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The middle way

Posted by Helen Thursday, November 18, 2004

Peter Riddell has opined in the Times that Michael Howard and the Tories should not emulate the examples of John Howard or George W. Bush and their parties. Well, there is no great danger of that, if recent polls are anything to go by. What unites Bush and t’other Howard? Yes, that’s right. They are winners. Can one say the same about the present day Conservative Party? Only by stretching the word winners to include … ahem … losers.

Mr Riddell’s main argument is that the various conservative movements are very different (duh!) and, therefore, whatever one may think about imitating methods, the same message does not work. Actually, he concentrates on the American message, possibly because the Australian one is different again.

Citing the newly published excellent The Right Nation by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Mr Riddell (who, as my colleague has observed, gives a new meaning to the words care in the community) shows that Americans are inherently different from the British, they are more likely to be right of centre and their right wing politics is well organized both at the grass-roots and the intellectual level.

“The more the authors describe the pillars of American conservatism — the myriad Washington think-tanks and foundations, the single-issue groups, the politically active churches and right-wing talk radio — the less relevant it seems for the British Tories. Even to talk of a “movement” sounds wrong here.”
Possibly that is true. But whose fault is that? Why do the Conservatives not organize themselves? The notion that somehow the population of this country is naturally left-wing is nonsensical. People’s main desires are not that different from the ones in the United States. What is different is the assumption, bred by years of the inefficient, failing, but ubiquitous welfare state, that somehow people cannot be asked to act for themselves. Often, when this idea is shaken off, the people who try to act and sort matters out, find that some government regulation (and yes, all too often it is our real government in Brussels) prevents them from doing so. Why precisely cannot the Conservatives look at this problem in all seriousness? I’ll tell you why. Because it takes us back to the dreaded “e” word.

Think-tanks? Foundations? They were started in Britain with the internationally renowned Institute of Economic Affairs. Who prevents further funding and organizing? My colleague and I are both veterans of many battles fought for a properly funded, properly organized eurosceptic think-tank. So far we have failed because of the pusillanimous and short-sighted reluctance of people to put up the money for anything more than an immediate and very narrow campaign.

What of the churches and other institutions? Maybe, the former are not as powerful or popular as they used to be. But who says that middle England (and Wales and Scotland) cannot organize itself the way middle America can? What do these people think has been the strength of the Countryside Alliance that has put together a powerful, countrywide movement, put huge demonstrations on the street, and turned a supposedly done and dusted political issue that affects directly very few people, into the most ferocious, strongly fought debate for years?

Ah, but everyone knew what the Countryside Alliance was saying. And that makes a great deal of difference. People and organizations flock to you if they know what you stand for. (And, obviously, agree with you or can be brought to that point.)

What does the Conservative Party stand for? Mr Riddell approves of Oliver Letwin’s reluctance to go down the Bushite tax cutting route. Must have a balanced budget, you know. Well, possibly, though all those terrible things that were going to happen in the United States any minute now because of its deficit, are still in the future. But Mr Letwin and Mr Howard can, presumably, come up with serious policies that will involve tax cuts and rearrangement of the welfare system. Why have they not done so?

They did come up with the James Report that produced all sorts of random ideas for saving money in the quangos and agencies. The trouble is that the James Report did not look at what those agencies really do. And why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because that would take us back to the dreaded “e” word. What most of those agencies (Food Standards, Environment, various others) do is to negotiate and then implement EU legislation. Until the issue of how legislation in this country really works is addressed, none of the suggestions of cost cutting, red tape shredding, regulation zapping will be worth the many hundreds of pages of paper they are written on.

So we come back to the same problem: the dreaded “e” word. The Conservatives will not touch it because they are, as their last great leader, Margaret Thatcher said, “frit”. There is good evidence that the population of this country is moving fast towards a complete withdrawalist standpoint, but the Tories, instead of leading, are following timorously a long way behind.

This ability to be afraid of one’s own shadow seems to have extended to the Vote – No campaign. My colleague has written about the promise he had had of the campaign not using the rather silly slogan of “No to the Constitution – Yes to Europe”. It seems, that at the last minute that organization, too, became “frit”. Of what, precisely? Of the big bad wolf of “extremism”. Must stick to the middle ground; mustn’t frighten the horses (who don’t vote, anyway); mustn’t seem to be extremist. How extremist is it to say that a country should legislate for itself in a comprehensible, accountable manner?

To have a middle ground, one must have two extremes. Are we to take from the Conservatives and the Vote – No campaign that the two extremes are total integration and political independence? Can there be such a thing as being a little bit independent like a little bit pregnant?

Surely, the one thing the American and Australian elections have shown us that speaking one’s mind and being certain of one’s views are not handicaps in the political field. To listen to the British and much of the mainstream American media as well as the international great and the good, George W. Bush is the most hated man in the world. He won a stupendous victory.
To listen to the same people, John Howard’s foreign policy was deeply hated in Australia. He, too, won a great victory.

Margaret Thatcher, too, appeared to be the most hated person in the country if one listened to the BBC and the other great and the good, as did Ronald Reagan. Reagan won two elections, the second one far more comfortably than the first. Thatcher won three elections and bequeathed the fourth victory to John Major. But, let’s face it, Michael Howard is not going to learn from all these people. He will stick to the middle way. And he will be mown down by the traffic going in both directions.