Jim Callaghan, who died last Saturday, was the last British prime minister in the commonly accepted sense of the word. After him several factors — the degradation of the Gladstonian idea of a disinterested Civil Service, the collapse of Parliament, the emergence of a professional political elite and the rise of the media class were four of the most important — irrevocably changed the nature of the post.
In other words Jim Callaghan was the last prime minister from the long age of representative democracy in Britain, which stretched roughly from 1867, the date of the Second Reform Act, till the general election of 1979 and the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as a presidential type of political leader.
Before 1867 Britain was governed by an aristocracy. From 1979 onwards we uneasily started to feel our way towards the new era of manipulative populism, the phrase which best describes today’s system of government, though its nature and consequences have yet to be fully worked out and understood. Margaret Thatcher had the first intimations of how such a system might work, then her successor John Major attempted without success to revert to the old order. Finally Tony Blair emerged to bring the novel method to some kind of perfection.
Callaghan was prime minister in the literal sense of the term, i.e., the foremost minister of the Crown, first among equals. He was a devout follower of the Cabinet system. His Cabinets almost always lasted several hours, sometimes stretching into days. He was sometimes content to be overruled by a Cabinet majority. He never went round the back of his own Cabinet, as it now seems certain Tony Blair did in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, entering into a form of secret treaty with the United States to secure regime change in Iraq without referring back to the Cabinet, let alone Parliament. It is true that such secret arrangements were occasionally entered into during the earlier representative epoch. In December 1905 the liberal Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman never revealed to full Cabinet the staff conversations with the French initiated by Sir Edward Grey, while Anthony Eden embarked on a comparable secret plot during the run-up to the Suez invasion of 1956. These events were, however, exceptions. Tony Blair’s readiness to enter into a conspiracy with George W. Bush against his own Cabinet and the British people at Crawford, Texas, in 2002 was different. It was the inevitable expression of a new form of autocratic government by a political elite.
The key point about Michael Howard, the current leader of the British Conservatives, has been missed by all commentators and political observers. Without exception, they accuse him of repeating William Hague’s failed election strategy of 2001 and concentrating on the prejudices of elderly ‘core’ Tory voters. This analysis is true as far as it goes, but ignores the fact that the defining characteristic of Michael Howard and his team is not his reversion to so-called traditional Tory values, but his eager adoption of New Labour methodologies. Michael Howard has emphatically not sought to bring the Conservative party back to the age of truly conservative prime ministers like Callaghan. Instead he has sought to adapt it to the command-style premiership shaped by Margaret Thatcher and perfected by Tony Blair for the age of manipulative populism.
In short, Tony Blair and Michael Howard are fighting identical political campaigns, using identical techniques and identical strategies in order to attract the same voters. They are both responding to the way the science of politics has changed since Jim Callaghan. Callaghan and his Tory opponents both enjoyed the luxury of mass parties. This meant that they could address the voter direct, both on the doorstep and through the still practised art of political oratory. The voter, in turn, could address politicians.
Today, with the disappearance of mass political parties, politics has become a specialist skill, like nuclear physics. Voters are addressed in laboratory conditions, through so-called focus groups. Both main parties use hugely expensive software imported from the United States to identify with laser-like precision the few hundred thousand key voters in swing marginals who will determine the result. The policies of both parties are set by this modern technology and are therefore almost identical. A new caste of political expert — Alastair Campbell on the Labour side, the mysterious Lynton Crosby for the Tories —lurks behind the scenes, setting strategy. Their campaigns are constructed around artifice and driven by the need to manufacture artificial difference. Real debate about our national future is functionally impossible under this new arrangement and is conducted offstage. (For instance, in the private dialogue between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Both men have profoundly contrasting visions, but it is deemed essential for Labour success that this contrast should be hidden from the voter.)
In this novel, post-democratic world the task of the backbencher or minister is to stay silent. The shadowy experts lurking behind the scenes permit only a few carefully programmed and reliable figures to emerge in front of the cameras. For Labour these are John Reid, Alan Milburn, Ruth Kelly (though there are growing signs that, to her credit, she may not be up to it) and one or two others. For the Tories we have George Osborne, David Cameron, Oliver Letwin, David Davis, with desperate efforts being made to bring on Caroline Spelman. Others are forced into silence. The greatest loss from this arrangement is the Tory welfare spokesman David Willetts, one of the most cerebral and original figures in any party, who has been banned from a real role in the 2005 general election.
The Howard Flight affair can only be understood in this context. He is a disturbing throwback to the age of representative democracy, and as such a nightmare for the new breed of post-democratic politician. I have known Flight for 20 years, ever since in the mid-1980s I applied for a job in his firm Guinness Flight. I was turned down, this setback helping to force me to reconsider my future in the City and turn towards journalism. Howard Flight became extremely successful, and this profound business background sets him off from the modern professional politician, whose specialist knowledge of his own narrow craft is matched only by boundless ignorance about everything else. Flight’s outside expertise brings a great deal to Parliament: his long contribution to the Budget debate, which can be found in Hansard, is well worth reading for its intellectual destruction of the Chancellor’s statement.
With his pinstriped suit, his vivid braces and his 40 cigarettes a day, Flight is a protest against our disreputable modern political system. It was no surprise to find Tony Benn, another relic of the old era, springing to Flight’s defence in the Guardian on Wednesday. In the short term, it is hard to dissociate Flight from the dismal circumstances of the 2005 general election campaign and the damage he is doing to the Tories. In this context, the words of Sir Walter Scott at the end of Ivanhoe spring to mind, as he described how Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert was slain, not by the lance of Ivanhoe, but by the ‘violence of his own contending passions’.