One should never underestimate the capacity of British institutions to patch themselves up and keep going. But the British general election is like a race between two sinking ships. The Conservative Party and the Prime Minister are both holed below the water line. Of the two, the decomposition of the Tories is the more serious, that of Blair the more striking.
When he became leader it was said that Blair had ‘borrowed the Labour Party’ to achieve his personal ambitions. But it was also true that the Labour Party borrowed Blair to make it electable. When, after Iraq, it became clear that if you live by Blair you will die by Blair, Labour should have dropped him. When they did not it was the Tories great chance.
They missed it. No one sees the Conservatives as a government in waiting, not even themselves.
It was noticeable that Bush and the Republicans in America last year were evangelical in their call to arms – however mean spirited the prejudices behind being ‘pro-life’. They were pro-migration, spoke Spanish, had prominent blacks in the so-called White House and went out and invaded other countries. To put it another way, the Republicans are in favour of the modern world, even if it is their very own incredible version of it.
By contrast Britain’s right-wing party is against migration (even if it does not quite say so). It is against Europe (though it denies this the body language is clear). It is against the Scots (and has a special English clause in its Manifesto which I will blog on soon). It is even against the bullying of President Bush (but dare not say so). In effect, the Conservative Party is against the forces reshaping the world of which we are part.
And it has no credible, alternative worldview of its own. It has built its campaign around relentless attacks on Blair, Labour’s weakest link. But instead of being inspiring in the way that the promise of sweeping out something old and rotten can inspire, the attacks seem hollow and opportunist rather than well founded, as the Tory broom itself has not changed and renewed itself. Matthew d’Ancona, deputy editor of the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, set out the case in a magisterial column
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I can’t resist quoting him. He observes that immigration and asylum are a proxy for the irresistible forces of globalisation, “People sense the forces and are made anxious by them. How could it be otherwise? But that does not mean politicians have a duty simply to parrot these anxieties, to take their script from the doorstep like stenographers… the Tories face a choice between presenting themselves as prospective governors in the modern world, or as refugees from it.”
God help England if by chance the refugees from the modern world should win.
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I promised to respond to Sophie Scruton’s comment on an earlier blog (7 April) about the Tory party and this seems the right moment. After the party rejected Laura Sandys as its candidate in Arundel and South Downs I said then that it had failed to renew itself: “How is it possible for the Conservatives to systematically refuse to choose Laura as a candidate? It is not just because local activists don't like intelligent, single women. It is also that the leadership is not modern and does not want the future to be different from the past it once knew.”
Sophie responded that at least the rejection of such potential candidates (and she too wishes to be one) is a truly democratic process open to all local constituency party members, unlike the top-down fixes of the Labour machine.
The raises two questions: What does it mean for political parties to be democratic? And what is happening to the Tories?
I think that parties need to be in open argument with voters, as d’Ancona describes. This might mean opening the choice of candidates to primaries in which voters choose who should be the candidate. Certainly a party leadership must seek to persuade its members to lift up their heads and engage with the larger world. An eloquent exploration of what this should mean for politics is given by George Papandreou in his recent openDemocracy interview
If a party becomes captured by activists it can become sterile, closed and sectarian. This is the opposite of democratic for the public at large. In this case many who are not Tories want a positive contest. By failing to renew itself, the Conservatives are letting Labour off the hook. I stand by my blog.
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