Peter Hitchens

A party split from top to toe

Peter Hitchens says that there will be no credible opposition while the Tory party remains an impossible coalition of irreconcilables with no feeling for old Britain

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No power on earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone. Can we all please stop pretending that the Conservative party is worth saving or keeping, or that it can ever win another election? This delusion is an obstacle to the creation of a proper pro-British movement, neither bigoted nor politically correct, which is the only hope of ending the present one-party state. The continued existence of the Tory party as a bogeyman with which to frighten dissenters is one of the few things that holds together the equally bankrupt Labour party. Without it, the frequent Blairite cry of ‘If you don’t back me, the Thatcherites will return’ could no longer be used. The Conservative party, in all its shambling ineptitude and pathos, is also a major reason for the growth of the Liberal Democrats, grateful recipients of the anyone-but-the-Tories vote, which is cast for Charles Kennedy not because of what he is but because of what he is not.

The Tories are an impossible coalition of irreconcilables. No coherent government programme could ever unite them, always assuming they were able to win an election. Euro-enthusiast and Eurosceptic cannot compromise without betraying their deepest beliefs, and should not be expected to do so. Supporters of marriage and supporters of the sexual revolution likewise can have no common ground. Supposedly conservative thinkers such as David Willetts cannot earn the praise of Polly Toynbee, as he recently did, without also attracting the loathing of the many who think that children should have the right to be looked after by their own mothers rather than watch them marched off into wage-slavery. Enthusiasts for mass immigration, on the grounds that it expands the workforce, cannot be reconciled with those who fear that immigration on this scale will damage a good and ancient culture. Those who believe in rehabilitating criminals cannot reach an accommodation with those who believe in punishing them. Those who wish to legalise narcotics cannot make peace with those who wish to imprison drug-users. All parties are coalitions full of conflicts, but they need to have something fundamental that unites them despite their quarrels.

The Tory party have no such something. They are institutionally dead, having lost any serious political presence in many of the great cities of the country. They have ceased to be able to pass on their lore and language to a new generation, so that ‘Young Conservative’ has become either an oxymoron or an unkind way of describing a particular type of desperate eccentric. They do not like to think, and generally refuse to do so because they believe it is safer to avoid such dangerous activity. This is not unreasonable, given the irreconcilable forces that vie with each other for mastery. The few who do think tend to ponder their own survival and seek to suck up to the spirit of the age. The spirit of the age is not very impressed, since it already has quite enough parties devoted to it and suspects that Conservatives do not really have their hearts in the sexual and cultural revolution.

This has actually been going on for a long time, but polite people have preferred not to mention it. Many let the Tories off during the Cold War. They ignored their cowardice over the big social issues, their failure to save or restore the grammar schools, to stand up for marriage, to understand the European issue, to preserve, protect or defend anything old, beloved or beautiful. They pretended not to notice the Tories’ yahoo obsession with motor cars and wide new roads, and their strange belief that a vast state-subsidised road network was all in the cause of freedom, while a modest state-subsidised rail network was somehow a threat to the open society.

They looked the other way as Tory governments and local authorities encouraged or permitted the destruction of ancient beauty and supported the construction of tower-block hotels, big office blocks and supermarkets. They swallowed their outrage at the Tories’ ugly, expensive — and suicidal — local-government reforms. They even tolerated their stealthy rundown of the conventional armed services and their enthusiasm for appeasement in Northern Ireland. I was one of those who put up with these outrages. Why did I and others do this? Because, after all, we could rely on the Tories to stand up against the real enemy and the greatest danger to our liberty and independence, namely the Soviet Union. This they did so effectively that at the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled to dust in a few short months. That was the unnerving moment when Mikhail Gorbachev’s gently smiling spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, taunted us with the words, ‘We have done the most terrible thing to you that we could possibly have done. We have deprived you of an enemy.’

