The Tories require a Blairite intellectual revolution.
“The fascination of what’s difficult.” The latest National Conservatism Conference sessions, in which Tories tried to think through their beliefs. remind one that Yeats’ line is easily applicable to the complex vocation of politics, and to politicians’ debates about ideas.
That does not apply to all politicians and all parties. The Liberals have avoided the difficulty. They have not had a serious intellectual debate since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George. As Iain Macleod once said: “The Liberals do have some good ideas and some new ideas. The trouble is that none of their good ideas are new and none of their new ideas are any good.”
Ideas and the Labour Party have a complex relationship. From 1945 until the Blair era, there was a fundamental disagreement. Was Labour to be a socialist – or indeed Marxist – party or was it to espouse a post-war European form of social democracy? The disputes were fierce. Tony Crosland was Labour’s ablest post-war intellectual and in “The Future of Socialism” he outlined a programme which was designed to reassure enough voters to make Labour electable. Although this was far more Left-wing than anything which Sir Keir Starmer is likely to own up to, Crosland came under attack from the then Labour Left for being “revisionist” – i.e. discarding Socialist shibboleths – and wholly insufficiently radical.
Then came the era of Thatcher. Shortly before her first election victory, I remember a conversation with Tony Benn. He declared that socialism was inevitable. History was on its side. There was only one obstacle which could slow down its inexorable onward march: a Labour Government such as the Callaghan one which would leave its supporters confused and demoralised, and thus delay the success of socialism. So the task for socialists was to purify the Labour party. The short-term electoral consequences were irrelevant. When historical inevitability was marching alongside you, victory was assured.
In those days, that did not sound like lunacy. But Margaret Thatcher made it seem so.
From Tony Benn to Tony Blair. The Labour Party had spent a decade arguing, demonstrating inexhaustible intellectual vitality – and losing. After 10 years of Thatcherite triumphs, Blair and his friends were fed up. They came to two conclusions. First, Left-wing intellectual arguments were off-putting to anyone who was not a Left-wing intellectual. Second, that it was necessary to purge everything about the Labour Party which would alarm the voters. Hence New Labour, and it worked.
The Tories helped, by coming under a triple curse. The first was Europe. For three decades, that issue of issues split the party and it is easy to understand why. There was the federalist wing: those whose overriding aim was the creation of a European Union. Many of them shared a Bennite insouciance about short-term electoral prospects. Their dream was to make Europe inevitable.
To the other side, this was the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. A fair number of otherwise loyal Tories would have preferred to lose an election than to accept a single currency. (After 1997, there was a risk that we could have ended up with both).
The second curse arose from the unquiet political ghost of the party’s greatest peace-time leader. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher campaigned to remain in the EEC. As PM, she agreed a deal on the European budget and signed the Single Act. In Charles Powell’s view, she would have signed Maastricht, if she could have negotiated it.
So there were two Margaret Thatchers. The first had immense achievements but on many issues, she was ultimately a pragmatist. Once she left No.10, still producing far more adrenalin than she could consume, the pragmatism was swept aside and many on the more naive wing of the Tory Party were so dazzled by the once and future leader that they lost the power to think hard and clearly. Those should be basic Tory intellectual instincts. Yet in many cases, the delusions persist.
The third and related curse was a taste for ideology. Almost all traditional Tories would have regarded that term with suspicion: sounds far too foreign for British politics. In a difficult and dangerous world, there is every need for intellectual rigour. NatCon and its speakers have an important role to play in that and all sensible Tories should welcome it. They should not expect to agree with everything that they hear but there should be a general acceptance of good faith. A Tory with whom you disagree is not an Amalekite, to be smitten hip and thigh.
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Yet some supposed senior Tories, buoyed up by the moral courage which comes from anonymous briefing, have been complaining, claiming to see the influence of Donald Trump among the Natcon audience. Anyone who believes that is either mired in intellectual dishonesty or suffering from severe delusions – or perhaps both.
When it comes to ideas, the Tory Party has work to do. David Cameron once said that he wanted to leave the country stronger and the people more prosperous. A sound objective: how do we achieve it? Lord Falkland said that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. But how do we establish when it is necessary to change? Again, hard thinking is needed and we have to learn to debate without smashing up the furniture. There will be plenty of scope for “The fascination of what’s difficult.” But Yeats’ next words run as follows: “Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.” No one ever claimed that Toryism was an easy creed.