Clear Blue Water?

by Tom on October 9, 2005

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.

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10.12.05 at 12:31 am



nick s 10.09.05 at 4:43 pm

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.

I’ve noticed it. In the form: ‘I am right, you are wrong.’ Or the form ‘The Bible is right, Darwin is wrong.’ Funnily enough, I suspect that Ancram would be on the side of the ‘wrong’, were he to engage in American politics.

(Btw, Tom, welcome back. One suggestion, though: perhaps put the bulk of the post inside the ‘extended entry’ field?)


gmoke 10.09.05 at 4:53 pm

I keep being reminded recently of different scenes from the movie Michael Powell did of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” However, I know that his Colonel Blimp is considerally different from the “Blimpishness” you describe, possibly one of the reasons the film was controversial in its time.


Tom 10.09.05 at 4:57 pm


I’ve only just figured out how to do the ‘extended entry’ thing. New to WordPress, y’know…

I do wonder what side of things Ancram would be on if transplanted to the US. I suspect that since he’s so fantastically posh, he might find lining up with the hayseeds rather (sniff) vulgar.

On the other hand, he’s no more upper-crust than Bush, who seems not to need to hold his nose at all.


Martin James 10.09.05 at 6:11 pm

As to the business of the boos.

I assume they were booing because they think they have at least as good or better understanding of right and wrong as the religious in the world.

Non-religious people generally dislike being accused of lacking morality just because they don’t believe in a God.

Tom or others how would you estimate the breakdown of the understanding or source of morality for those in the UK. For example, 1. right and wrong are fairly continous with social manners, 2. right and wrong are a matter of reason independent of popular beliefs, 3. right and wrong are a matter of feeling, 4. Right and wrong mean what you want but beleiving in fairy tales like the Yanks is surely wrong.

Or put slightly differently, to the question “If God is dead, is everthing permitted?”

What percentage would answer

1. Yes, of course.
2. No, of course not, with prude self-righteousness.
3. No, that’s what laws and mores are for, with a comfortable herd instinct.
4. No, but I couldn’t really tell you why not.

I really think its the question of our time and I just can’t figure out how people can not see the moral heterogeneity in our societies and how they won’t lead to considerable head-knocking to sort things out.

Do they really see themselves as beyond history in that both religion and war are obsolete?

It seems like the UK and Europe are trying to take
the fairy tale of religion one better.


Daniel 10.09.05 at 6:39 pm

I actually prefer AQ when Jonathan Dimbleby is hosting it because it is followed by the phone-in show “Any Answers?” which the host of AQ also hosts. The callers to “Any Answers” infaliibly begin making their comments to Jonathan Dimbleby by saying “well, David” and the manful sigh with which he ignores them is IMO the funniest thing on the radio these days.


bert 10.09.05 at 8:10 pm

Glad you brought this up, Tom.
I heard it too, and didn’t like it any more than you.

In the same show, Ancram stomped all over LibDem glovepuppet Sarah Teather for suggesting that the botched privatisation of the rail industry might have some bearing on the fatal rail crash at Hatfield. The judge ruled against the relevant corporations this week, and explicitly condemned the balkanised structure of the industry and the damage done to accountability and effectiveness by outsourcing maintenance. (Quote: “The elimination of one of the indefensible features of the 1996 privatisation – the separation of the ownership and control of the track from its maintenance – is now gone. Perhaps that is one good thing resulting from this disastrous affair.”) This didn’t stop Ancram huffily dressing Teather down for attempting to politicise a tragedy. I mention this because the same tactic has become part of the Bush administration playbook: parade the victims in order to shame those with awkward questions into respectful silence.

I’d always considered Ancram, if I considered him at all, a reasonably honourable member of a shoddy and incompetent government. His performance on AQ opened a window on a rather more crabbed, narrow and peevish politician.
Out of touch? Hope so.


Kenny Easwaran 10.09.05 at 11:11 pm

On another note, shouldn’t someone put you (back?) on the list of “who we are”?


Kieran Healy 10.09.05 at 11:18 pm

Thanks for the reminder, Kenny. Done now.


Thompsaj 10.10.05 at 1:00 am

Much further in to the broadcast, Ancram propounds a very “anti-bush” position on the 90-day suspension of habeas corpus that I could appreciate. British politics is strange…


Simstim 10.10.05 at 3:58 am

Thompsaj: much as I would like to think Ancram is being nice and liberal here, I think it’s more because the anti-Bush position on this issue is also anti-Blair.


Mrs Tilton 10.10.05 at 4:20 am

Hello Tom,

what a pleasure that you have broken radio silence at last.

Your link to the background piece about Ancram is a bit bloggered, though. This should work, or else cut & paste:


nik 10.10.05 at 4:50 am

I assume they were booing because they think they have at least as good or better understanding of right and wrong as the religious in the world.

I hate to say it, but I think they were booing because they think they have at least as good or better understanding of right and wrong as Americans do. I think you’d probably get this reaction anywhere you suggested to inhabitants of country X that inhabitants of country Y are morally superior to then.


Tom 10.10.05 at 5:34 am

Mrs Tilton,

Thankyou kindly – and good spot with the dodgy link. I’m going to blame my unfamiliarity with the fancy-dan WordPress interface again, but I guess I’ll not be able pull that one off indefinitely.


Bob B 10.10.05 at 5:46 am

“Non-religious people generally dislike being accused of lacking morality just because they don’t believe in a God.”

How about this from David Hume in 1748: Of the Original Contract ?

