'Michael Howard May Turn out to Be the Tory Leader Who Lays Thatcher's Ghost': It Is an Ugly Prospect, but a Strong State, Old Labour on Public Services and Right-Wing on Immigrants, Could Be the Central Vision of a New Conservatism

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), November 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Michael Howard May Turn out to Be the Tory Leader Who Lays Thatcher's Ghost': It Is an Ugly Prospect, but a Strong State, Old Labour on Public Services and Right-Wing on Immigrants, Could Be the Central Vision of a New Conservatism


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


Francis Bacon once remarked that he voted for the right because it makes the best of a bad job. Like many of the painter's observations, it captures a whole way of looking at things--in this case, one that has vanished from politics. The idea that humans are an incorrigibly flawed species is taboo today, but it was the right's key tenet for much of the past 200 years. It was abandoned only in the 1980s, when the Tory party became the vehicle for an anachronistic experiment in reviving 19th-century individualism.

The keynote of Margaret Thatcher's outlook was not any insight into human imperfection, but a militant faith in progress. What Britain--and later, as her vision became more hubristic and fantastical, the entire world--needed was a permanent revolution, in which the spirit of capitalism was promoted throughout society. Armed with this bullish philosophy, Thatcher forced a brutal modernisation on the country. It was a traumatic process that cost her the leadership and nearly destroyed her party. No Conservative leader after her has been able to slow the party's decline into a rancorous rabble. If John Major was unable to nudge it back into the mainstream, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith fared no better in their attempts to lead it from the right. With the ties of loyalty severed by a matricidal coup, the party had become ungovernable.

Can Michael Howard succeed where three previous Conservative leaders failed? His emergence as leader has been greeted as a sign that the Tories are regaining their sanity. Howard is a subtle and ruthless politician of vast experience. Unlike his Cambridge contemporary Kenneth Clarke, he shows signs of having reflected on that experience. Assuming that his coronation is unopposed and does not provoke too much anger in the constituencies, he may be able to unify the party and turn it at last into something closer to an effective opposition--but can he take it back to power? His hardline Thatcherite past may help to endear him to Tory activists, it is often said, but it can hardly enable him to reach out to the floating voters he must attract if he is to lead the party back from the wilderness.

It is sensible to discount the media euphoria surrounding Howard's seemingly effortless rise to power. Recent opinion polls suggest that the Tories face forbidding difficulties, and even now may not have hit the bottom. If Howard fails to deliver the goods in terms of party unity, he will face the wrath of the constituencies, which remain resentful at the way Duncan Smith was removed from power. Even if Howard were to retain the loyalty of his party, it may be at the cost of failing to recoup the voters it lost to new Labour and is now losing to the Liberal Democrats.

It is entirely conceivable that, a couple of years on, the Tories will still be locked in introverted despair, facing a third landslide defeat at the polls.

There is another scenario, however. Howard may turn out to be the Tory leader who lays Thatcher's ghost. His cast-iron right-wing credentials may enable him to make a decisive break with the party's Thatcherite past--an achievement that has consistently eluded the party's avowed modernisers. If he can do this, he will have a big advantage over Tony Blair's new Labour, which is mired in the defunct orthodoxies of the Thatcher era.

It is commonly thought that the only way the Tories can re-enter the political mainstream is by undergoing a Blair-style transformation. This is a distinctly unpromising strategy for the Tories. It would amount to copying Blair copying Thatcher--hardly a winning gambit at a time when the voters are looking for something very different from the neoliberal gruel that both parties have served up for the past decade.

Blair's initial success in attracting Tory voters may have come from aping Thatcher, but history has moved on since then. If the imperative for the Tories is to bury their Thatcherite past, reimporting Thatcherism from new Labour is hardly a wise move. …

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