Leaders who shame us all

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ON 16 February 1828, Sir Walter Scott had a nasty experience. 'At dinner-time, I was strangely haunted by what I would call the sense of pre-existence - videlicet, a confused idea that nothing that passed was said for the first time, that the same topics had been discussed, and the same persons had stated the same opinions on the same subjects . . . The bodily feeling which most resembles this unpleasing hallucination is the giddy state which follows profuse bleeding, when one feels as if walking on feather-beds and could not find a secure footing. I think the stomach has something to do with it.'

Sir Walter took several glasses of wine, but they only made him feel worse. The 'insane feeling', as he called it, lasted into the next day. We call it deja vu, and Scott may have been right to suspect that it has some physiological origin. I have been suffering from this insane feeling for most of the week, and it began when I read the reports of the Tory party conference at Blackpool.

What was said there made me deeply ashamed to be a British subject. We are not yet citizens, not until we have a new state obedient to a constitution. But even as subjects we are disgraced, because we tolerate government by a party as stupid and backward as the Conservative Party has become.

It did not need a Martian, Inuit orresurrected Roman to be baffled by the speeches heard at Blackpool. It required nobody more exotic than a normal Christian Democrat from across the Channel. In what Europe, what world, what century are these people living who want to fill prisons, to starve young women into 'morality', to encourage fear and hatred of foreigners and to mock their languages as the thieves' cant of scroungers? John Major said that the old values of 'neighbourliness, decency, courtesy' were still alive, but that 'somehow we feel embarrassed by them'. They are dead in his party, and no Tory needs to feel embarrassed about them any more.

Old hands at political reporting say you always get this sort of stuff at Tory conferences. Andrew Marr, in the Independent, wrote succinctly of 'the old Tory instincts: prisons, patriotism and privacy'. But any party which has no more principles to offer than those is contemptible. And Blackpool, 1993, was much worse than the rituals of leader- worship and applause for the hangers and floggers.

This time, almost the whole leadership of the Conservative Party dressed up to join the carnival of blind reaction. Some did so out of belief. Most did so out of calculating ambition (I remember Michael Howard's spectacles blazing with insincerity), or out of fear for their jobs and seats. Among them were intelligent men and women who signed up to a primitivism which they privately despise. The hall stank of humbug.

So the deja vu here is no longer a miragerecollection of 'the usual Tory conference stuff'. A party is decomposing under our eyes, and the 'insane feeling' of familiarity comes from deeper buried, more distant times. The economics, with their obsession about 'money that keeps its value' and laissez-faire, are the classic economics of the Thirties which brought the world to misery and extremism. The vicious nonsense of Michael Howard's 27 points on crime and punishment recall Lord Liverpool's policies after 1815, without his excuse that there was a danger of revolution. The attitudes towards the rising tide of helpless destitution - Michael Portillo's 'undeserving poor' - amount to what the Germans call Ausburgerung - expulsion from the civil community: the poor have become another country, as the Irish peasantry did after the Potato Famine. The war against unmarried mothers which would have shocked the Victorian middle class takes the small-town vindictiveness, which every reformer has fought for two centuries, and promotes it into a principle of government. Even poor Douglas Hurd, who still believes in 'responsible' Conservatism, runs a no-involvement policy towards the Balkans which recalls the way another tall patrician, Lord Halifax, handled Europe during the rise of the dictators.

With Peter Lilley's speech about Europe and foreign scroungers, the 'giddy state which follows profuse bleeding' grows overpowering. What he said - for instance, his jeering xenophobia about foreigners on a 'Crook's Tour' of British benefits - has become notorious enough now. The point here is its cacophony of echoes from all the most despicable mistakes of the British past.

Through Lilley's mouth came the voices of those who colonised half the world and kept Jewish refugees out of Britain before the last war; the voices of those who said that the Huns would be beaten by Christmas or that the bean-eating Argies would be a walkover. We heard again those complacent asses of the 1950s who thought that Great Britain's wealth was envied by the beggarly Germans and Italians. We heard dead demagogues like Horatio Bottomley suggesting that foreign accents were evidence of criminal intent.

Peter Lilley's imitation of mio bambino Italians brought the house down at Blackpool. But it made me want to emigrate. It is one matter to feel angry with a government. To be made to feel absolutely humiliated by a government - to wish vainly that decent people in other countries may never find out what ministers in a British Cabinet are saying about them - is something which should never be forgiven.

'We want policies made in Britain, for Britain, by Britain's Parliament]' This is not Churchill defying Hitler in 1940. It is a junior Tory minister whose Cabinet colleagues signed the Single European Act and voted to ratify the Maastricht treaty's provisions for European Union. In this 'unpleasing hallucination', Little Englandism, the worship of parliamentary absolutism and sheer denial of reality combine into one formless howl of nostalgia.

At Blackpool, the Tory party sank lower than in living memory. But perhaps we do not have to emigrate after all, for the Government is preparing its own ship of fools. 'All aboard for a voyage into the gathering darkness of mid-

Atlantic, where we can forget about foreigners, sing school songs about the past and bully the spotty and weak without interference]'

Let them go] It saves the bother of drowning them. And without them - because it is not yet too late - something sober, just and modern can be built here.