The reactionary platitudes of Hague the moderniser

The Tories have embraced half-baked sociology based on fear and fantasy

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"SPEAKING LAST week to an invited audience of Pinochet supporters at the Rotherham branch of Opus Dei, the Leader of the Opposition set out his vision of a new, young Britain. Modern Britain, he said, enjoyed the jokes of Julian Clary as well as the prose of Archbishop Cranmer, the novels of Will Self and the essays of Dr Johnson, Blur and Oasis as well as Elgar and Walton. He himself was strongly attracted to the Manic Street Preachers. Modern Britain was a place fascinated by Michael Portillo holiday specials on TV. It welcomed the future while being respectful of the past. `We may talk about Calvin Klein trunks but we wear M&S Y-fronts,' he said. Britain was a land of chips and ciabatta, of pebble- dash and designer values, of Moss Bros and Versace, of Players full-strength and of high-quality hashish."

Perhaps William Hague's toe-curlingly awful thoughts on the Conservative future are beyond parody. Yet his speech delivered to the Centre for Policy Studies on Tuesday was important, for it showed the strength of the collective Conservative fantasy. Blairite Cool Britannia is now, apparently, rivalled by a tepid, Hagueite version. It is "urban, ambitious, sporty, fashion- conscious, multi-ethnic, brassy, self-confident and international". With the zeal of an astronomer watching some strange new planet swim into his ken, the opposition leader discovers people watch MTV and EastEnders. They thrive, he tells us excitedly, in "big industrial estates and housing estates".

Mr Hague's discovery of modernity has all the gaucherie of the curate with the guitar. His vignettes evoke a parodic version of "Britishness". "We laugh at others, but laugh more at ourselves. We love our animals more than we love each other." This, surely, is Britain as an Ealing comedy. It is also political prose at its self-serving, dishonest worst. Hague's "we" is intrusive. Who is he to claim political advantage from our choice of clothes, music, and food? We live in a time when whole areas of life have been de-politicised. Politicians are remote because there is less for them to do. "We" therefore see little of them. As an attempt at getting back into a world gone apolitical, the Hague sermon offers political values where they are least wanted.

For all its quivering, insincere embrace of modernity this was a speech of reactionary platitude. Half-baked sociology has now moved from the left to the right in British politics. Unappealing myths about national identity are served up by Mr Hague as daily Tory bread. He claims that "the individualism of family and of local identity" are uniquely British virtues. As opposed, presumably, to those unsatisfactory continentals with large families who run the Mafia. Mr Hague has been watching too many movies over Christmas. Family structures in modern Western Europe are pretty uniform as nuclear units. Where Britain leads the field is in its record-beating divorce rates - not, perhaps, the Eurosceptic's strongest card.

But it is when we turn to his picture of capitalism (known in polite society as "market-enterprise") and of Europe that this melange of politically correct conservatism reaches its fatuous climax. Hagueite Britain is uniquely virtuous. For this latter-day John of Gaunt it is an island set in a silvery sea. It believes in "voluntary associations" rather than the state and is blessed with an unusual openness and social mobility. By contrast, says the Conservative sociologist, "Europe" is corporatist. The Continent is ruled by a "European social model" - inspired, or corrupted, by anti-capitalist Catholic social teaching - which seems always to be hanging around street corners waiting for the unsuspecting Brit.

The problem for Mr Hague and his party is that the political history of Britain in the 20th century shows that we, too, are uneasy about capitalism. Casual talk about how Britain has been dominated politically by the Conservatives is misleading. The three most important general election victories of the century were the centre-left victories of 1906, 1945 and 1997. The new Liberals of 1906 followed by Lloyd George's war-time coalition, and Churchill's coalition followed by the Labour government of 1945, presided over a vast expansion of state activity. By Mr Hague's standards, the British in the 20th century have opted for a fair degree of mollycoddling. Baldwin and Churchill, Butler and Macmillan were reassuring Tory men presiding over Lib-Lab measures.

Dazzled by the memory of the Thatcher majorities, the heirs to the dilapidated Tory estate forget some simple truths. The Tories in 1983 and 1987 were the beneficiaries of a split on the left and won huge majorities with a lower proportion of the popular vote than they got in the 1950s. Even the much heralded Tory epiphany of 1979 yielded a majority of only 43. This is the country of the natural anti-Tory majority. A change to its voting system threatens to marginalise the Conservative Party in perpetuity. But the true threat to the Tories comes from within. When an ideological mirage divides you from reality, when you have a set of ready platitudes, formulaic responses and a dash of bad history with which to confront the world, you stop thinking. This is what has now happened to the Tories.

Their catalogue of British worthies and virtues - rugged and individualistic - seem to come straight from the Ladybird books of British history. A less convincing set of swashbucklers was never assembled than the ones sitting on the opposition front bench. Their "internationalism" is bogus - a mere synonym for craven pro-Americanism. They ignore the fact that sovereignty is a late modern invention of tight little European states - that system which came into being with the peace of Westphalia in 1648 and died in the rubble of Berlin in 1945.

Perhaps the least appealing of Mr Hague's observations was his attempt to make our flesh creep - like the Fat Boy in Dickens. He threatens us with dark forces - perhaps at the return home of those Florida holiday- makers he refers to so admiringly in his speech. English nationalism is "a sinister and uncontrollable force". Tony Blair "holding a dagger at the heart of what it is to be British" is playing with fire. A Cardiff assembly and an Edinburgh parliament will arouse savage English resentments.

This is the true craven populist at work. He is always ready to encourage nastiness in order to wrest advantage from it - while at the same time maintaining an air of offended virtue. Violent language is becoming a Hague speciality. Last year he told us that the European single currency was a burning building with no exits. The exchanges of Europe have survived the prophecies of this intemperate sibyl.

The old United Kingdom withered on the vine because the Tories ceased to be good custodians of that Union. Now their sole constitutional posture is one of a charmless and arid defence of the day before yesterday. Their one and only policy consists of a dogmatic anti-Europeanism fed on fantasy and fear. Mr Hague's "British Way" is a path to perdition.

`Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-97', by Hywel Williams, is published by Aurum Press.

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