for 'active citizenship'. For 'active citizens' was the euphemism for the propertied bourgeoisie who turned the promised democracy of the French Revolution into a cosy oligarchy. Then, of course, the propertied were in a tiny minority; now, there are more of them than ever.

More than 60 per cent are homeowners, while one of the reasons for the present crime wave is that even the homes of the poor now contain things worth stealing. These tendencies will be reinforced by the moves towards contracting out and working from home. They will turn households from the mere places of residence and consumption which they became with the Industrial Revolution, into the centres of production that they were previously.

With an appeal to the property- owning householder, which could begin by abolishing death duties, the Conservatives will be riding the wave of the future. They will also be connecting to the past. For the main theme of English political thought, which distinguishes it from Continental philosophy, is a sturdy individualism grounded in absolute property rights.

This means that Thatcherism was not, as Gray argues, an aberration; it only sounded like one because of the unwonted zeal and abstraction with which it was presented. If Mr Major could translate it into the plain, safe English of the rights and duties of property, he could win an unexpected election victory - and one that would not turn into dust this time.

The writer teaches, among other things, the history of European political ideas at the London School of Economics.