The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The forces of conservatism

An uneasy feeling, nothing more: This country is sleepwalking towards a Tory government. A new Tory government would not be more of the same - Blairism with a less human face. It would be as different from the governments of Thatcher and Major as theirs were from those of Edward Heath. It would resemble Thatcher's only in its capacity to astonish. The Left would spend the next ten years beating their heads against questions like How can they get away with that? and Where did we go wrong?

Better to figure out where we're going wrong now. We're going wrong in two ways, which are two sides of the same mistake: identifying the Labour Party with Blairism. One part of the Left is busy defending New Labour, and another part is saying there's no difference between the Labour Party and the Tories, and is busy building electoral alternatives to the Labour Party. It doesn't matter whether these alternatives are the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the SSP or Respect. In a General Election under the British first-past-the-post system, any non-Labour vote or abstention anywhere but a rock-solid safe seat is a Tory vote.

Better, too, to figure out now how the Tories can get away with that. Just as Blair learned from Clinton, the Tories are learning from Bush. It's a two-track approach. They'll spout a lot of emollient guff and sensible criticism of the government, which you can even find yourself nodding along to when they're on Question Time. At the same time, they'll dangle plenty of red meat in front of their base. The suggestion that immigrants be screened for HIV and TB is a good example. Immigrants and infectious diseases! The last time I saw that connection made was in a National Front leaflet in the 1970s. Labour sometimes inexcusably panders to such prejudices. Many Tories believe in them.

One reason why the long-awaited rise of an overtly nasty, right-wing populist party on Continental lines in UK politics hasn't happened is that Britain already has a natural home for overtly nasty right-wing populism. It's called the Conservative and Unionist Party. On the Continent, war and Nazi occupation separated conservatism from the traditionalist and nationalist Right. Christian Democracy, Gaullism etc are in this respect different from the Conservatives, who have their colonial colonels and dapper Islamophobes safely inside the big tent.

The recent contrived outrage and ostentatious offence-taking at supposed anti-semitic vibes in two draft posters floated by the Labour Party doesn't contradict this in the slightest. It's a bid to inject US levels of venom into UK politics. The posters attacked Tory promises on public spending. One poster played on the cliche 'pigs will fly' and showed flying pigs with the heads of Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin. The other showed Michael Howard as a stage hypnotist, waving a watch on a chain in front of wavy, spooky lettering spelling out 'We can spend the same money twice.' It took the sort of laboured semiotics that Tories rightly deride in Cultural Studies to detect anti-semitism in that. Labour, needless to say, folded at once.

Thatcher succeeded in destroying the bones and sinews of the British post-war settlement: heavy industry and the industrial public sector. She left altogether too much of the nervous system and connective tissue relatively untouched: the NHS, the BBC, the education system, a welfare system that handily hides mass unemployment in a haze of benefits. John Major preferred the quiet life. A new Tory government wouldn't. Much as I detest New Labour's imperialism and its civil authoritarianism, I'd rather have it in government, where we can fight it, than in opposition, where it's in our trench against a worse enemy.

This take on the matter is only held by the tiny Labour left and the even tinier Communist Party. The rest of the Left is in the Stepford tendency or following after strange gods. Hence the uneasy feeling.


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