Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The State of the Tory Nation

Age has neither withered nor mellowed Norman Stone, described as ‘Lady Thatcher’s favourite historian’ in the headline to his piece in yesterday’s Evening Standard. The former Oxford Professor has spent the last 13 years at Bilkent University in the Turkish capital Ankara, writing a brilliantly concise and idiosyncratic history of the First World War and a newly published and very personal history of the Cold War. But he occasionally emerges to comment upon British politics and never fails to entertain.

He argues that the ‘Dianified’ Conservative Party of David Cameron is unworthy of holding office and should ‘let a new Lib-lab coalition take the responsibility’ for cleaning up Britain’s economic and social travails. Prof Stone’s Tory vision is rather at odds with the Notting Hill modernisers: ‘A real Conservative Party would just promise to put an end to the stupid vexations we have to put up with,’ he writes.

‘ Does anyone really want to live in a country where the government has the power to stop people from smoking in private clubs? Or where the perishable rubbish is collected every two weeks (in Istanbul they collect rubbish twice a day, because otherwise the cats scratch open the bags; and since we are on the subject, if an able-bodied young man started begging, he would be honour-killed and quite right, too; the begging slot is reserved for old women who deserve it).’

Hard to see Norm’s policies being much of a basis for negotiations with the Lib Dems should a hung Parliament arise, but a Conservative Party led by the Grand Vizier Boris Johnson may be interested in the lessons of Turkish social policy.

On the subject of the crisis in the Conservative Party as it approaches the General Election on May 6th, I picked up a book titled Is Conservatism Dead?, published in 1997 and co-authored by the Tory MP David ‘two brains’ Willetts (who thinks it isn’t, of course) and the political philosopher, former Thatcherite and all-round pessimist John Gray (who thinks it is). Gray blames the Conservative Party’s embrace of neo-liberalism for the demise of the Western world’s most successful political party:

‘The hegemony of the Conservative Party, exercised in British politics for more than a century and a half, depended on its skill in renewing a particular kind of social order. Generations of Tory statecraft bound the Conservative Party by unnumbered threads to institutions and interests central in the life of the nation. Its dominance in national politics reflected its success in building and protecting networks that linked it with centres of power in the country at large. The hegemony of the Conservative Party stood on its successful construction of a Tory Britain. The effect of nearly 20 years of New Right policies, in conjunction with vast changes in the global economy, has been to blow over that construction.’

Margaret Thatcher was anything but a Conservative, having much more in common with the old Manchester Liberals. We won’t know until May 7th, but how ironic if the modern incarnation of the Liberal Party was to be the greatest beneficiary of her legacy?

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