Paul Robinson

Thought police

Paul Robinson says the Tories are so frightened of challenging Blair on the war that their favourite think-tank will not tolerate dissent

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When the remaining flotsam of 20 or so Conservative MPs wash up on dry land after the next general election, they may do well to consider why it was that during this Parliament, every time the credibility of Prime Minister Tony Blair sank further into the depths, the credibility of their own party sank with it.

If Tony Blair is George W. Bush’s poodle, the Conservative party is the poodle’s poodle or, as Jonathan Swift might have put it, the flea’s flea: ‘Naturalists observe, a flea/hath smaller fleas that on him prey,’ he wrote, ‘And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em,/and so proceed ad infinitum.’ Blair’s genius has been to make his political opponents complicit in his own crimes, so that when he suffers for them, so do they. In fact they suffer for them even more than his own party does, since the general public sees that many within the Labour party dislike the Prime Minister rather more than most Conservatives do. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Labour party at least had the virtue of a sizeable rebellion in its ranks. The Conservative party had no such thing. As a result, it cannot capitalise on the war scandals which have been revealed, and is taking much of the blame.

Oppositions are meant to oppose. Instead we have the creepy spectacle of Tory MP John Bercow writing crawling letters to Tony Blair saying, ‘Congratulations on your superb speech in the Iraq debate. On this subject, as on many other foreign affairs issues, you have provided outstanding statemanship.’ Not to be outsmarmed, the newly endorsed Conservative parliamentary candidate Michael Gove cries, ‘I can’t hold it back any more; I love Tony!’

The subservience extends beyond lip service. Take David Blunkett’s endless efforts to revoke every civil liberty all the way back to Magna Carta. Where is the outrage on the Conservative benches? If the Tories came into power, can anyone imagine that they would abolish Blunkett’s obnoxious identity cards with their gratuitous fee, end the practice of imprisoning people indefinitely without trial, or revoke extradition treaties which oblige this country to put British citizens into the hands of foreigners without the latter having to produce any evidence against those citizens? Obviously not. The Tories are (with some noble exceptions) as enamoured of authoritarianism as our Home Secretary.

The voter has not been impressed. In Leicester and Birmingham, the Conservatives could at least kid themselves that they took such a battering because there were a large number of Muslims in those constituencies. When they come fourth behind the Respect coalition in the Hartlepool by-election, there will be no such excuse. The Conservative party is drowning, not waving.

The fatal shipwreck was the Conservative policy towards Iraq and matters of defence and security in general. Opinion polls regularly showed that Conservatives were much more likely to be anti-war than Labour voters. Yet instead of seizing the helm, the Conservatives nervously bleated along behind Tony Blair. In consequence, Britain now finds that it went to war on what have proved to be false premises, and the official opposition is incapable of landing a single blow on the person responsible. It is hardly surprising that people are abandoning the Conservatives in droves.

There is a way forward. That is for the Conservative party to stop bailing out its doomed policy, admit that it was taken in by the deceptions, and make a fresh start.

Sadly, there seems not the slightest chance of such a thing happening. Conservatives seem incapable of seeing the iceberg sticking up through the broken shards of their dogmas on defence and security. Their hysterical reaction to the statement on defence capabilities was typical. They remembered to shout ‘betrayal’ on cue, like pantomime villains, but left their pocket calculators at home. Spending more money on new equipment while firing people is not cuts, but restructuring. Geoff Hoon, for once, is quite right. We are sacking infantrymen not because we are spending too little, but because we are using up all the money on aircraft carriers and fancy new electronic gadgets so that we can sail off to invade other people. It isn’t the size of the budget which is wrong. It is the priorities.

The Conservatives are not just uninformed about defence matters, but determined not to learn. One of Britain’s most respected soldiers, General Sir Michael Rose, recently wrote in the International Herald Tribune: ‘It is all too clear that the present American [and to this we may add British] strategy, which is based on military intervention, is not working — and that a radically different approach to global security is needed.’ But try getting the Conservative establishment in this country even to consider what that might mean in practice, and in a flash you see a row of duck tails sticking up, heads deep in the water.

Not long ago I had an experience which demonstrated the problem all too clearly. Earlier this summer a conservative organisation, the Centre for Policy Studies, invited me to write an original pamphlet on defence policy. (I almost called this body a think-tank, but I fear that although they certainly believe in armoured warfare, there is no think in their tank.) The pamphlet (whose outline the CPS approved) laid out a conservative-minded thesis arguing against the doctrines of military intervention and expeditionary warfare which have characterised defence policy under the Blair government. I concluded, as agreed, by offering some controversial, and hopefully thought-provoking, recommendations.

The CPS reviewed the pamphlet and told me that the ‘analysis was very good’ and the ideas ‘extremely well expressed’. However, they also had to cringingly inform me that a member of the organisation’s management board (no doubt a senior Tory) had ‘thrown a fit’ without even reading the pamphlet. The pamphlet was thus vetoed; as a matter of policy, the CPS would not, under any circumstances, countenance any opinions which did not coincide with that particular member’s own ideas of what defence should be. This is not so much the ‘Centre for Policy Studies’ as the ‘Centre for Pre-determined Policies’. It was precisely this problem of deciding the answer first, and then working out how to get it, that led us into so much trouble over Iraqi WMD, but it appears that the lesson has not been learnt.

Alone among the conservative press, The Spectator has done a sterling job in representing the anti-war sentiment of most conservative-minded people in this country. It has given voice to Matthew Parris, Simon Jenkins, Correlli Barnett, and others. In return it has faced the inevitable accusations of ‘appeasement’. Sadly, it is the latter who are ruling the roost. The Conservative party and its hangers-on in the world of the Daily Telegraph, the Times and so-called think-tanks like the CPS are clearly determined to veto any ‘radically different approach’ of the sort demanded by General Rose, preferably without even understanding it first. They are determined not to examine or reconsider policies which have proved disastrous for both themselves and the country.

The Conservatives will pay for their folly at the polls. Mr Gove may find that his safe seat proves not to be so safe after all, and that a year or so from now he isn’t among that rump mournfully looking on at the spectacle of Charles Kennedy, leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.