Power without respect palls for the Tories

Share
Related Topics
SOMETHING odd is going on in the Conservative Party. Granted, this may not have been the most glorious of weeks for this ancient ruling institution. But the despair and pessimism among many of its brightest backbenchers and ministers is out of all proportion to any conventional assessment of the state of parties. They are powerful; but they seem, somehow, self-doubting in their power.

As they trudge round the Commons after canvassing in the local elections, right-wing ministers, 'One Nation' warhorses and Thatcherite members of the class of '92 are mouthing the same message: it's all over; we are doomed to lose the next general election; we'll be out of power for a decade. A typical comment, which I have heard in several variants, was: 'I used to pity people like Gerald Kaufman and Roy Hattersley, wasting the best years of their lives in utterly futile opposition. Now I think I'm going to face the same fate.'

These are all politically astute and serious politicians, not natural panickers. They have heard a lot of hostility and have been genuinely shocked by it. Big deal.

The central factors that favour the Tories - the economic cycle, demographic and geographical shifts, the new electoral boundaries and, above all, the split Opposition - remain as powerful as ever. The despair of senior Labour politicians is just as acute as that of the Tory pessimists, and more logical. Yes, the European civil war inside the Conservative movement is debilitating. But even so, it is far more likely than not that John Major will win a fifth victory.

So why this Tory angst, this despairing introspection, this deep, dark weariness?

Perhaps it is really about the ageing of the Tory movement, which has left its rebellious Thatcherite youth behind and finds itself in stolid, virtually unchallenged possession of power. Glad confident morning no more? Instead, the dullness of middle-aged success, encased in a staid legislature?

After all, on the big issues of the day, from Europe to monetary policy to foreign policy, there are no substantial gaps between the front benches. Dissent is banished to the fringes of parties. As one cabinet minister put it this week, Parliament has ceased to be a genuine mirror of the nation in all its turbulent variety. It has become the placid senate of the middle-of-the-road and the comfortably-off. Labour, struggling to regain the respect of Middle England, has lost its angry edge. Faced by the terrible prospect of a semi-permanent Tory ascendancy, its leaders feel they have no choice but to follow.

Rightly, perhaps, from their point of view. But the result is that all those excluded from power, wealth or influence no longer look automatically to the Commons or to conventional political parties for redress. They express their anger or fear through single-issue campaigns, which do not seek to rule the country and therefore have fewer scruples in pursuing one narrow interest. 'Opposition' finds itself increasingly in such groups, from the mainstream to the extreme; in the media; and internalised, in the unfocused anger of individuals. This is bad news, for these kinds of opposition are futile compared to parties. And not only futile; the quality of their opposition is lower. Parties that seek to become governments must weigh competing interests. They suggest impractical remedies at their peril. They must be, or aspire to be, responsible. The rest of us - animal rights campaigners, environmentalists, journalists, satirists, peers, whatever - are under no such constraints. Compared to a big political party seeking power, we are, we must be, irresponsible. We jab government. Quite often, we influence it, though not always for the better. But we cannot aspire to it.

Something quite deep has gone wrong with the system. Instead of society's battle-lines being drawn on the floor of the Commons, they now appear between the governing class - above all the Tory hierarchy, but Parliament, too - and the governed.

A truly Conservative party would be terrified by such a development. It would be seeking to reopen Parliament to the discontented. (But in practice, that would mean reform of the voting system, which this government will not contemplate.) It would be rebuilding local democracy. (But again, that would mean handing over powers. And power held for a long period makes the powerful timid.)

Now it may seem, on this morning of all mornings, a curious thing to be talking about the problems of a too-powerful government. It may seem downright perverse to turn straight from the gloom of rattled Tory MPs to the rot of single-party government. But these are the big realities, as our political system rigidifies. And alert Tories have noticed them, as well as everyone else.

They know something is wrong. Many of them hope it is Mr Major who has gone wrong, since he can at least be replaced. But the trouble is deeper-rooted, and some know it. Hearing their pessimism, you almost wonder if they do not yearn to be defeated and to shake off the ageing burden of power without respect.

Did any of them, as they paced from hostile doorstep to hostile doorstep, recall Samuel Johnson? 'A Tory does not wish to give more real power to Government; but that Government should have more reverence.' Did they reflect that they were soliciting votes for a centralising government with a hard hold on power but lacking popular affection? Despite this week, the Tories are likely to be in power for a long time. But it may feel more like a sentence than a reward.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf heads the inquiry  

Why should Fiona Woolf be expected to remember every dinner date?

Mark Steel
Several police officers walk near downtown Ottawa  

Nigel Farage on the Ottawa shooting: It could just as easily happen on the streets of London

Nigel Farage
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?