Goodbye Watford, goodbye politics

Tristan Garel-Jones pays tribute to the tribes of Middle England and to the Conservative Party
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The Independent Online
Last Sunday, the Watford Conservative Association selected Robert Gordon as the prospective parliamentary candidate to fight the next general election in the Tory interest. The three shortlisted candidates all belonged to the mainstream of the Conservative Party. As I looked down from the platform at the inner core of my local party (with, I own, a degree of sentimental affection), it was hard to exclude the thought that they are a more reliable and steady body of men and women than the 1922 Committee. Mrs Nancy Forshaw has more sense in her little finger than ... well, (fill in this space!). The sooner Nancy, David Hobbs, Sue Windsor, Arun Ranjit and thousands like them are fully enfranchised by the Conservative Party, the better.

"The Conservative Party is not a political party; it is a tribe," says wise old Alistair Goodlad MP in a, for him, rare display of verbosity. Right. It is the tribe that took me into its bosom when I returned from Spain, aged 30, to live in the UK. On the pavements, doorsteps and in the front rooms of suburban Watford I became intoxicated with the air of Middle England (an all-embracing term to include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - anywhere outside SW1). In my surgeries I shared their daily dramas and learnt. Learnt, above all, that politicians should sermonise less, listen more and, in the words of the Psalm, be slow to chide and swift to bless. The final balance sheet shows a healthy credit in favour of Watford, which I can only hope to repay by the weight of my affection.

The tribal character of the Conservative Party makes it the ideal vehicle for this age of anti-heroic politics. The barbarians are no longer at the gates. The Cold War has made way for what Professor Sir Michael Howard describes as the chill peace. The agenda set out by Thatcher, Joseph and Howe in the late Seventies to recapture the initiative for liberal economics has been triumphantly won. Conservatives five, Labour nil.

It may be the end of ideology, but politics has just become more difficult. Far better a tribe that has never been encumbered by ideology than new Labour - an ageing transvestite clad in sub-Thatcherite rhetoric. After all, we know that Danny La Rue is a man, just as we know that new Labour is old Labour.

The collapse of ideology poses new challenges for left and right. The real struggle at home, inside the European Union and in the global markets is now between free trade and protectionism. Protection is an interventionist device of the kind loved by Labour, the French and Sir James Goldsmith. The Tory party must retain its faith in free trade and would do well to recall that Napoleon Bonaporte exiled in St Helena concluded that it was British trade, based on sea supremacy post-Trafalgar, that was his real Waterloo: "When I think that for a cup of coffee with more or less sugar in it, they checked the hand that could have set free the world." And thus it is today. The liberating hand of James Goldsmith will be checked by pretty little panties from India and Taiwan.

I was a Whip for most of Mrs Thatcher's period of office. I enforced her government's will with gusto and, I hope, effectiveness. Never a Thatcherite in the religious sense of the word, I can say without fear of challenge that no journalist ever extracted a whisper of criticism from me either of her person or her policies. Yes, I am an apparatchik. I believe governments should get their business. The fashionable view that Parliament is neutered by executive power and savage whipping is back. I know of no executive in the free world that has to fight harder, line by line, minute by minute to place a piece of legislation on the statute book.

When Keith Joseph retired I gave a small dinner party for him in my home. Keith's intellectual power was only surpassed by his personal modesty. After the dinner, attended by Prime Minister Thatcher, I compared his departure to that of King Dimitrios as described by Cavafy.

He took off his golden robes

threw away his purple buskins

and quickly dressing himself

in simple clothes, he slipped out

just like an actor who,

the play over,

changes his costume and goes away.

It remains a source of regret we are unable to accord Lady Thatcher the unquestioning adulation we Conservatives long to indulge in.

Departure leaves one free to espouse the most unfashionable views. Lady Thatcher aside (I would classify her as a war-time leader manque), I believe that John Major, with Lord Salisbury and Clement Attlee, is one of the three greatest peacetime prime ministers this century. He picked up his party on the floor, finessed away the poll tax and led it to victory in 1992. Inflation has been squeezed out of our system. The liberalising of the British economy has been pushed ahead. For the first time in my adult life, Britain's performance is not an object of scorn. Maastricht reined in the worst excesses of the Single European Act and laid the foundation pillars for a confederal Europe of sovereign states. He is doing his duty - this generation's duty - by Northern Ireland with courage and integrity.

His treatment at the hands of some of his parliamentary colleagues has been an abomination. Tiny majorities turn tiny men into giants. But out there in Watford, Nancy Forshaw and others like her await. And when Major meets Middle England, Middle Britain, face to face, I suspect there will be some red faces in SW1 and a happy smile on the face of Robert Gordon of Watford.