Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Hague Has Lost Me

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Hague Has Lost Me

Article excerpt

SHORTLY after he became Conservative party leader, William Hague promised us a 'fresh' style of Conservatism. Such promises tend to be made by all new party leaders, so Hague's own declaration aroused no great interest. However, during a series of interviews during the summer of 1997, and in his first speech as leader to the Conservative conference, it began to look as if Hague might really be offering something different - and potentially popular.

Hague's economic ideas were not particularly surprising, even though there was enough in them to distinguish him from Tony Blair and even John Major: a firm belief in privatisation and competition, a clear scepticism towards European integration and the single currency, and a stout defence of laissez-faire economics.

Yet it was some of his non-economic ideas which provoked a certain guarded enthusiasm from sections of the electorate including voters who did not normally consider themselves Conservative.

The new Tory leader appeared to suggest that, having established the case for economic laissez-faire, his party should now harness it to the case for moral and cultural laissez-faire; and so, having spent the past 20 years attacking state interference in the economic and industrial spheres, the Tories should spend the next 20 years assailing state interference in the social and cultural spheres as well.

To many of us, this seemed logical enough. If one argued that the state had no right to decide how the bulk of our income was spent, it also seemed fair to argue that the state should not make moral judgments about the way we conducted our `non-economic' lives -- short of insisting that we respect the safety, property and privacy of others.

Following this logic through, Hague went on to argue that Conservatism should take a more tolerant view of `non-traditional' ways of living, such as those represented by single parents, unmarried cohabitees, homosexuals and lesbians and various ethnic minorities. In expressing such ideas, he was also advancing an alternative version of 'compassion' - one which demanded of governments not extra public money but moral neutrality, a counterblast, it seemed, to both the 'preachy' tone of the Prime Minister and the fiscally rapacious leanings of his Chancellor.

Hague's message might have been intellectually consistent, yet it was scarcely consistent with traditional Conservatism, a creed which usually sought to combine economic libertarianism with moral and social authoritarianism -- denying governments the right to interfere in the economy (`set the people free', `roll back the frontiers of the state') while endorsing their right to lecture us on such matters as family and educational policy (as seen in the ill-fated `Back to Basics' project). For many younger voters in particular -including those who supported the economic side of Conservatism - it added up to a fairly nauseating hypocrisy.

Hague's `fresh Conservatism', however, seemed like a belated but welcome attempt to bring 'social' Conservatism into line with the party's economic position. Although it might have worried some of the older Conservative voters, particularly the sixtysomethings who comprise the bulk of Conservative members, it looked like an interesting way of making Conservatism attractive to those floating voters in the 18-55 age-bracket -- voters who grew up in a culture that was broadly permissive, pluralistic and multicultural.

For those who remembered Hague as a Conservative student in the 1980s, this iconoclastic brand of Toryism came as no great surprise. He had been active in the Federation of Conservative Students at a time when US-style libertarianism took a strong grip upon the organisation, leading its spokesmen to advance shockingly permissive views on abortion, censorship, surrogate motherhood, cannabis and much else, all stemming from an almost religious zeal for consumer choice and individual empowerment. Consequently, the views Hague offered in the latter part of 1997 had strong echoes of youthful Conservatism in the Thatcher era - as did his insouciance at sharing a room with the unmarried Ffion during that year's party conference. …

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