Rage, rage against the dying of the right

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Maurice Cowling, the Cambridge historian whose teaching inspired a generation of leading Conservatives, is said to have advised them that they had three powerful weapons at their disposal: irony, geniality and malice. Armed with these, they went forth in the 1970s and 1980s to demolish consensus and collectivism and to impose on Britain their own distinctive values and ideology. And they were, as we know, successful.

They not only won the elections, they won, or appeared to win, the arguments. Their polemicists and commentators were triumphant and irresistible - even their enemies admitted they had the wittiest, cleverest pens. They also had a great advantage: the writer who attacks is inevitably more attractive than the writer who defends, and here for once it was the right who were the revolutionaries and iconoclasts.

As much by mockery as by criticism, they shredded the received wisdom of two generations so totally that today, like some Soviet bloc communist party ashamed of its past, Labour has had to become New Labour to survive. And always - or at least usually - there was irony, geniality and malice. For a decade and more they served the right brilliantly, but not any more. To browse the columns of the right-wing press today is to enter a different world, where a brutish bluntness prevails, an extremity of sentiment and absence of finesse which leaves the suspicion that almost every article could begin with "The Sun Says ..."

Gone is the thrill of ideas that are daring and heretical, if sometimes objectionable and mad. Now we have rage, a defensive, bitter rage tempered with intolerance, xenophobia and worse.

Consider the response to the re-election of Bill Clinton. Even before it happened, Barbara Amiel was fulminating in the Daily Telegraph against what she called "Clintonia", a country which she insisted was permeated by an "ambience organised by an ideological axis that runs from feminist gay environmentalists through to the neo-Victorian statist fog". The best thing that could happen to the United States, she argued sourly, was another four years of Clinton, because that way the voters would be left in no doubt of the mistake they had made.

Paul Johnson, writing in the Daily Mail, declared that President Clinton was "a sleazeball". He was also "shifty, superficial, cynical, unscrupulous and disreputable". And he was "an irresponsible lightweight".

A Daily Telegraph writer offered disappointed readers a perverse hope: "Bereft of ideas and policies, hobbled by a Republican Congress and a determined Whitewater prosecutor, Mr Clinton faces an awful four years." Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Washington reporter Ambrose Evan-Pritchard informed us in despairing tones that it was "eerie to watch the American people sleepwalking over a cliff".

All this outrage prompted some entirely unconvincing enthusiasm for special prosecutors, investigative journalism and political probity which was completely absent, for example, in the age of Ronald Reagan and Iran- Contra, Nixon and Watergate and, for that matter, Britain's own arms-to- Iraq imbroglio. It has also on occasions produced something uglier than hypocrisy.

Paul Johnson, writing of Clinton, declared: "Arkansas, whence he comes, is a dodgy state. I remember thinking at the time [of his election in 1992], `Any man who has been elected Governor of Arkansas five times cannot be entirely an honest man'."

Many columnists seem to have been issued with atlases locating such "dodgy states". Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and many others have failed at various times to live up to the high standards of the British right. And, of course, Ireland.

"As soon as you arrive in Ireland, you leave the modern world," wrote Bruce Anderson in the Mail a week ago. "Every mile you travel west of Dublin is also a mile west of the 20th century. By the time you arrive at Castlebar, Co Mayo, you have reached a timeless region. This is a pre- 20th century economy, based on the pig and potato and presided over by the priest. Wholly rural, it would seem to have nothing to do with the sophisticated machinery of the European Union in Brussels.

"But not so. Because of the bizarre machinery of EU politics, a Castlebar boy now occupies a crucial position. Padraig Flynn, who has been European Commissioner for Social Affairs for the past three years, was brought up in West Mayo. During his adult life, he has never moved beyond the intellectual confines of West Mayo: limited, bigoted, anti-modern."

The message is clear: West Mayo, like Arkansas, is the wrong place to be from. To be born there is an inescapable handicap, a permanent disqualification from influence. All you are entitled to hope for is a life of pigs, priests and potatoes.

Just three more points. 1. Last week Ms Amiel, apropos of the Gascoigne affair, defended the right of every wife to be beaten if she consented. Society, she argued, should not interfere until it was unavoidable or sought by one of the parties, and "that moment cannot be decided by ideology - whether chauvinist, statist, feminist or plain busybodiness".

2. In the Spectator 10 days ago, Paul Johnson wrote about the film Michael Collins, and wondered aloud why it was that the hero of the film, though a guerrilla leader, was not known to have killed anyone himself. One explanation he aired was that "as a superstitious papist, he may have believed that it was less sinful to order a crime than to carry it out".

3. Last week Johnson was at it again: "I will shortly be explaining," he promised, "why I used the term `fraudulent' about the Church of England - or the Church of Sodom as I am now forced to call it."

What we are witnessing here is the right at an intellectual low point, falling back on prejudice and spite where all else has failed.

Clinton's victory, and even more so his second victory, is an affront to their world view however they look at it. Either the old order they destroyed has risen up to mock them, or their right-wing clothes have been cynically stolen from them. Just you wait and see, they are saying, you'll be sorry you didn't listen to us.

The truth is that the polemicists have become the ancien regime, but they have no taste for the drudgery of defence. Tied to a 17-year-old Tory government they no longer believe in, and denied a Labour government they can attack, they have chosen to be for nothing and against everything. Consumed instead by a directionless rage, they are reduced to doing something they have so long despised in film-makers, artists and writers - shocking for effect.