Comment: The whining self-pity of the old right

Joan Smith@polblonde
Saturday 24 October 1998 23:02

OVER the years, I have got used to being unfashionable. The list of unpopular causes I support would fill the rest of this column, as would the names of people I would like to see, if not put up against a wall and shot, at least treated with liberal doses of their own medicine. In my ideal universe, pundits who fulminate against dole scroungers would be sent to sign on at a Jobcentre in the North-east and summoned to a series of humiliating interviews to explain their reluctance to do shift work for pounds 3 an hour in the local widget factory. Company directors who pay themselves vast salaries, while ruthlessly keeping down labour costs, would be forced to live on income support on a rundown council estate, with absolutely no hampers from Fortnum's allowed. Politicians who lecture single mothers about morality ... well, you get the idea.

Fortunately for the kind of people I am talking about, my fantasies have rarely been put into practice. Ten days ago I was having lunch at The Ivy in central London with a friend who, noticing my state of agitation, asked why I kept glancing suspiciously at diners at nearby tables. I told him I was keeping an eye out for General Augusto Pinochet, who has a fondness for swanky restaurants, with a view to carrying out a citizen's arrest. To my friend's relief, no former dictators were tucking into the squid-ink risotto - none that I recognised, at any rate - and our lunch proceeded to a peaceful conclusion. My astonishment, when someone rang a couple of days later with the news that the general really had been arrested in Britain, knew no bounds. "Did you have a hand in it?" she demanded, considerably overestimating my influence in these matters, though not my delight on hearing that the old brute had finally been detained.

To that pleasure has been added, over the last few days, the delicious spectacle of reactionary commentators in complete disarray. While I do not entirely trust Tony Blair's government to maintain a hands-off approach as the Spanish extradition request is processed in British courts, the arrest has sent shockwaves through a political establishment that had already begun to perceive that things are no longer going its way. Mr Blair's programme, cautious though it is, has little pockets of radicalism - the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy, the introduction of a minimum wage - which fill traditional Conservative voters, and their representatives in the media, with the utmost dismay.

The letters page of the Daily Telegraph came close to spontaneous combustion last week as readers grasped the symbolic meaning of what had just taken place. Causes they used to mock and dismiss, such as abuses of human rights in faraway dictatorships, are suddenly being taken seriously by the people in power. For the first time since the 1960s, a British government is taking tentative steps towards dismantling privilege, and the old guard's response has been to lurch between spluttering outrage and whining self-pity. This had already begun to happen before the constabulary felt General Pinochet's lavishlydecorated collar, so to speak. I got a glimpse of it a few weeks ago when, during a political argument with Sir Robin Day, he lost his temper and suddenly bombarded me with cries of "bollocks!" and "balls!" - a lapse from rational discourse which sounded like the howl of the dispossessed.

I'm not suggesting that we are witnessing the birth of a new world order, but the political climate in Britain has changed in a way that reflects the distant but detectable influence on the present government of a whole range of radical ideologies, from Marxism to gay rights to feminism. In that sense, the alteration is generational as well as political, which explains why Peter Mandelson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, spoke with uncharacteristic passion on a subject technically outside his remit after General Pinochet's arrest last weekend. Like many of us who are now in our 40s, Mr Mandelson came of age at a time when events in Chile were a terrifying demonstration of the danger, under some nightmarish regimes, of holding left-wing views. They also provided a sense of perspective, reminding us that widespread unpopularity, which the left in Britain had to endure throughout the Eighties, was not in the same league as the torture and beatings handed out to President Allende's supporters.

Of course, the right in Britain has had a very different experience, a long period of success which created a mistaken impression of entitlement - to office, to influence, to deference. Lady Thatcher's pompous letter to the Times last week exposed not just her vanity but her attachment to another era, one in which reactionary politicians could assume they would be taken seriously, no matter how foolish or ill-judged their remarks. The confusion of shadow cabinet members, when they were asked to respond to her intervention, suggests they no longer share her lunatic self-confidence. They are, for the moment, as terminally unfashionable as I used to be.

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