The Tory party is like some particularly gloomy man going through a mid-life crisis. His wife has left him, to universal applause. As so often in these cases, he seems unable to talk about anything except himself, thereby making his position worse. He takes a girl out to dinner, and she is prepared to give him a go, in spite of poor reviews. The more he goes on about his difficulties, and fails to discuss her own interests and attractions, the more she taps her foot.
Then her eyes glaze over, and then she just walks out and leaves him to his maunderings, rather as the British electorate has now twice deserted the Tory party. There have been some notable literary examples of self-obsession. One thinks of Erisichthon, the person who ended up self-cannibalistically gnawing his entrails; or of Narcissus, also commemorated by Ovid, who spent so long gazing at his own reflection in a pool that he went into a trance, toppled in and drowned. The behaviour of Onan does not seem entirely irrelevant. The Tory party, in its current psychosis, beats them all hollow. If it does not get its act together, then it will assuredly join those characters in the realms of myth.
For each Tory MP who goes on the radio to give what he fondly imagines is a statesmanlike assessment of the 'crisis', there is a BBC producer secretly chuckling in the knowledge that this dolt is making the crisis worse. It is hard to exaggerate the bafflement of Tories up and down the land as they read about these Lilliputian feudings and sackings. Most of them would be more than happy for Iain Duncan Smith to continue to lead the party, provided the rest of the MPs would support him. Frankly, they would settle for anyone with a bit of oomph. This impatience is now spreading to the millions of potential Tories, and indeed non-Tories, who simply think the country needs a strong opposition.
The world is sick of hearing Tories wondering whether we are 'nice' or 'nasty'. Are we 'modernisers' or 'traditionalists'? Are we 'inclusive' enough? Does my homophobia look big in this? It's all me, me, me. When, ask the punters, are they going to stop talking about themselves? When are they going to start talking about us? With Britain being taken to the verge of war by a fresh-faced, nicely spoken Atlanticist, some are asking what is the point of this party. Do the Tories have any unique insight into human life which makes them worth hanging on to as a political force? What are these conservative urges, which once caused the party to be rated the most formidable election-winning machine in history? The truth, of course, is that Conservatism is still alive; and, even in these dark days, some of us know in our hearts that it will one day deliver a Tory victory.
That is because, to make the boast as bold as we can, Conservatism tends to be more in tune with human nature than the alternatives. It is notoriously difficult to be more precise. People talk about broad churches and hawsers woven of many strands. Roger Scruton said, vatically, that 'the essence of Conservatism is inarticulate'. Rather than merely grunting in a Scrutonian way, we can sketch out some instincts and, when those Tory prejudices are properly understood, they help to illuminate the deep and systematic failure of the present government.
The first prejudice is a broad enthusiasm for liberty, a word in some ways with a rather archaic feel, redolent of Wilkes. The idea, roughly, is that there is a space around the individual and family, and no one, especially not the agents of the state, may invade. This liberty does not mean libertinism, or licence, or atomistic selfishness. But it does mean tolerance, and in that sense Portillo is quite right. It should be a matter of indifference whether someone is gay or straight, black or white, rastafarian or vegetarian, fox-hunter or Jainist. That does not mean frosty indifference, mind you; it means cheerful, couldn't-give-a-monkey's indifference. It is an idea of private sovereignty, of delimiting the power of the state, which has existed since Magna Carta. It is not just about the right to decide how to spend your own money, though that is important (as is the likelihood that you will allocate it more efficiently than anyone else). It is a presumption in favour of the freedom of the individual; not a presumption that much moves the present government. We have a Home Secretary who has tampered with the laws on double jeopardy, attenuated rights to trial by jury, imposed mandatory drugs tests for all offenders, taken vast powers to snoop over the Internet, turned every road into an Orwellian landscape of spy-cameras, and is about to impose ID cards.
Conservatives have tended to be successful when they have taken the side of the little man against officialdom; and this Labour government loves officialdom. It is human nature to want to be free; and yet that freedom is only satisfactory, and happy, if you also belong. It was Chris Patten who said that the facts of life are Conservative, and, for once, he was right. It is a fact of life that children tend to love their parents more than they love other adults; and, symmetrically, people tend to love their own children more - vastly more - than they love the children of other people. To the left-winger, that observation may be true, but in some way regrettable. In the left-wingers' utopia, though they might not admit this, each human being would relate to every other human being impartially, without preference or prejudice. To some extent, therefore, the left-winger always wants to correct human nature.
The Tory instinct is to recognise that this drive - the urge to gain advantage for your children - has been the single most progressive force in civilisation, and that it can be harnessed to the benefit of all. British socialists hated the idea of educational advantage so much that they invented the comprehensive system, and, as Tony Crosland brutally put it, vowed to close every f-ing grammar school in the country. The result, of course, was that the middle classes got round it, as they always do. Human nature asserted itself. Like the Blairs, they became adept at stealthily hiring private tutors after hours. They sucked up to the teachers, also middle-class professionals; and the result was even more regressive: a state system so comparatively poor that Labour now tries to correct its ill effects, at 18, by demanding that universities actively discriminate against privately educated children. Again, the Labour instinct is to penalise parents for trying to do the best for their children; which again encourages manoeuvring and evasion by the middle classes. Tories don't try to tamper with the gene loyalties of families, or with any other natural loyalties, come to that.
