How had they put up with the ancien regime so long?

A tory conversion

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For 80 years of courtship and marriage, John Marshall of East Kilbride believed that his wife, Ina, was the same age as he was. Now, 80 years is a long time to believe anything; most of us simply do not get the opportunity. So it can be imagined how bemused the 98-year-old Mr Marshall was, when - on opening birthday cards recently for his 98- year-old wife - he came across a telegram from HM the Queen, congratulating Mrs Marshall on reaching her centenary.

Mrs Marshall was phlegmatic. During the First World War, when the Marshalls were engaged, it had not really been the thing for a wife to be older than her husband. So the young Ina had adjusted the figures. But time and fashion had moved on, allowing Mrs Marshall to comment that "it doesn't really matter much now, does it?" John simply said that it was a little hard to take in.

I bet it was. And there are many who were here in Blackpool this week who know how John feels. On Thursday evening it was Michael Portillo who played the role of Queen's telegram. He stood up in the ornate Opera House in the Winter Gardens, and told his astonished audience that he was tolerant.

And he wasn't just a weeny bit tolerant, either. He was a lot tolerant. He was tolerant of gays, he was tolerant of single mums, he was tolerant of unconventional families as long as they loved and cherished their kids. And he cared too. He just couldn't work out how it had got around that he hadn't cared. It mystified him, given all the things that he and his colleagues had done. But the bottom line was that he did care.

His audience might have told him how this strange impression had been created. They recalled with great clarity Mr Lilley's assault on ladies who had children with men to whom they were not married. And what about all those speeches excoriating scroungers, "bogus" asylum seekers, or how the welfare state had sapped enterprise, or how it was better for the wealthy to decide themselves how to dispose of their riches, rather than be forced to pay it in taxes to pay for the caring services?

Like the Labour Party a decade earlier, the suited and grey-haired delegates listening to their hero were being asked to stand on their political heads. As socialists had been required to jettison the comforting childhood toys of penal taxation, collective ownership and trades union power, now Tories were being faced off with the consequences of their own defeat.

Sitting there among them I saw many of the same variations of response that I had witnessed (and indeed, shared) when Labour was called upon to change. First there were the (few) people that had really believed in tolerance and caring all along: gay Tories and folk like that. The mystery with them was how they had put up with the ancien regime for so long. Then there were those who had had no very strong conviction, probably having been relaxed themselves in private, who seemed relieved to see the intolerant past go. Both groups applauded.

On the other side were men and women who were openly disgusted by Portillo's words, and felt their most cherished beliefs to be under assault from one they always considered to be their standard-bearer. They shifted angrily in their seats and muttered their dissent. Slightly less angry were a group who felt very uncomfortable, but thought that if Portillo said it, then at the least it was worth considering.

But my favourites - at least one-third of the hall - were those who had vehemently expressed the old, authoritarian view, but - afforded a sudden glimpse of a different, attractive world - jumped instantly and effortlessly from believing X to strongly endorsing the need for Y.

Mr Portillo, of course, knew what he was talking about. The juggernaut of social and economic change had run over some of the Tories' favourite doctrines, and change was a necessity. But, as ever, change had to be consistent with principle; only Labour changes because of a desire to court popularity. So hardly had the crowd drifted out of the Opera House before strenuous efforts were being made to reconcile the old (poofs and scroungers) with the new (life choices and caring).

The best of all came from the pen of Mr Peregrine Worsthorne, writing in the Mail. Perhaps, he suggested, toleration of - say - gay marriage, would civilise homosexual culture, and lead to a lessening of gay promiscuity. Thus the original end (conventional morality) could be better served through the changed means. And it was not as though he didn't have a respectable role model, either. "This is not a question," he went on, "of learning to love it. It is one of learning to live with it and make the best of it. If the Queen can become reconciled, however reluctantly and uncertainly to the modern world, who am I to lag behind?"

I have to say that I love this process. While I am no fan of moral relativism, and dislike those who cannot behave properly, I thoroughly approve of people changing their minds. And it is a testimony to the human spirit that we insist that however much we change our minds, we remain ourselves unchanged.

Anyway, Mrs Marshall usually ends up being right when she avers that "it doesn't really matter much now, does it?"

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