If you wanted some evidence that significant strands in the modern British Conservative Party have simply no understanding of the country they aspire to govern, and consequently an explanation of why they’ve deserved to lose out so badly in their last three attempts to be allowed to do so, I suggest you could do worse than having a quick listen to this.
My link is to this weekend’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s venerable current affairs discussion program, ‘Any Questions’. AQ is, I suppose, very old-fashioned if you’re amongst those who are continually babbling about how ‘real people’ need their politics served up in new, different, exciting and inevitably infantilised forms: it involves a chairman (usually the rather oily Jonathan Dimbleby, but sometimes the infinitely preferable Nick Clarke) who is joined by a panel of four or five guests. These are usually representatives of the main political parties plus a sprinking the great and the good, the odd gabby journalist or politically-inclined showbiz figure, and so on and so forth. The whole thing takes place in front of a studio audience in a different town each week. The audience put questions to the panel about topical events; the panel don’t know in advance what the questions will be; it goes on for an hour; and it’s a fairly agreeable background noise for Saturday lunchtime.
Well, the panel for this week included the outgoing Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, the near parodically-grand Michael Ancram, and the question under discussion was whether we should all sleep more soundly in our beds given that, according to Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, George Bush told him that God directed him to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, and to secure the existence of a state of Palestine.
Now, I don’t want to focus on the accuracy of this report. Shaath could have made the whole damn thing up, and Bush’s reasons for his various wars could have been entirely publically presentable. (I take it that the latter part is, at it happens, severely contrary to fact, since publically presentable reasons for performing politcally controversial acts have a tendency to get, er, presented in public, but never mind that.)
Instead, take a look at this exchange between Ancram and Dimbleby (my fairly rough transcription, the Beeb doesn’t provide them.)
Ancram: It’s very easy to mock this, but I think you have to look closely at what motivates American politics and there is a much more heightened sense of what is right and wrong than there is in this country, and I’ve noticed when I’ve talked to a lot of American politicians, that that is the way a lot of American politics works. And I don’t think that, in many ways, American politics is the worse for that.
Dimbleby: British people don’t care about right or wrong?
Ancram: I think in some ways we have less of an appreciation in this country of what is right or wrong. I think our values and our standards…
Ancram: No, I think that quite seriously that over the time that I’ve been in politics I have seen certain values and standards going down, I have said this publicly before, there is a time now in politics, and I’m not making a party political point here, where politicians should start setting an example again as to what is right and what is wrong, because until politicians do that, we can’t expect anybody else to do likewise.
Dimbleby: Give an example of how politicians should demonstrate what is right or wrong, are you talking about in their lives, in their attitudes, or what?
Ancram: I think that in a sense it’s how you conduct yourself. I don’t think that politicians should talk to other people about right and wrong and then proceed to ignore that themselves….
He then blathers on for a bit about the value of respect, the importance of the rule of law, and rounds up with a rant about the decriminalisation of marijuana. Now barely a word of it had a damn thing to do with the question that was asked, but I reckon it’s revealing nonetheless, and I came close to choking on my lunch when I heard the passage above.
For one thing, the whole trope about a grateful nation looking to our political class to serve as our models of moral excellence is clearly a complete dead-end. We know this, because the last Tory administration gave it a try, and it ended up with us all having to read about the sex-life of David Mellor over breakfast. No party which contributes to such gastronomical stresses can possibly have popular appeal.
More fundamentally, though, Ancram seems to be gazing enviously across the Atlantic at the way in which American conservatives have been able to make political hay off the back of religiose, moralistic appeals which we really don’t have to put up with any more in British politics, and you can thank the deity of your choice for that. Ancram’s instinct is clearly that something went wrong since the 60’s, and that it would a good thing to try to roll back all that nasty modern stuff that decent people find so distasteful. Now so far as I can see, this line has pretty much zero political appeal in the UK, since we aren’t very religious at all, and the rhetoric about decadent cultural elites that gets deployed routinely by American conservatives in the context of waging their kulturkampf would transplant rather limply to a British context. I mean I know people make jokes about trendy Islington and Hampstead liberals, but I can’t see how a British version of Ann Coulter could emerge. (Is Melanie Phillips our closest home-grown equivalent?)
The point that the Tory modernizers kept making at their conference last week must be right: their party had better learn to accept Britain in roughly the shape it’s actually in, single mothers, gays and all, or it will have no chance of governing again and will not indeed deserve to.
I see nothing in the faux-populist moralism of the GOP that would fly at all in the UK. It’s evident that amongst very many Tories, this pretty basic message has still not been fully assimilated. Blimpishness amongst the Conservatives is an important part of their problem; blimpishness with a Texan swagger is highly unlikely to be any kind of solution.