Modern Conservatism, if there is such a thing any longer, is supposed to have started with Sir Robert Peel's Tamworth Manifesto. In practice the Tories have never set much store by them. They are, it is felt, nasty foreign inventions, more Engels than Eastbourne. Notoriously they are unread, except by parliamentary candidates and by the more assiduous political correspondents. But traditionally Labour has regarded them differently, indeed, taken them with some seriousness.
R H S Crossman used to say that their chief use was to provide a weapon which radical ministers could wield against conservative civil servants. "Look," they could say, "you've got to do it, because it's in the manifesto." Crossman's record at the departments he occupied does not suggest that this technique was unfailingly successful. But that was the theory anyway.
There were other reasons for Labour's enthusiasm for manifestos. They provided a guarantee of party democracy: more precisely, of the supremacy of the Labour conference over the parliamentary party. Any resolution passed by a two-thirds majority at the conference became embodied in the party programme, a mystical entity from whose constituent elements the manifesto would be composed. It would be carried out by an equally mysterious committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals.
This again was largely theoretical. James Callaghan simply refused to have the abolition of the House of Lords in the manifesto for the forthcoming election. That was that.
The manifesto also meshed with what the Cambridge school of political historians would call Labour's rhetoric. This usage has less to do with oratorical skills than with the language in which a party customarily chooses to conduct its affairs. We all know the lingo: "I make this promise...Comrades, I give you this solemn pledge." For so long a firm favourite in the People's Party, it is now being supplanted by the more bureaucratic "commitment", as in: "My friends [an early 20th-century form of address much liked by Mr Tony Blair], I give you this solemn commitment..."
In this respect Mr Blair is as much a follower of the conventions of Old Labour as his predecessors were. The language of promises, pledges and commitments trips all too easily off his tongue. In the manifesto the language cannot be avoided, owing to the nature of the production. It necessarily consists of saying what you are going or not going to do.
In the past few days there has been a lot in the papers about fox- hunting. My own view of this subject, by the way, is that the practice of "digging out" should be prohibited by law. Not only is it cruel. It is clearly unsporting, contrary to what the French call le fair play britannique. If the wretched animal has managed to get home, he has won the contest, and should be left to have a restoratif in peace. It may be that Mr Jack Straw will include this prohibition in his model rules for hunts, which seems to be the preferred governmental solution.
It may be also that the House of Lords will throw it out. What the manifesto promises for the Lords is more important than what it says about fox-hunting, because it affects the new government's entire programme. Since 1997 it has been frustrated or, at any rate, inconvenienced by the upper House on nearly 90 occasions.
The traditional Labour rhetoric trotted out by Lady Jay is that the Lords are unrepresentative and out-of-touch and have no business challenging the will of the elected chamber. In practice this usually means the whim of a few civil servants advising the minister formally responsible for the legislation. …