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To want to be different is now normal

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 August 2001

I first heard the word ‘normal’ used with political consequence in 1987. But I did not realise its significance at the time. It was in Moscow, where people were starting to say: ‘All I want is to live a normal life’. I thought it was just an individual expression. Today, however, I can still recall the force with which it was expressed; a quiet force which turned out to be the early tremor of an earthquake.

I felt another, bigger tremor a year later in London at a discussion on the significance of the reforms being introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev. ‘We want our country to become normal’, said both a Pole and an East German.

It is a modest word. But it has an insidious character and devastating power. Its utterly non-ideological claim escapes all censors. You can hardly jail someone for saying they want to be normal. And it eroded the Soviet-style regimes from within, as the sentiment increasingly drained their more intelligent officials of self-belief. Thanks to travel and tourists they too became conscious that ‘normal’ human life was elsewhere and it took the stomach out of their ability to fight for their privileges. The desire to be ‘normal’ helped to end the Cold War peacefully and initiated the world we know today.

There were, of course, many senior Soviet officials who did not lose their self-belief. They thought they were the norm! This made them even more weird and laughable - and their authority all the more arbitrary and intolerable.

What did ‘normal’ mean ten years ago in this context? It meant freedom. Not in its positive sense, such as ‘the right to freedom of speech’. It was more like the right not to listen to speeches or to go on holiday where you wanted to. To be normal meant not to have to ask permission. To be different, in the sense of not having to live in an officially approved way.

It is ten years ago this month that the coup against Gorbachev crumbled and in so doing brought down Soviet Communism. A lesson from that time is to watch out when you hear the word ‘normal’ used in politics. It could well signal that something quite profound is happening below the surface.

Tebbit’s normality defines Portillo’s difference

At any rate, I pricked up my ears at the start of the battle for the leadership, now underway, of the world’s oldest political party: the British Conservatives, colloquially known as Tories. The word ‘normal’ hangs over the contest like a shroud.

Historically the Tories chose their leaders ‘from above’. The process was hardly faultless, but it allowed a once skilled ruling elite to impose cultivated candidates on a party whose rank and file members were often narrow-minded. It was effective because, having nothing to do with party democracy, it could address the wider, public opinion.

That was in the past. If such higher circles could be recreated today, they would almost certainly have handed the mantle of leader to Michael Portillo. When the Tories suffered an unprecedented second general election rout in June this year, William Hague, who had had the unfortunate privilege of heading their opposition to Tony Blair, stepped down. A new system for appointing his successor came into play. The Tory MPs choose candidates who then go to a vote of all party members.

In the first round of the MPs voting, Portillo went straight into the lead. He was then subjected to a campaign of character assassination. His charisma was derided as vanity; his efforts at thoughtfulness scorned as opportunism and he was sent tumbling into third place. It was close but it was final. By the width of a single vote the most creative contender was eliminated.

His downfall began when, immediately after the General Election disaster, the party grandee Norman Tebbit declared that Michael Portillo was not sufficiently ‘normal’ to lead the nation.

It was a reference to Portillo’s gay past (something he had ‘admitted’ in an attempt to pre-empt press exposure) and also to the fact that his marriage was childless (Portillo’s wife suffered a physical disability in this respect). But these were merely symbols of what he stood for. He wanted the Tory Party to gain a multi-cultural appeal, to make sense to young people who smoke drugs, to be urban in its life style and at ease with fellow citizens across the modern world.

In other words he wanted the Conservative Party to become normal.

Europe is the key to this as much in cultural as in political terms. Europe not the Euro. I attended the first major speech Portillo delivered after he lost his seat in Parliament at the 1997 election. Stripped of all standing as a politician, he surveyed the landscape and there was no doubting the sincerity of his personal antipathy to the single currency.

But Portillo is the son of a Spanish immigrant and speaks his ancestral language. Diplomatically he is 'at home’ on the continent and knows its ways. This was the real charge behind his not being sufficiently ‘normal’ to lead Britain. Norman Tebbit is notorious for formulating the ‘cricket test’ for immigrants. Far from being racist, he explained, he welcomes Indians and West Indians living in the UK provided they support England at cricket. The larger meaning of this ‘test’ is evident. If people of other colours want to come here and be accepted they need to become just like us.

The more important implication of the cricket test is less often acknowledged. What it also says is ‘We, the English, will not be changed by your presence’. Naturally, in these times a country has to debate its role in a changing world. The hostility to ‘multi-culturalism’ on the Tory right stems from anxiety about where this might lead and a determination to exclude the voices of ‘outsiders’ from the debate.

On the surface Portillo passed the cricket test. He did do the things Tories do. He was an early supporter of Thatcher, he is against the Euro. But if he was to become Prime Minister, this would mean accepting that ‘we’ and not just ‘they’ have changed.

Of course, the British have indeed changed. Ten minutes in any part of the London Tube system will verify that while the British no longer know how to run things, they certainly have changed. This was why Portillo was both an exciting and a plausible candidate - a Tory from new England, who better?

Which side can you be on?

The result of Portillo’s exclusion is that the leader will be one of two quite different candidates.

Kenneth Clarke is the best known, the more formidable and has proven ability, having been a Minister through much of the Thatcher years and the last Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, unlike 85 per cent of Conservative Party members he is flagrantly in favour of the UK joining the Euro and being fully part of the EU. If he wins, he will be selected because he is popular with the public. This is strange, as he probably did more than any other Conservative Minister after 1979 to cause grief to millions when he personally began the destruction of the National Health Service. But Clarke is loved by many of London’s male journalists. His beer-belly excuses their own. His shabby appearance sanctions their sloppiness. His lazy frankness and brutal philistinism are celebrated as a genius for telling it as it is.

