19 MAY 2001, Page 12

Peter Hitehens says the middle classes are abandoning their principles:

they got used to wealth during the Thatcher years and now believe that Tony Blair is the best man to keep them in gold cards

MIDDLE-CLASS treason threatens to sink the Tories. It is among the executive homes and the gated estates, where two or three cars are gathered on the same driveway, that you will find the abstainers, the Liberal Democrats, the tactical voters and, incredibly, the Blairites. Too rich to care about principle, tradition, loyalty or anything like that, they accept the government on its own terms and either support it or are indifferent to its deeper purposes. They pretend to be put off William Hague by his lack of hair, his alleged short stature or his funny voice, but they are not really so stupid as to be influenced by these things. Margaret Thatcher, whom they once supported, had positively frightening hair and a deeply peculiar voice; neither was she at all loveable.

These cheap sneers at poor Mr Hague, who is actually almost six foot tall, are irrational excuses for something of which they are secretly slightly ashamed. The As and Bs are voting with their gold cards, not their consciences. Yet Anthony Blair's pose as a man of compassion allows them to kid themselves that a New Labour vote will mark them as 'caring', the noisy public pretence of generosity and decency that has replaced real morality in post-Christian Britain.

As if to symbolise the defection of the Volvo classes, the fabulously wealthy exTory Shaun Woodward last week parachuted elegantly into the safe Labour seat of St Helens South, his butler drifting earthwards at his side, the perfect emblem of affluence clothed in self-righteousness, turning its back on the past without even bothering to look embarrassed. Mr Woodward is a wonderful poster-boy for the rich switchers because, like them, he never really seems to have believed in much, or suffered from any strong opinions. If his new party is right, he was until recently an uncaring brute who despised the poor and weak and sought to keep them in subjection and misery so as to provide tax cuts for the already wealthy. If he really believed that, he would be mortifying his soul and body in penitence, rather than merely abandoning his table at the Ivy for a few weeks spent patronising the people of Merseyside. But of course he doesn't believe it, any more than Mr Blair's exThatcherite swing-voters think they used to be greedy exploiters. War, poverty and injustice often bring great ideas to birth. Fat, peaceful times only fertilise banality and self-seeking.

The sad truth is that, while Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph may have believed fervently that they were fighting the battle for liberty and saving the nation from the serfdom of state power. few of her own supporters, and fewer still of her millions of voters, saw it quite the same way. They liked the money and the tax cuts; they liked the increased efficiency of things — even though it was more real than apparent — but they had no great interest in rolling back the frontiers of the state for its own sake. As long as the Berlin Wall stood, and as long as the concrete-headed bullies of union power were a real and visible force in the land, they could see that there was a foe who threatened everything they loved and who had to be defeated. But with the Wall down and Arthur Scargill banished to his Yorkshire bunker, the last enemy had been destroyed and they could just carry on getting and spending. Horrible though it is to admit it, the jibes of the 'alternative' comedians about `Loadsamoney', and the conviction shared by almost everyone under 30 that Toryism was just a cover for greed, were truer than they ought to have been.

A few may have felt that they stood for unselfish patriotism, morality, manners and obligation. When they said that there was no such thing as society, they meant that the free individual should not farm out his conscience and his obligations to the state. But practical Thatcherism did nothing to encourage them; on the contrary it did much to undermine the ideas and institutions that might have encouraged a real, moral individualism. The Tory party in government quite deliberately avoided several important battles on issues of principle, and that failure caused its current collapse.

Most miserable of all was the unspeakably hesitant and weak performance on education, influenced by short-sighted, suburban self-seeking. As far back as the 1960s, many Conservative MPs were afraid to defend the 11-plus and the grammar schools, because too many of their own voters feared that their children would fail the examination. By the time Mrs Thatcher came to office in 1979, it was quite obvious that the comprehensive experiment had failed the nation's children and that its only purpose was to turn out millions of natural Labour voters, indoctrinated to loathe competition and success, filled with anti-family propaganda by permissive sex education, and encouraged to be dependent upon the state.

Yet in the following 18 years of Conservative rule, not one new grammar school was opened, and the idea of selection by ability was introduced only in carefully camouflaged forms. The occasional grand gesture did nothing to halt the general radical trend of comprehensive schooling. Instead of trying to restore faith, rigour, discipline and the other essentially conservative aspects of education, the Thatcher–Major regime continued Labour's war on knowledge by other means, destroying the serious and testing 0-level exam and replacing it with the wretched GCSE, while creating dozens of new 'universities' whose only purpose seems to have been to disguise youth unemployment. Grant-main tamed schools, half-heartedly selective and often obstructed by Labour apparatchiks, were all too easily dragged back into state servitude by David Blunkett. The new schools inspectorate, Ofsted, was an essentially Stalinist tool designed to belabour and frighten a system whose bias against selection and quality meant that actual education could take place only where outstanding individuals and institutions fought against the odds. The national curriculum, twisted around by the liberal education establishment, became a weapon in their unending battle to stamp out good state schools wherever they dared to survive.

