Magazine article The Spectator

Conservative Hearty

Magazine article The Spectator

Conservative Hearty

Article excerpt

WHEN lain Duncan Smith said on Sunday that the Conservative party might need to reconsider its opposition to Clause 28, a Guardian-reading woman of my acquaintance responded, 'I thought he was a rightwing nerd, but he's starting to look like an opportunistic right-wing nerd.' This may be unfair of her, but it indicates the sort of difficulties Mr Duncan Smith can expect as he tries, in the painting-by-numbers style already used with minimal success by a number of Margaret Thatcher's other admirers, to widen his appeal by saying what he thinks liberal-minded voters want to hear. There are various reasons why Mr Duncan Smith is foolish to try to increase his popularity by such means. It makes him sound insincere and ingratiating, but, worse than that, it gives the impression that he seeks salvation for the Conservative party by turning it into a second-rate version of the Liberal Democrats.

The English are a generally conservative people. So too, with variations, are the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots. This conservatism cannot be reduced, without missing the point of it, to an ideology or a political programme. It may manifest itself in such diverse forms as love of the National Health Service or love of Durham Cathedral, but it is more a matter of temperament, tone of voice, attachment to existing ways of doing things, hatred of jacks-in-office. It may countenance the most astonishing changes, but is happiest if these can be regarded as a natural extension of what has gone before. It tends towards gentle scepticism and is repelled by stridency. It would rather go to the pub than read a self-improvement manual.

This will sound, to many, like a hopelessly imprecise description of what it means to be a conservative. Certainly, the characteristics enumerated above, and some others equally conservative, can be found in all parts of the electorate, though most frequently among those who do not vote. But the point about the existence of this conservative temperament (which is, of course, far from being the only impulse in our politics) is that it gives the Conservative party some hope of exercising a very wide appeal, not by being liberal but by expressing a decent conservatism.

It is in this sense that Kenneth Clarke is infinitely more conservative than Mr Duncan Smith. We have become so bamboozled by those who assert the supremacy of `policy' over all other considerations that we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that Mr Clarke is `left-wing' while Mr Duncan Smith is `right-wing'. These tiresome Continental terms obscure far more important differences between the two men. Mr Clarke is not only more experienced. He also has the great virtue of appearing less uptight, less driven and less inclined to imagine that every political problem can be solved by locking a collection of odd young men in a think-tank and telling them not to come out until they have devised a new structure for the health service or a replacement for the domestic rates.

The think-tank approach leads, at least in all but its most gifted practitioners, to a hopelessly mechanistic view of government; one that sees the role of minister as akin to sitting in a control room and achieving the desired effect by pulling levers or pushing buttons. It takes no account of the need for judgment, courage and luck, or of the determining influence which unforeseen circumstances and events will have. There is a version of Margaret Thatcher's success as prime minister in which the think-tanks (notably the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies) play the heroic part, by marking out a route deep into enemy territory with their coruscating pamphlets, while she is reduced to the role of a reasonably competent cook, who simply had to trudge along after them and follow their recipes with a certain dull conscientiousness to achieve triumphant success. Her courage, energy, judgment, pragmatism and ability to work with colleagues from all parts of the conservative tradition and beyond are all taken for granted, while the improvised, hand-to-mouth nature of much of what her administrations actually did is forgotten - as are the enfeebled and divided state of the opposition and the fact that, after many years of humiliating failure and in an atmosphere of crisis, a substantial number of people were prepared to follow a woman who in more normal times would have been cast aside as insufferably irritating. …

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