People take pride and pleasure in all sorts of memberships and affinities voluntarily entered into. Some go to church, some are members of the RSPB, some of the Desperate Dan Pie-Eaters Club, and so on. It is realistic, and Tory, to recognise that one of the virtues of such memberships is that it is exclusive. Your pride derives not just from the fact that you are a member, but that other people are not; and there is nothing bad in this. It is natural to want to belong to a shared culture, with a shared set of assumptions about what is good, and to want to pass that on. If you want a single example of the difference between the Conservative mindset and this government, it was in the sad and surprising barbarism of the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke. He said that he wouldn't mind if the Latin and Greek classics fell into disuse, and there was a falling-away in the study of ancient language, literature and civilisation. A man who can say that has no place in the world of scholarship and learning.
A Conservative education secretary would see that our culture is an inherited conglomerate, like a Christmas pudding. It might not be obvious, after many years, why each ingredient is in the mix. That doesn't mean that something odd-looking should be automatically jettisoned. It might turn out to be more integral, and more difficult to replace, than you think. One might cite, in another context, the removal of the hereditaries from the House of Lords. Conservatism is conservative in that it holds that there may be hidden wisdom in old ways of doing things, which you tamper with at your peril. That is why Tories are cautious about creating a European Union, e pluribus unum, that seems to go well ahead of what people have bargained for, and does not respond to any obvious sense of loyalty or allegiance in the 15 EU countries.
People do, as a matter of empirical fact, still feel a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to their own state; and Tories go along with that. Of course they do. Tories aren't anarchists. They just don't want the state busying itself with areas that free men and women can look after for themselves. It's a pretty good certainty that a Tory will be in favour of the Brigade of Guards, and the police, and will believe that the state should have a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Under this government, however, the state is becoming ever more intrusive in the 'soft' areas of family relationships, healthcare, education, and so on, and ever feebler in the 'hard' areas, such as law and order, and the protection of borders.
Pity the police, bombarded with targets and suffering the scrutiny of the race-relations industry. They have more or less given up their traditional function, the prevention of minor disorder and incivility. As for borders and immigration, some Tories are Powellite. Others argue that there is a case for immigration, provided that the incomers learn in some sense to be British. But all Tories should surely agree that this government is doing a woeful job of enforcing the law. Why, when all the procedures have been exhausted, when leave to remain is denied and asylum-seekers should be sent home, do they never go? Is this not something the Tories could sort out?
But there we go again, talking about asylum-seekers, when what we want, we are constantly told, are solid plans for the public services. It is a testimony to the Tories' ability to feud that so few people realise that this agenda in fact exists. Since taking over at Central Office, Iain Duncan Smith has not only rearranged the staff with more Zclat than he intended. He and the shadow Cabinet have sketched out a recognisable draft of the next election manifesto. In the areas of most immediate concern, it is bolder than anything Mrs Thatcher attempted.
It includes near-total autonomy for schools, giving more initiative to parents and teachers. It imagines that Alan Milburn has triumphed wholly over Gordon Brown in extending foundation status - independence from Whitehall - to all hospitals. The Tories would allow difference, where Labour imposes uniformity and equality of misery. Labour is Luddite on health. Imagine if a government banned the use of mobile phones because it feared a two-tier service, in which the network of public phone boxes became run down. The next Tory government will bear down on public spending and taxation, and, if anyone doubts the scope for economies, they should study the Guardian appointments pages, or this magazine's succeeding articles by Rod Liddle and Ross Clark.
The Tories will still have the task - because Labour has shirked it - of reforming welfare, which has risen from £97 billion to £127 billion at a time of historically low unemployment. Some government must begin the task of taking the poor out of tax, and stopping the ridiculous churn, by which 17 million families pay £40 billion in tax, and then receive £40 billion in benefits. Some government will have to undo the disastrous mess this government has helped to make of pensions, and begin to unclog the regulation-furred arteries of the economy; and that must be the Tories.
Real reform of public services, lower taxes and a more sensible approach to welfare will go a long way to restoring the Tories' reputation for competence, compassion and common sense. And there is one final area which sums up the problem and opportunity for the Tories, and that is the environment, and green issues as a whole. Tories have tended to disparage these questions, since they believe that climate change and deforestation primarily affect people a long way away, who do not vote in British general elections. They are missing a huge opportunity.
It was Mrs Thatcher who, in a famous speech to the Royal Society, launched the era of mainstream green politics. 'We Conservatives are not merely friends of the earth,' she said. 'We are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy - with a full repairing lease.' This is as cogent a statement of the idea of Conservatism as one can get. The nation, said Burke, extends in time as well as in space, and every generation has obligations both to its ancestors and its successors.
Conservatives sometimes ask, with Disraeli, what shall we conserve? Here is at least part of the answer. Sensible Tories have long believed in One Nation, the idea that we are all in this together, and that the rich have a duty to the poor. It is time for One Planet Tories, and a deliberate attempt to focus policy and presentation on environmental problems, local and global. At a time of mounting prosperity, people worry about these issues, and many of their worries are well founded. If this change of tack achieves nothing else, it would make people realise that Tories are not lost in contemplation of their own misfortunes, but are interested in the world around them.