But the middle classes were not as angry as they should have been. They lived in the prosperous catchment areas of 'good' state schools, high in the league tables, or they could afford to go private. Independent schools, once seriously threatened by the success of the grammars, profited handsomely from the swarms of refugees from bog-standard comprehensives, and benefited even more from the GCSEs, in which their disciplined and selected pupils could achieve high grades without breaking sweat, so securing all the top places in the league tables and a great deal of free advertising. A principled battle would have been much harder to fight, not least because it would have meant telling middle-class children and parents alike that they were being cheated — something people often prefer not to know.

The second great cultural defeat was in the BBC It remains utterly baffling that the Tories should have appointed the Laboursupporting John Birt to run an organisation that was already tilted so heavily in favour of everything that threatened conservative Britain. They seem to have thought that unleashing the market on the corporation was enough, though the whole point of the BBC was that it was supposed to be protected from the downward pull of commerce. A real battle, to restore its Reithian soul, and especially to strengthen and encourage the many honourable people who still believed in impartiality and high culture, was just too difficult to fight. The Birt revolution merely made everyone in the corporation permanently and bitterly hostile to Toryism, destroyed for ever any chance that impartiality could be restored, and pushed serious broadcasting to the margins as programmemakers pursued ratings with a fervour that makes the American networks seem restrained.

Back in the early 1950s the Tory government had ignored all warnings about the danger television posed to culture, and had licensed commercial television. It did not seem to occur to them that high culture, with its respect for learning, order, hierarchy and tradition, was their friend. The spread of wealth did not — as it should have done — mean that more and more people were able to enjoy a more thoughtful, literate and civilised life. The opposite happened. With television profitably cheering it on, the trash culture of coarseness and public humiliation spread upwards. Once, Welsh miners formed Bach choirs and studied Shakespeare because they wanted a more abundant world; now the wealthy suburbs watch Big Brother and The Weakest Link.

But the worst retreat of all was over the family, where the Thatcher government announced — through Nigel Lawson's tax system — that it didn't care if parents were married or not, and at one stage actively favoured the unwed over the wed through mortgage interest relief. The battle between the family and the state, raging ever since the BBC screened its revolutionary dramas such as Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, was not just a question for moralists. It was — even more than taxation or property ownership — the point at which privacy and freedom came into direct conflict with government power. A weaker family did not just mean less parental power over children and less parental control over what they were taught in schools. It meant that for a growing number of people the state usurped the role of husband and father. As in almost everything else, it did the job very badly and very expensively. The permissive society — with its multitudes of single parents — bred mass dependency on government and forced up taxation (the social costs of divorce alone soak up the entire product of the tax on petrol), and created the swollen armies of social workers and bureaucrats whose vacancies fatten the Wednesday supplement of the Guardian.

As they madly privatised the railways, the Tories even more madly nationalised childhood. It was the permissive society, which they recklessly encouraged, that helped to turn so many fatherless children into subteen drug-takers, car thieves, vandals and burglars. It was the encouragement to women to go out and become wage slaves, abandoning their young to the care of paid strangers, which left so many poor children with no source of discipline and guidance in their lonely and abandoned lives, and which made two incomes compulsory for a normal existence. Did the ABs care — I mean really care — in the sense that they would actually change their own behaviour and forgo riches to prevent these things? Most

ly, they did not. They were doing well. The value of the house was still rising, the highcrime areas were still far away, Europe meant a holiday in the sun in a tasteful country house, while the Brussels superstate was a distant and poorly understood bogeyman whose relevance they could not see.

And because they did not mind then, they do not mind now. They think that Mr Blair will provide them with `Loadsamoney', just as Mrs Thatcher did and as John Major crucially failed to do. They believe Blair's claim that the only real difference between him and the Tories is that he cares more. They do not yet grasp what this caring really means, that there really is a Third Way, that if Mr Blair does not know what he is doing, he is surrounded by people who do. They do not notice that the 40 per cent 'higher' tax rate is fast becoming the standard rate, that VAT will soon let rip, that the constitutional changes they have barely noticed are an assault on their freedoms that will soon reach deep into their lives, that the minimum wage will grow from a furry, loveable pussycat into a job-destroying tiger and the social chapter will eventually destroy their business and their prosperity, that joining the euro will convert their savings into drachmas, pesetas and escudos, and force them to pay the unfunded pensions of German and Italian civil servants.

And as the crime spawned by permissiveness reaches even into the most secluded cul-de-sac, they will find that an egalitarian government is neutral between victim and offender, so that while they cannot defend themselves, there is nobody out there to protect them. Don't care will be made to care then. But by that time power will have fled elsewhere, to office blocks in the Rhineland and the Low Countries where nobody gives a damn what they think or how they vote. And they will grasp, years too late, that the time when they should have cared was now. How strange and how sad that I should be writing this when the general election is still more than a fortnight away, with no great hope that it will make any difference.

Peter Hitchens writes for the Mail on Sunday.