Normal?

Yes, he represents what it was like to be normal in the 1950s.

If you want to know why young people rebelled in the 1960s, gaze upon Ken Clarke. Two of his chosen trademarks confirm his prehensile mentality: tobacco and the Euro. He is the non-executive Deputy Chairman of British American Tobacco, which gains a significant proportion of its revenues from smuggled cigarettes. Clark told the London Guardian last year that, “We act completely within the law”, while knowing that BAT brands “will be available... in the smuggled as well as legitimate markets”. A year later, confronted with the suggestion that a BAT subsidiary was directly involved with contraband revenues, he told the Financial Times, “I don’t have any knowledge of the day-to-day activities of this particular subsidiary in Switzerland”. So that’s all right, then.

In the aftermath of the election Portillo went on holiday to Morocco before deciding to run. Clark went to Vietnam to set up a BAT venture there. A legal one of course. Some might say it would be good for Asians, helping to solve their population problem, ho, ho.

And Europe, don’t his views here, at least, show a far-sighted progressive intelligence? On the contrary, the way Kenneth Clarke is pro-European is a prime reason why those against it are in the majority in Britain. ‘Don’t worry your silly heads about identity or democracy. It’s rich, modern, it’s good for business (and they have bigger cars), so leave it to me’ – sums up the attitude.

The fundamental attraction of the European process is that it offers a different way of being French or Spanish, a better way of being German or Portuguese, a new way of being Irish or Finnish. The trouble with the pro-Europeans in the British political elite since the 1950s is that they see it as a ‘modern’ way to be influential in the world, in other words a way of remaining what they already are. Hence their inability to confront, deal with or even acknowledge the fact that Europe does mean a profound change. Kenneth Clarke’s Europhile views are a ghastly expression of a stifling pro-Europeanism that closes down thought in the name of ‘modernisation’.

The consequence is Iain Duncan Smith. He is the alternative candidate for the Tory leadership. He is known as IDS, the code-like quality of these three initials reinforcing an unfortunate public stiffness which gives him the appearance of a prototype replicant. This is reinforced by his views on hanging (for), abortion (against), and Star Wars (an advocate). He also wishes to halve the costs of state services and is against the Euro “in principle”.

Normal?

Norman Tebbit thinks so : IDS is an ex-soldier with a family of four children. Proof.

IDS has also suggested that the UK should consider joining NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Association. On the British right, this is now a favoured alternative, or ‘counter-weight’, to the EU. But would NAFTA like the UK to be part of it? With the fast expanding Hispanic populations across the USA and the huge growth of Mexico, most of NAFTA may be Spanish speaking by the time IDS becomes Prime Minister. Perhaps he should send Portillo to ask whether NAFTA wants Britain.

Normality has become difference

The Tories are suffering from an extreme case of the need to be ‘normal’ which now disfigures politics everywhere. It was born by television and chat shows and is most advanced in America. After he gained the nomination at the Democratic Party convention, Gore kissed his wife for all too long, as if they were newly-weds who had just stepped into their first home. By behaving in front of all America like a regular couple, the Gores shook off his aristocratic legacy. His popularity rose massively. It was the kiss that won him the majority. A few seconds more and maybe he would even have got Florida.

However, Bush out-normalised him. Yale educated, son of a President, but shucks, “I’m just an unvarnished Texan”. The celebration of his ‘stupidity’ plays into his hands in this respect.

Tony Blair, ever acute to such trends, was well into being normal. Interviewed by Anne Applebaum before the 1997 election, he endured an hour of questions about his life and likes, and suddenly burst out: “I’m very normal really. I’m very normal. I love my family. I have a lot of friends, a lot of whom aren’t much to do with politics. When I close the door and get away from politics, I really can’t be bothered to think about it a great deal”.

There are two separate issues. First, the need politicians feel to appear to be ‘normal’ rather than different, and second, what their definition of ‘normality’ is. What they mean by it is the assumed statistical norm: a safe similarity to the ideals of the swing voter, the conventional, loyal, patriotic, monogamous, dope-free family person who is married to an exactly similar person.

Such people do exist. The fact that they seem to be becoming an ever smaller minority should not disqualify them from high office. On the contrary, public life needs more eccentrics. The problem (and this is the second issue) is the pretence that this is what we ‘should’ really be like. Behind the appeal to such ‘normality’ is a growing gap between official politics and unofficial life.

In a recent overview on the declining appeal of brands, Financial Times journalist Richard Tomkins quoted Martin Hayward, who chairs the Henley Centre (a highly-regarded forecasting group). “Mass marketing has become a very hard thing to do,” Hayward reported, “because people don’t like to be seen as ‘normal’ any more - they all want to be seen as individuals”.

Exactly. To want to be different is now normal.

The Conservative Party has failed to understand this. Whichever of its two candidates win the leadership contest, they will be appealing to the timid, the conventional and the fearful. Behind their conviction, the Tories have always tapped the deference and support of those who want a return to the imagined safety of the past.

But the energy and self-confidence of modern life prefers its own distinction to such deference. By sticking to the conventional, politicians increase their irrelevance. Normal life, so to speak, may well decide to do something about the caricatures who claim its name. Is an earthquake coming? The cracks are opening up, deep ones obviously within the Conservative Party, and more modestly on the surface of New Labour. The lava has yet to move.

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