The time is coming when the Left will again lead the Tory party
MATTHEW PARR IS
Iwas invited recently to a short symposium organised by the Tory Reform Group. Late for the gathering. I had in my confusion remembered only where I was supposed to be and when — ten minutes ago, as usual. In my confusion I had forgotten the symposium's subject.
But, as I entered, one of the other panellists, Matthew d'Ancona, was already on his feet and speaking as originally as he always does. I gathered from his remarks that our theme was 'One Nation Conservatism — the last quarter-century and the next'. Peter Kellner, the equally thoughtful Labour-leaning psephologist and writer, was next. Our chairman, Tim Sainsbury, whispered an indication that I should speak after Mr Kellner.
I spotted in the audience Peter Walker and Jim Lester, grandee and baby grandee of Margaret Thatcher's never trusted yet ever valued Wets.
This was a bleak time for Tory pinkos, whom I support as Lord Melbourne claimed to support the Church of England, 'not as pillar but a bulwark: from the outside'. What, among this exalted company, could I say in five minutes that might be useful and encouraging without being trite? These men and women had done more for the cause, and knew more of the cause, than I ever would.
Peter Kellner, one guessed, would be politely encouraging; he would suggest that the Tory Left carried the ark of the covenant of decent Conservatism, and have a bit of a go at some of the others. Anthony Howard (who was to speak last) would offer illumination from the past, from old friendships, and from the long study and the personal acquaintance of an insider. I was never an insider and never would be.
So what could I say? I know what One Nation Tories want to believe: that theirs is their party's true flame which, should it flicker and die, would presage the death of modern Conservatism; that the Tory Right is an unfortunate aberration, a kind of madness, potentially fatal. There is truth in this, but it also misses a truth; a truth that the party's Left half sense but would rather not confront.
One Nation Toryism is not a driving force, but a defence-mechanism. It is a very necessary defence-mechanism, absolutely critical to the survival of the ungrateful party which it protects. It is presently endangered, frail and deserving of all the
help we can give it. But in the end it is not what the Conservative party is for.
The Right understand better what their party is for, but understand not at all what concessions must be made to get it. The Tory party on the whole is in modern politics to protect and foster success and the successful. Its atavistic and ancient support for the landed and the gentry has been extended in the last century to trade, commerce and industry, too; to the professions, the bourgeoisie, to those on the make as well as those who have already made it. On the whole the forces of Conservatism are on the side of talent, of energy, of ambition, of hard work, of privilege acquired and privilege striven for. These are the red blood cells of the Conservative party; these carry the oxygen, and so many of the new ideas.
Of course, aspirational people are to be found in all classes and walks of life, so rich versus poor would be a gross distortion of the historic football match: it isn't any longer the old Mandan class war. Within every part of society are to be found those hopeful or confident of their prospects, and those less so. That part of the Tory voice which you can call distinctive calls most strongly, I believe, and most authentically to the former. This is why the word 'opportunity' has such resonance for a modem Conservative.
But the aspirational and the already privileged parts of society are not the whole nation. They may be a minority, or no more than a bare majority. Outside their ranks there will always be the unambitious, the lazy, the stupid, the envious, the injured and millions of people who, often without deserving their fate, are never going to achieve much, and know it. The party which represents success must therefore always walk in fear of the rest. Since the French Revolution at least, fear of the mob has never been far from the back of the minds of Tory politicians and their supporters among the electorate.
That is where the white blood cells come in. One Nation Toryism whispers 'tread carefully'. 'Never forget the rest', 'gently does it', and `so far and no further' are its themes. Its champions within the party, like any useful antibody, may be perfectly unaware of their allotted role and be motivated by pure altruism, by kindness and the best of human feelings; but their value to their party is as a shield and that is why it needs them. Fear is not what drives a One Nation Tory, but fear is what drives his party to take notice of him.
Few of the good and original new ideas of Tory government over the last half-century have come from its Left. Most of the folly at which it has wisely stopped short has been avoided at the Left's insistence. Typically, the Right has proposed, the Left disposed.
All this I tried to say. But, as I said it, it struck me that, for a celebration of a quarter-century dispatched and a quarter-century to come, the message was rather downbeat. To suggest to a group of good men and women that their function within their party was to run against the grain, to betray its own instincts, warn against its own desires and protect it from itself, may be fair comment but lacks the uplift of a clarion call. Where was the the sound of the trumpet?
And then it struck me. What is Tony Blair and `new' Labour but the mirrorimage, on the Left, of the picture I had drawn on the Right?
Mr Blair and his modernisers represent the immune system of our ancient Labour party, kicking in just when many of us had judged the patient beyond recovery. Your Blairs and Mandelsons do not beat with the heart of their party; its historic mission to the downtrodden and the weak is a tune they have learnt to whistle but it is not really their song, and never sounds right from them. They whistle Tory tunes more convincingly.
But their party knows it needs them. Though they betray it, they are a necessary treachery, clutched to its breast so that it should survive.
And now they lead it!
Time and again the Conservative party has chosen as its leaders men who were traitors to pure Toryism. Its disposition to choose them is a sign of a lively instinct for self-preservation. It will do so again.
Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.