Hague's Stalinist euro-victory won't do the Tories any good

Conservative ideas of sovereignty are narrow, sterile and unhistorical. By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN Gerald Kaufman's famous phrase, the 1983 Labour election manifesto was the longest suicide note in history. William Hague's policy statement excluding British membership of the single European currency for this parliament and the next may be shorter but, for all that the Tory leader has certainly secured an appropriately Stalinist majority in his euro- ballot, the mood of the Tories as they meet at Bournemouth is suicidally self-destructive.

A detached observer unacquainted with the Venetian intrigues and tribal hatreds within the Conservative and Unionist party might wonder what the point of Mr Hague's quaint stunt was. John Major's maligned "wait and see" policy looks wiser all the time, and has been paid the sincerest form of flattery by Tony Blair.

But that detached observer wouldn't realise that the Tories are now a party in deep psychic trouble. They are suffering from a death wish produced by a nervous breakdown brought on by an identity crisis. This is a party which doesn't know what it is or whether it likes itself. Like so many individual people at some stage of their lives, the Tory party is oppressed by the sheer futility of its existence.

Any party might be forgiven a period of self-doubt after an electoral defeat as crushing as the Conservatives suffered 17 months ago. It's true that the Tories have known similar debacles before - in 1906, they won all of 157 seats to the Liberals' 400, in 1945, 213 to Labour's 393 - and subsequently recovered to regain power. It's also true that the Tory party has before now tried to tear itself apart, over the Corn Laws in the 1840s, over tariff reform in the 1900s.

But today the Tories' task is all the harder because of the nature of Tony Blair's success. Disraeli wrote of sound Tory government meaning "Tory men and Whig measures"; Blairism often looks like Labour people and Tory measures. It is difficult for a Tory opposition to come to terms with a Labour home secretary reminiscent of the Tsarist minister of the interior of whom it was said that the only thing further to the right of him was the wall. And the Tories are in any case hamstrung by their own record in government.

A principled opposition might criticise an Ulster "settlement" in which murderers are being released from prison without any decommissioning whatever of terrorist weaponry, and in which Gerry Adams will very likely soon be drawing a salary from the Crown and taxpayer as a member of the Northern Ireland Executive while he remains a member of the IRA Army Council. But then this is a consequence of a policy begun by the Tories.

A principled opposition would denounce Jack Straw's grotesque totalitarian proposal to confiscate the assets of men convicted of no crime. But this is hard for the Tories, whose 1987 Drugs Act (as Enoch Powell was almost alone in pointing out at the time) introduced this iniquitous procedure, and who later gave us Michael Howard's Police Bill, which only needed "State" inserted between its two words

A principled opposition would offer a sustained critique of all that is undemocratic and authoritarian about the European Union, which is to say an awful lot. But that would require a position of intelligent, authentic scepticism; and the term "Eurosceptic" has been appropriated by people who aren't sceptics at all in the proper sense, but are narrow dogmatists or even fanatics.

The Tories' internal feud over Europe has now reached a point of exhaustion, for them and certainly for the rest of us. But it is their great problem, for all the absurd ballot, and it is a problem they will have to resolve before they can become electable again.

It might be thought strange that this is the work of men who aren't at all stupid. In appearance Mr Hague may be half foetus and half death's head, without having gone through the usual intervening phase of human life, but he did after all make his way from a Yorkshire comprehensive to Oxford. John Redwood may be part reptilian, part robotic, and wholly ridiculous, but he did win an All Souls fellowship.

And yet oddly enough, this may help explain the Conservatives' woes. John Stuart Mill famously called the Tories "the stupid party", and a hundred years later AJP Taylor glossed this by saying that the phrase was not unfair: "To be stupid and to be sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, radical and socialist, is clever, but silly." What this country has recently acquired for the first time is a right which is clever, but silly.

What is most disturbing is that these learned fanatics have not merely lost touch with reality but have so little real sense of history. Rarely have people called themselves conservatives who are quite so ignorant of what they are meant to be conserving - or whose standpoint is such a bundle of contradictions.

Men who preach the Tory doctrines of Church and Crown are besotted with an American-cum-global capitalism which is relentlessly de- structive of traditional institutions. The only thing odder is to see so many Thatcherite Roman Catholics in parliament and the press lauding the laissez-faire liberal individualism of the Manchester School, which is one of the few social and economic doctrines to have been specifically and repeatedly condemned by the Vatican for more than a hundred years.

As to Europe, Hague, Redwood and their colleagues have developed an obsession with "sovereignty" which is not only narrow and sterile but completely unhistorical. Or perhaps one should say that when Redwood calls King Henry VIII the first Eurosceptic, he speaks truer than he knows. The conception of unlimited national sovereignty was unknown before the Reformation, has done us all more harm than good since, and is plainly exhausted by now.

No one who wants to see limited parliamentary government continue should gloat too much over the Tories' difficulties. Such government must imply an effective opposition, and a regular change of governing party. The best reason for voting Labour last year was that after 18 years of Tory government it was time to throw the rascals out: we didn't want to become a "democratic one-party state", like the Italians under decades of Christian Democratic rule, or the Japanese, ruled for more than 40 years by the Liberal Democrats (no relation).

Now we are told that Tony Blair's great project is to realign the structure of politics so as to exclude the Tories from office for good. But a per- manent New Labour government is no more appealing in principle than a permanent Tory government.

Fifteen years ago, Mrs Thatcher's second greatest political asset was her own stubbornness (courageous or pig-headed, according to taste). But her greatest asset of all was the Labour party as it then existed. Tony Blair understood that very well, and has devoted his career to putting the boot on the other foot. In China this week, he will be gazing towards Bournemouth, and chuckling to himself.