LEADING ARTICLE: One Nation Tories in search of a home

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The Independent Online
On Thursday night the great She-Elephant stopped for a brief moment to trumpet her defiance at the rest of the world. This week some minor Tories, like outraged gnats, have taken to the wing, buzzing with shrill indignation at all the noise.

One of these was the "One Nation" minister Alistair Burt, who wrote to the Times complaining of the "breathtaking exclusiveness" of Baroness Thatcher's political horizon. She was, in his view, a class warrior who was wishing upon her party the fate reserved by the electorate for all class warriors - defeat.

The trouble is that her attack upon the One Nation Tories has exposed a former emperor with no clothes, for the Tory left no longer has much of an idea what it stands for. David Hunt (once the great hope of the wets) spoke of the need to hold on to the centre ground of British politics, to attract the 40 per cent of the vote needed for victory, for "the centre ground is our ground". Fine as far as it goes, but it goes no farther than pointing out the electorally obvious. We are promised a more coherent defence of traditional Tory values from the Macleod Group of backbenchers, the modern inheritors of One Nation Conservatism. It has the task of not merely rebutting Lady Thatcher but also proving that defectors such as Emma Nicholson and Alan Howarth were wrong to desert the party.

It is a tall order because it is not clear what One Nation Toryism stands for beyond a more compassionate conservatism. In the past, it was a marriage between a Tory defence of British institutions (including the system of checks and balances that inhibited the executive) and a centre-right commitment to a paternalistic version of the post-war consensus on the welfare state. But Thatcherism and the market have dealt body-blows to these favoured institutions of the wets and where they survive, in the health service and social security, they are crying out for reform. Even the exiled standard-bearer of left-wing Toryism, Chris Patten, has waded in from Hong Kong to put a big question-mark over how much of the welfare burden the state ought to bear.

Pro-Europeanism is too narrow to sustain a political philosophy with popular appeal. This need not mean that One Nation Tories have nothing to say on the subject. Indeed, the Conservative left plays a vital role in challenging the xenophobia of its right-wing. MPs such as George Walden have been the most articulate critics of the Portillista dislike of foreigners. Others have worried openly about the populist nature of the Howard penal agenda, and wondered whether, say, the shackling of women prisoners is really an essential feature of modern Toryism. If these mutterings and musings were taken up by a conviction politician, they could be turned into a moral and political crusade. But One Nationists are not crusaders, so they are left just wringing their hands. There is a further difficulty. There is already a home for those who oppose the illiberality of the current administration. And Emma Nicholson has just gone to live there.