20 MAY 1995, Page 42

The vision thing

Matthew Parris

THINGS TO COME: THE TORIES IN THE 21ST CENTURY by John Patten Sinclair-Stevenson, i1Z99, pp. 255 Ilike and admire John Patten and had hoped there would be plenty to praise in anything he turned his hand to. His enemies (and they prowl for he has been splendidly rude about journalists) will have hoped for a work they could savage. But Things to Come is unlikely to excite either horror or wonder. It's a bit of a tangle.

Patten's aim has been to outline what he sees as the enduring principles of Conser- vatism, and then to offer examples and ideas for the future: something for the Party to ponder in the last years of this century. We are, so to speak, to scale the mountain with Mr Patten and, having admired the overall view, borrow his binoculars to zoom in on some interesting features of the landscape to which he draws our attention.

But why the expedition? Patten expends a good many pages railing against those who think Conservatism can work perfectly well without 'guiding principles' and it may be that he thinks the present leadership lacks vision. For myself I find more useful fuel in a quiet pint of Majorism than a gal- lon of froth about 'vision' with which his rivals are wont to erupt.

There is no shortage of speechmaking and literature these days about the 'mean- ing' of Conservatism. Patten wishes to add to it. I do not mean it cheaply when I spec- ulate that he feels he has more to offer the Party than the Party has yet asked him to demonstrate. This book is meant to stake his claim as a heavyweight on the tradition- al, moral, centre-right.

I wish he'd just say so. I am proud to belong to a Party which has a strong, moral centre-right and happy to acknowledge with a respectful bow, John's presence in its front ranks. But I don't like to be told that the Conservative Party is the tradition- al moral centre-right and that this is what it means to me, or ought to, to be a Tory. I am a Tory mostly because I am not a socialist, but also because the question `what's the Government going to do about it?' was provoking in me a fit of infant cholic when I was in my pram, drives me now into a wild irrational fury, and always will. Reading Things to Come I must tell Mr Patten that the question irritates me no less when it asks what the Government is `going to do' about rising divorce rates, the collapse of parental discipline, the increase in single-parenthood, the growth of Scottish nationalism — or the threat to rural life, traditional country pursuits, and the hereditary principle in the House of Lords.

I do not believe that the 'meaning' of Conservatism directs me, though it may direct him, to confer tax breaks on married couples or benefit penalties on single parents. I am able to remain a British Con- servative while suspecting that Scotland and Wales may one day want to go their own way: I shall just become an English Tory. I suspect that the sport of hunting animals is on its way out and indeed that we may be vegetarians, by choice, in 100 years. In all these things, Conservatism, for me, implies businesslike, competent Gov- ernment, running the shop, arguing on the whole against early State intervention, and with a preparedness to stand `You're making yourself look ridiculous, Norman. Everyone knows you're a bald eagle.' gently aside administering just a tweak here and a tweak there as humanity, its culture and its ideas, moved by larger forces than we command, change of their own accord.

I am glad to accept that there are other kinds of Conservative. I guess we need them. I only remind John that it is all very well to inveigh, as he does repeatedly here, against 'political correctness' and social engineering but I would not within the covers of the same book pray in aid quota- tions from a Pope — or 'his holiness' the Pope, as the politically correct phrase in Catholic circles has it. All right, an unworthy dig: but I was irritated by Pat- ten's ungenerous and sneering references to groups — like what he calls the 'female peace corps' of Greenham protesters, or animal rights protesters (he calls them `fashionable') — many of whom are good people moved by powerful beliefs, even if John and I think them wrong. I do find ill- grace hateful in politics.

There is a handful of interesting ideas in Things to Come. I was engaged by Patten's thoughts on 'care associations' — a devel- opment of the thinking behind housing associations, designed to create a smaller scale, more responsive and semi-privatised delivery of social services. I wish he had developed such thoughts in detail.

For the rest — and we're talking about a longish book — the reader is treated to a windy and often unspecific treatise on the nature of Conservatism. There is not, never was, and never will be any such thing as Conservatism. There is the Conservative Party: a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood association of humans joined together for sundry purposes noble and base, with a his- tory, a personality, a memory, and the momentum of custom, friendship and shared experience that individuals and groups in the habit of power can acquire. We know roughly the sort of people we are, roughly the sort of people who support us, and roughly the sorts of things we tend to do: but no single element among that body of knowledge, recollection and instinct is immutable, or 'key'. Things are not essences, they are only what they appear: things, quite unmysterious.

There being no mystery, any volume whose amibition is to find and describe the mystery must suffer the same fate as every other treatise on the nature of Conser- vatism, from Minogue, through Scruton, Oakeshott, Hogg and Cecil to Burke. They all founder.

The only question is how elegantly, thoughtfully or even inspiringly they founder. A man who can spend more than 200 pages examining a Party committed simultaneously to traditional moral values and to modern individual freedom, and do so without ever bringing properly into focus that one great Tory fault-line, is a politician hoping to straddle it. If he were as generous or as elegant a politician as he is a man, John Patten would do so with more poise.