David Cameron’s Conservative party has several uniquely destructive traits. But perhaps foremost is that it believes the lies of its enemies. And even when it doesn’t, it panders to them.
A perfect example arose three years ago when the shadow minister of homeland security, Patrick Mercer, gave a newspaper interview in which he mentioned the fact that he had heard racist comments while he was in the army.
Even a cursory glance at the interview showed that Mercer was reporting — and deploring — these comments. But Cameron didn’t bother with a glance. Here was an opportunity to show the new Conservative party. So Cameron described Mercer’s comments as ‘completely unacceptable’, issued soundbites about the evils of racism, smeared and sent to the back benches a much better man than himself.
In July the same traits were on show during Cameron’s visit to Turkey. While praising his hosts, he dismissed opponents of Turkish EU entry as ‘prejudiced’.
Partly this is a generational thing. While Cameron was growing up, left-wing views were steadily ingraining themselves. To be a Conservative carried a stigma: the mean, bad, ‘nasty’ party. Cameron and his colleagues to varying degrees assimilated these opinions. Rather than realising that the left is the cause of many of our society’s problems, they instead awarded the opponents of conservatism the right to be the sole arbiters of moral credibility. And so for the new Conservatives it has become far more important to appeal to their opponents than to be remotely pleasant to likely allies. I know because on a very small scale I have experienced it myself.
Almost five years ago I was in The Hague. I was giving the closing speech at a conference in the Dutch parliament organised by the Lijst Pim Fortuyn. It had recently been the second-largest party in parliament, despite its leader’s assassination. It was just over a year since the murder of Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Islamist on a street in Amsterdam and a number of Dutch politicians, writers and think-tank friends were still under police protection. The French banlieues had recently erupted, while the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting Mohammed and a speech by the Pope in Germany were provoking riots around the world. The Dutch security services who guarded me and other conference speakers revealed afterwards that the threat level given to our conference was one level below national emergency.
I was asked to address the question of what we should now do in Europe to deal with the increasingly problematic Muslim communities. I advocated a number of things. Among them was that mass immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop if the problems of integration were not to get worse. I advocated a tougher approach to self-appointed Muslim leaders and called for there to be no special privileges or protections provided in law or welfare for the feelings of Muslims. And I argued, as Nicolas Sarkozy and others have done, that if people plotted against the country into which they had come it should be possible for them to be sent back to their country of origin.
What I advocated had been argued by members of the conservative party of Holland and was, and is, being argued by mainstream politicians across Europe — from Spain and France to Holland and Denmark. A transcript of the speech went out on the internet and a number of people in Britain took an interest. Some Islamists attacked me for it. But many more people liked it and expressed agreement, among them Conservative MPs.
A couple of years passed and I thought nothing more of it. I had written and spoken hundreds of thousands of words before and since. Occasionally a Tory MP, and sometimes a Labour one, would ask for advice. Senior Tories invited me to brief them. Though not a member of the party, I was happy to help.
Then a strange thing happened. A Tory MP — a Cameron loyalist — phoned and asked if he could see me. Nothing strange in that. I said yes. On arrival he produced a file of my work. Sections were highlighted. The file was pushed across the table. Could I confirm that I had said the following? I looked, and there was my Dutch parliament speech. Yes, I said, that was by me. ‘Ah,’ he said, ominously. ‘Well, we have a problem.’
It transpired that some Cameroons had become worried by what certain Islamists were saying about me, particularly about this speech. They had become concerned, I was told, about being too closely associated with me. I was questioned on who I knew, who I had spoken with and shared platforms with: how deep the connection went. It was made very clear that comments like those I had just been shown could cause problems. A left-wing paper could run a story saying ‘Tory party associated with a conservative’ or some such horror. Talk of a moratorium on immigration, let alone deporting people plotting against the state, had become very bad stuff indeed. I was told that if I didn’t retract these comments then the Tory party would have to first cut and then deny any ties with me.
I expressed surprise. Surprise that a speech that Tory MPs had liked only a couple of years ago was now white-hot. But there it was. I refused to change my opinions and so a slightly surreal attempt at a freeze-out began.
As it happens, excommunication from David Cameron’s Tories — let alone David Cameron’s Lib Dem Tories — is no bad thing. Over the past few years I have watched with curiosity as they have befriended and appeased most types of Islamist, here and abroad. But it was a salutary lesson in the extent to which the Conservative party is trying to narrow the most crucial debates of our time. On Islam and immigration they have alienated views which are mainstream in their party and in the country.
It was also a lesson in something I had already sensed. The Cameron Conservative party is fairly skilled at alienating its friends. But, as their failure at the general election showed, it is not so capable of befriending its enemies. If the foolishness of their calculation did not hit home at the last election, perhaps it will after the next.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 9, 2010