Now anyone can be Nelson Mandela

Lord Tebbit's absurd empathy with black South Africans is a sign of the Tory descent into confusion `There is an awful lot of fear sloshing around, an awful lot of alienation'
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"Today," says Lord Tebbit, "no campaign here to change the law can succeed. Today I begin to understand how it must have felt to be a South African black. I begin to understand how it was that Nelson Mandela was not able to tell black South Africans that it was their duty to obey the law."

Striking, isn't it, what impulses we need to give that extra little jolt to the imagination? All the time that apartheid was in place, Lord Tebbit had no ability to understand what it was like for the blacks. You might have shouted until you were blue in the face. You might have presented him with facts, films, photographs, every sort of documentation. But somehow it never clicked. Somehow that ability to empathise was never cranked into action. It shuddered a little. It coughed once or twice. Then it fell silent.

And yet, and yet ... It appears the Tebbit brain was able to store away the facts of the experience for retrospective empathy. Once apartheid was over, once Nelson Mandela belonged to everybody (instead of to some stigmatised section of the left), once the whole issue might be thought to belong to the past - then it could be a stimulus to self-pity. As if the history of South Africa was like the tunes blown on the frozen horn in the Baron Munchausen story. Once the horn was hung above the tavern fire, the tunes began to thaw and to play themselves for the entertainment of the guests.

Note also the charming implication - accidental, no doubt - that South African blacks themselves belong to the past. "Today I understand how it must have felt to be a South African black", or a slave in the American South, or a 5th-century Athenian. No doubt the Young Conservatives whom Lord Tebbit was addressing thought to themselves, "Yes, goddamit, that's exactly how it feels. Amazing how he manages to put his finger on it, to express the inexpressible longing of my people for freedom, justice and human dignity."

Lord Tebbit went on: "My view is that in a democratic state where laws may be changed by the democratic process, there can be no hesitation in saying even unjust laws must be obeyed. But we are now drifting - perhaps being driven - into a situation in which more and more people will regard the decrees emanating from our masters in Brussels as unjust laws."

This is a veiled invitation to sedition, and as such should perhaps be nipped in the bud. Indeed, it would appear that Lord Tebbit is asking, is hinting, that a little persecution would not come amiss. He is Nelson Mandela. He is Mahatma Gandhi. He is Emily and Sylvia Pankhurst.

We are "drifting - perhaps being driven". It sounds sinister enough, as if there may just possibly be forces at work of whose character we are as yet unaware, but which have their own programme, their own destructive logic. And it is these as yet unidentified forces which are about to undermine the legal basis of civil society.

Mr Tebbit fears for the law. Charles Wardle, late of the Department of Trade and Industry, fears the abolition of internal borders within Europe will come to include Britain and will bring about massive immigration, which will in turn put an intolerable strain on our social services. Jonathan Aitken fears a single currency. There is an awful lot of fear sloshing around in Conservative circles, an awful lot of alienation, and this makes it hard for the Marcus Foxes and Jeremy Hanleys of the administration, as they rush from studio to studio saying: nothing's happening, this is all being got up by the media, there you go again inventing things, taking remarks out of context, making mischief ...

At the heart of all this fear is the dismaying sense that the country is going to the dogs. This can be a powerful feeling to suffer from, but it is by no means always rational. Philip Larkin, you may remember, suffered from it greatly, and in a strongly irrational form about which he wrote in "Going, going". He thought England would be inadvertently destroyed:

"And that will be England gone,

The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,

The guildhalls, the carved choirs ..."

In fact, it was highly unlikely that anyone would pull a guildhall down, and as for the carved choirs, they were probably safer at the time Larkin wrote worriedly about them than in any previous century. But Larkin felt that everything he valued was going to go. He could not justify this feeling - "I just think it will happen, soon" - but he could give vent to it. It is hard not to sympathise with that feeling, mutatis mutandis. I get it every time I think about the destruction of, say, a teaching hospital: something is being inadvertently hacked to bits, something of highly complex and intangible value.

But this difference between my feeling, as a non-Tory, and a Tory's feeling, is that I have no problem in locating the blame, whereas a Tory has to find an enemy - a potent, complex and absorbing enemy. For it is hard to come to the conclusion that one is the villain of the story that one is being told. The villain must lie elsewhere. Maybe the villain is in Brussels.

For the non-Tory, irritating as Brussels may sometimes be, it nevertheless presents an occasionally valuable counterweight to the government in power. The idea that there exists a further legal tier - somewhere else to appeal to - is not an uncomfortable feeling. The idea that there may be funding available from non-Tory government sources, that one might look to Europe for assistance not forthcoming from Westminster - that is quite the opposite of threatening.

My impression is that increasing numbers of people in Britain are already living mentally in a post-Tory world, a world which has its own values not set by either this Government or its party, a world in which the continuing existence of a Conservative government at Westminster is an odd paradox, an irritating impediment. One would like to get on with the next phase of one's life, but one is being held back by the people who happen, by chance, to be still in office.

It is their knowledge that they belong to the past, that they are "corpses on leave", that induces such melancholy in these Tories, that makes them so full of vague general dread. That is why they quarrel so much, why the Cabinet has taken to slapping itself in public, why the Prime Minister has managed to whittle down his own majority. The prospect of extinction does not concentrate their minds, it dissipates their concentration.

And Lord Tebbit wakes up with a strange feeling - he has become a black South African. Suddenly he knows alienation. Suddenly he knows helplessness, exclusion. He would be happier, we would all be happier, if the axe were allowed to fall and we could get on with the next stage of our lives.