26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 10


I accept so many of their arguments, but I can't accept them


Icannot believe my ears. Conservative Europeanists are rocking the boat? Euro- peanists have forgotten the need to win elections? The Tory Europeanists should fight Labour, not their own colleagues?

What? Is history forgotten? Can an episode recently witnessed by 56 million people be rewritten by so few, so soon? Are John Redwood, Teresa Gorman, Bill Cash, Norman Lamont, transmogrified into famous team players at the flick of the Eurobaiters' switch? Can the murder of the last Conservative government by a ruthless minority within it be sponged from the record even before the corpse grows cold? What amnesia grips the swivel-eyed ten- dency around William Hague?

So John Gummer is now 'bullying' the Tory party? Chris Patten is a 'fanatic'? Ken- neth Clarke (the overwhelming leadership choice of ordinary party members little more than a year ago) represents a 'tiny clique'. When dogma so clouds judgment and pas- sion blocks recall, sensible men shudder. Hardly ten minutes ago, egged on by Hague's lieutenants, Euroseeptical editors were calling Mr Clarke a coward: he should `put up or shut up'. So he did. Whereupon Lord Parkinson, who should have some care for his dignity, berates him for fanning dis- sent — while Parkinson's underlings whisper `deselection' to journalists. We who may be inclined by intellect to board the anti-EMU bandwagon should pause.

It is a pity Frederick Forsyth writes so well when he is so wrong (Don't stand for it, William!', 19 September). So a dissent- ing Tory should either belt up or leave, he says. Did he say that to the Europhobe amnesiacs now surrounding William Hague, who neither belted up nor left, but dogged John Major's every step, tripped him every time he moved, knocked him down whenever he got up? I just wish the poor bloody Tory infantry out there in the country, now being exhorted by the Eurobaiters to loyalty, could have sat in my place in the Commons press gallery any afternoon in the five years from 1992, and witnessed for themselves the poison darts, for use on Major's moderate loyalists, being slipped daily to journalists by those who now bark of unity. Mr Major should ponder that couplet in John Clare's 'Ode to a Fall- en Elm': `Thou'st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower/Who when in power would never shelter thee!' This columnist has been struggling with a personal difficulty. Why, when I accept so much of John Redwood's, lain Duncan Smith's and Michael Howard's argument against currency union, do I feel this viscer- al disinclination to join their posse? I have resolved the question. It is not their conclu- sions which repel me but their natures. They lack grace. They are populists.

And one of the hallmarks of the populist down the ages is the yelp. He is the yelp made flesh. Right down the middle of his psyche runs a craven streak: the will to impotence. Somebody bigger, he thinks, is always trying to bully him, somebody else is pushing him around. All the world — but never he — is cheating. The populist litany becomes the sustained whine punctuated by the snarl and — when enough of them gather — outbreaks of hysterical barking in the night. Even when they command a majority, they combine the swagger of the aggressor with the whimper of the abused.

Their inspiration is the indignation of the small man, the curled lip of the underdog. Nothing lifts the heart. Nothing as fine as hope or honest anger, nothing, at heart, confident, no real optimism, no real plan at all motivates their endeavours. Only umbrage. Only complaint.

It is hard to define, yet we recognise pop- ulism when we see it. Something prickles the spine. Populists are distinguished not by their arguments but their personality. In different eras they may call themselves pro- tectionists or white supremacists, law-and- order hardliners or defenders of national sovereignty, but whatever stick they wave they carry to each cause the same mean spirit. They lick their wounds in public. They throw the stone, then hide their hands.

Your racist populist trades not upon a pride that his race deserves to rule, but a whingeing insistence that another race is plotting to oppress him. 'The English' are in fact under siege, persecuted in our own land. In South Africa, the white would maunder about 'poor little South Africa' even as he kicked the black. In Rhodesia, as he shut down African education, Ian Smith represented himself as the injured party in an uncaring world.

o Your protectionist populist trades upon the cry that everyone else is breaking the rules, 'dumping', 'exploiting' workers as slave labour, undercutting the honest endeavours of the mob whose cheers he seeks. To the populist, the playing field is forever tilted against the home team.

Your 'sovereignty' populist begins not from any easy assurance of his own national identity — he is, typically, uncomfortable with the real people who comprise his countrymen — but upon a fancied threat from a rival identity. He speaks as though fear of abroad binds him to his compatriots more reliably than any love he bears them. Plainly, we are dealing here not with an argument but a pathology.

The populist's pathology is explicable. His are the politics of complaint. His mode is inherently oppositional. When the pop- ulist actually wins, he is quickly insecure and his platform falls apart. He is unembar- rassed by the charge of rocking any boat, for he is secretly afraid of sailing anywhere.

Political generosity is beyond him. Cour- tesy escapes him. It spoils his world view to conciliate, even where that would be in his interest. No matter that the obviously wise thing for Mr Hague to do, if determined on this silly ballot, would have been to praise dissenters as men of principle, urge them to carry forward their argument, make a show of respect for their contribution, and forbid his lieutenants to attack. It will have been Hague's own instinct to act like this. That he seems detachable from his better judg- ment worries me.

But to the populists around Hague all dissent must be foul play. Their own past foul play was 'principled', concerned some- thing 'too important' for mere unity to trump. They do not, however, extend to rival creeds the courtesy of allowing that these, too, might hold their beliefs to be important. Even as he conspires, your pop- ulist mutters about the overarching conspir- acies of others. These define him and his world, to himself.

For all that he now supports the hot- heads in temporary ascendancy within British Conservatism, it was Bruce Ander- son who once described them best: 'men', he wrote, 'with all the attributes of pop- ulism except popularity'. If the Tory Likud are really to trade their party's tolerant her- itage for a mess of Poujadist potage, then they had better start delivering the popular- ity at least. And pigs will fly.

Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.