Save us from this culture of contempt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT ITS climax, Michael Port-EEL-yo's speech to Conservative Way Forward on Friday had a lengthy quotation from Ulysses's famous disquisition on 'degree' in Troilus and Cressida. This might have sounded well over dinner, if a touch incomprehensible out of context.

Mr Portillo gave a gloss in advance to the effect that Ulysses 'explains how order in society depends on relationships of respect and duty from top to bottom'.

Well, so he does. Ulysses believes that society is like a beehive. So, if you want to live in a beehive, Portillo's your man. The society Ulysses talks about is as far from our own as to believe that the sun is a planet of the earth. Back to basics means: back to good old Ptolemaic astronomy.

Astrology, too. Ulysses believes that 'when the planets / In evil mixture to disorder wander', that is when plagues, hurricanes, earthquakes and so forth happen. If the past two months have been the wettest in a decade, and if the Conservative Party is in turmoil, both of these facts may be attributed to the planets not observing 'degree'. The fires that nearly consumed Sydney were caused by the same planetary fecklessness as that little local difficulty involving Dame Shirley Porter and Teresa Gorman.

People should know their place, just as the planets should - that is what Ulysses says. In the very passage which Mr Portillo quoted, a plea was made on behalf of 'degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities' - that is, respect for academic rank and for the senior members of guilds (for which the obvious modern equivalent would be the trade unions). But it has been a point of pride with Conservatives that they respect neither academic rank nor union hierarchy. How extraordinary that Mr Portillo should have opened his Shakespeare for a random quote, and come up with something so quintessentially anti-Thatcherite.

Mr Portillo told his audience that 'the relations which hold society together stretch from top to bottom. If Crown, Parliament and Church are not respected, neither will be law, judges or policemen, nor professors nor teachers nor social workers, nor bosses, managers or foremen.'

But the Conservatives do not respect the Church. The only church they ever respect is a biddable Tory church. If they respected the bishops, they would obey them and try to mend their ways. They would change their social priorities. They would feel ashamed of their record.

But ever since the end of the Falklands war when Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury (who, at the outset, had written an article on the concept of a just war), refused to celebrate the victory as such, Margaret Thatcher's contempt for the Church of England has been palpable, and it has passed into common Tory parlance.

Nor is it at all likely that the present Prime Minister gives the church much thought. He was not brought up in any church. The best Penny Junor can manage, in her book The Major Enigma, is to tell us that 'although essentially Christian, the Majors were not a church-going family - but Sunday lunch with a joint of meat was sacrosanct'. They worshipped flesh, it would appear, rather than the Word Made Flesh.

If we do not respect Crown, Parliament and Church, says Mr Portillo, we will not respect judges, teachers and social workers, among others. But the Conservatives have no respect for a judge if he goes against their wishes (as Lord Howe's treatment of the Scott inquiry served notice), no respect for teachers, as John Patten regularly makes clear; and a contempt for social workers comes in handy for every Tory from Mr Major down.

As for a contempt for Crown, Parliament and Church, who better to turn to than Baroness Thatcher: no friend of the Anglicans, famous for arrogating the royal We, in contempt of the sovereign, and utterly contemptuous both of Parliament and of the Scott inquiry's researches into that contempt.

Hers was an age of contempt. No institution could escape it. Local government, the universities, the public services, the BBC - all were held in contempt. There always seems to have been some destructive soul at hand, someone who could catch and interpret the spirit of the time - such as Elizabeth Esteve- Coll at the Victoria and Albert Museum, or Jocelyn Stevens at English Heritage.

If one feels tired of that culture, it is not that one feels tired of, say, education; one feels tired of contempt. Oxford did not deny Mrs Thatcher an honorary degree because it had ceased to believe in Oxford. It looked at Thatcher and saw someone who held it in contempt - it and everything it seriously valued.

The trick of those who go on about the vices of political correctness is, by a cunning deployment of mirrors, to make the persecutors look like the persecuted, and vice versa. Political correctness is a term covering a number of ideas, some very fine, some stupid, that have failed as yet to secure a strong foothold. I saw a placard the other day which I thought expressed this perfectly. It said: 'Give PC a chance'. But it turned out to be something to do with personal computers.

In fact, we are coming out of a true age of political correctness, in which there really was a dominant set of ideas, in which every area of life was made thoroughly ideological, and which liked nothing better than the job of dismantling something the common man might have thought had some value.

Now that this historical, actual, effective PC is being blown to bits, the unrepentant heirs of Thatcherism, the keepers of the flame, look to Mr Portillo to maintain the persecution, to keep up the contempt. Mr Portillo sits down and asks himself: what is left to hold on to? What really matters? What are the basics? And he decides that what is basic is Britishness, the belief in our selves, the belief that we do things best.

Someone, somehow, has undermined this belief. Our free press, perhaps? But in other countries, says Mr Portillo, a free press has not led to such a mood of self-denigration. 'Americans believe in the American dream. They are as self-confident as ever, as content about the superiority of their national institutions.'

Odd, that. I thought America had been in the grips of an enormous debate. When Mr Portillo says other countries do not go in for these moods of self-criticism, I find that odd, too. I think of the mood in Germany, which is never far from self-critical. Or I think of Italy, where the critics of the state put their lives on the line - lost their lives, some of them - but seem to be winning the argument.

I think back to the vapidity of Mr Portillo whingeing, in effect, about the latest press treatment of the Conservatives and their achievements, and trying to turn this whinge into an analysis of a New British Disease.

Here stands this bright hope of the horrible, whingeing about his country and then having the nerve to whinge about people who whinge about their country. Oh God, give us some respite from these Tory whingers; give us some respite from their culture of contempt.