There is a weirdness about the Conservative predicament. The Conservative party has won all the great intellectual and political battles of the last quarter-century. It has defined — and continues to define — the public argument over the role of the state, the acceptable level of taxation, the nature of the economy, the power of trade unions, the scope of public services and the limits of the European Union.
Looking back, with the aid of hindsight, it is possible to see that the Conservative administration of 1979–97 was perhaps the most illustrious and creative peacetime government of modern British history. It headed off economic collapse, gave security and prosperity to millions of people, restored our broken national pride and turned the tide of history.
More striking still, the ideas of the Thatcher/Major period were so strong that they continue to dominate policy-making now that New Labour is in power. Peace in Northern Ireland, perhaps Tony Blair’s least equivocal success, owes everything to the deal struck with the IRA by John Major. The continued strength of the British economy, in such contrast to France and Germany, is the product of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial and immensely courageous supply-side reforms of the 1980s: Chancellor Brown now acts as Margaret Thatcher’s apostle every time he urges economic reform on our European partners.
But the most striking example of this continuing Conservative triumph is last weekend’s referendum result in France. It was Tory party pressure which forced Tony Blair, previously strongly opposed, into announcing a British referendum. President Jacques Chirac was then shamed into taking the same step, with fatal results.
Benjamin Disraeli, long before he became prime minister, defined ‘Tory men and Whig measures’ as the basis for a sound administration. The most helpful definition of Tony Blair’s administration is ‘Labour men and Tory measures’.