Gerasimov was appallingly right. The last action of the Russian Bolsheviks, their suicide, was perhaps their most damaging single blow to the foundations of traditional free societies. With the Evil Empire gone, Western conservatives were left without an obvious bogeyman and — even more significant — Western radicals were liberated from the suspicion of collaborating with the nation’s principal foe. For American Reaganites as for British Thatcherites, the post-Soviet dawn, bright at first, swiftly clouded over as they realised what it meant in practice. Our domestic opponents could no longer be accused of treacherous flirtation with the national enemy, since he had ceased to exist.

That was bad enough. It meant that the Conservative party could no longer claim a monopoly on easy patriotism and marching tunes. But much more serious was the realisation that it was social and moral conservatives, rather than the doctrinaire Left, who now risked making themselves unpopular if they dared to stick to their principles. Having long avoided the big arguments about such things as divorce and abortion, they found that confronting the permissive society, whose creation they had winked at, was electorally dangerous even if it was right. So many people had now got divorced or had abortions or had children out of wedlock — or could easily conceive of themselves doing so — that attacking these things looked like electoral suicide.

Having failed to defend the 11-plus when it mattered, they found that the consequences — lowered school standards, worthless examinations and the absurd expansion of the universities — could not be criticised without attracting accusations of offending and upsetting the children involved, and their voting parents too. Having resorted to heavy taxation, they could not now really argue against heavier taxation. Having invented life peers, and by implication attacked the hereditary principle, they could not really defend the independence of the House of Lords when it came under serious assault. They knew in their hearts that they could not ultimately defend the monarchy either. Having chosen to respond to public concern about crime with the cheapest and most crowd-pleasing measures — destroying the right to silence, threatening the protection against double jeopardy, considering identity cards and attempting to limit jury trial — they could not convincingly stand up for liberty when New Labour sought to stifle it. Having pretended that national sovereignty was not threatened by the European Union, and so having given away great quantities of that sovereignty for the sake of a quiet life, they were unable even to come up with a convincing opposition to the euro. In short, their unprincipled uselessness had now come back to haunt them, and the end of the Cold War left them politically naked and ashamed.

The wretched Major years, in which Britain experienced its first New Labour government without realising it, are a warning to anyone who imagines that a Tory victo ry at the next election would end our national decline or reverse the damage done by Blairism. The Conservative party has had ineffectual, directionless leaders since 1990 because it is an ineffectual and directionless party. It is idle and silly to imagine that a different leader might change things now. Get rid of Mr Duncan Smith and the best they can hope for is a chief who will be despised and undermined by a different section of the party. The man or woman does not exist who can unite the irreconcilables now trapped in this dying movement and lead it to victory. Not that there is much need to worry about that, since the Conservative party’s other fault is that it is now so decrepit and beaten that it is extremely unlikely ever to form a majority government again. I say extremely unlikely only out of superstition. Some wholly unpredictable political asteroid might so change the electoral countryside that such a thing happens. But it will have to be quite an asteroid.

The Tory party faces a colossal task if it wishes ever to command a parliamentary majority again. Ivor Crewe has pointed out that Labour MPs are elected by a much smaller vote on average than Conservative MPs because they typically represent smaller constituencies with a lower turnout. In 2001, had the Tory and Labour votes been equal, the latter would have had 80 more seats than the Conservatives and a workable overall majority of 17.

This mathematical problem will be just as bad, if not worse, whenever the next election takes place. The rise of the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly deepen the woe. The near-collapse of Conservatism and Unionism in Scotland and Wales does not help much either. There is no reason at all to hope for a recovery.

So why bother to do so? Why should conservative-minded people make themselves miserable by enlisting in this shambling movement whose chiefs loathe each other more than they hate the enemy? Why should they fool themselves any longer that the Tory party shares their concerns or can capture political power? Why should they spend heart and nerve and sinew on a cause that is not only lost but discredited? Why should they all fight, and fight and fight again to save a party they hate?

The Tory party is a train wreck, not a train, an obstacle rather than a vehicle. There are many good and intelligent people trapped in the twisted ruins who would flourish if only they were released, but are now prevented from doing so by a pointless discipline. There are many voters, currently unable to vote Tory even while holding their noses, who long for a party that speaks for them and the country. Such a party cannot begin to grow until the Tory delusion is dispelled and this movement, whose time is gone, splits and disappears. Let it be soon.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.