“All moral duties may be divided into two kinds. The first are those to which men are impelled by a natural instinct or immediate propensity which operates on them, independent of all ideas of obligation, and of all views either to public or private utility. Of this nature are love of children, gratitude to benefactors, pity to the unfortunate. When we reflect on the advantage which results to society from such humane instincts, we pay them the just tribute of moral approbation and esteem: but the person actuated by them feels their power and influence antecedent to any such reflection.

“The second kind of moral duties are such as are not supported by any original instinct of nature, but are performed entirely from a sense of obligation, when we consider the necessities of human society, and the impossibility of supporting it, if these duties were neglected. It is thus justice, or a regard to the property of others, fidelity, or the observance of promises, become obligatory, and acquire an authority over mankind. For as it is evident that every man loves himself better than any other person, he is naturally impelled to extend his acquisitions as much as possible; and nothing can restrain him in this propensity but reflection and experience, by which he learns the pernicious effects of that license, and the total dissolution of society which must ensue from it. His original inclination, therefore, or instinct, is here checked and restrained by a subsequent judgment or observation. . . .

“We shall only observe, before we conclude, that though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be deemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard, by which any controversy can ever be decided.”

– from:

Btw David Hume (1711-76) was a Tory and an agnostic. Go into a good academic bookshop nowadays almost anywhere and most will still be stocking his seminal texts.


nick s 10.10.05 at 6:23 am

How about this from David Hume in 1748: Of the Original Contract ?

Not just Hume, either: that’s pretty much the space occupied by all British moral philosophy in the 18th-c, with its negotiation between the idea of an innate moral sense and a more contingent model of self-love extended to society. (See also Adam Smith’s views on the social function of theism.) The founding sugar-daddies certainly embraced such notions, but that philosophical tradition in the US is offset by the influence of yer Jonathan Edwards-style Puritanism.

As for Ancram transplanted: well, the old-school monied Republicans of the New England shoreline aren’t doing too badly out of Bush, even as the party’s base has shifted away from them. I suspect that Ancram would be in the position of a Chris Shays or Olympia Snowe, derided as a Republican In Name Only. That’s to say that most Republicans are to Ancram’s right, whereas most of the Tory leadership contenders are to his left.


Tim Worstall 10.10.05 at 6:25 am

Well, he is a Marquis (Marquess?) now so isn’t he supposed to be out of touch?


Daniel 10.10.05 at 8:06 am

by the way, is “Clear Bluewater” the latest strand in the Anti-Social Behaviour Strategy?


Oskar Shapley 10.10.05 at 8:16 am

See, it would much easier to implement the Grand Kultur if it wasn’t for those pesky elections.

What great transformation could a god-appointed authority achieve if it could simply force the unwashed pot-smoking mob to behave according to the high standards of the Moral Elite!


Bob B 10.10.05 at 11:22 am

Ancram’s comments about “right and wrong in politics” become the more intelligible once it is recognised that he is a practising Catholic – which David Hume certainly wasn’t and FWIW nor am I.

Ancram is not the only practising Catholic among leading Conservatives: Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard’s immediate predecessor as Conservative leader, is also a practising Catholic, as is Edward Leigh who, like IDS, is a prominent member of the “Cornerstone” group among Conservative MPs, a faction reportedly considering whether it might run a candidate in the forthcoming election for the Party leadership and which tends to flourish claims to right-wing credentials.

However, Michael Ancram has recently announced that he will not not be seeking to run as a candidate for the leadership and has instead signed up to support Malcolm Rifkind’s bid. Now Malcolm Rifkind has made much of his espousal of One Nation Conservatism, arguably the original inspiration for compassionate Conservatism with roots going back to Disraeli, Britain’s PM in 1868 and 1874-80 who wrote in his novel Sybil (1845) about:

“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.”

Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary at the end of the last Conservative government here until the election in 1997 which brought Tony Blair and New Labour to power. He has made clear his scepticism and reservations about the Iraq war from the lead-up to the present, urging caution upon any British government before making open commitments to support the foreign policies of US administrations. Malcolm Rifkind is also a Eurosceptic. He also happens to be a jew but makes little of his faith and ethnicity in public pronouncements on his political views.

The resonance in Britain of the reports that President Bush was motivated by divine guidance in starting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can perhaps be better understood in terms of a series of tragic court trials in Britain over the last ten years or so in which the various accused were convicted of having killed at random members of the public while apparently acting under divine guidance. Each had a prior history of diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and had been released into the community to make their own way but had lapsed in regularly taking their prescribed medication. They were usually committed to secure mental health hospitals.

With due respect to Tom here, it seems to me verging on nonsense to suppose that Michael Ancram should be taken as characteric or representive of Conservative opinion and values just as it would be nonsense to suppose, say, Ian McCartney or David Blunkett are necessarily representative of New Labour values. It was Tony Blair himself who said in a keynote speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999 on the Blairite foreign policy doctrine:

“If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. . . If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar. . . ”

We are now better placed know what importance Blair gave to that when it came to the crunch in 2003.


Troutsky 10.10.05 at 12:16 pm

they talk right and wrong but they do will to power.The Mormons out here where I live talk to God all the time and God talks to them. Sometimes people die but more often than not they just get rich.


Matt_C 10.10.05 at 11:08 pm

God, my country sucks.

Reading about all these other lands where phony appeals to superstitious self-righteousness are political poison makes me feel like an embarrased kid forced to ride the short bus to school because of overcrowding on the regular one.

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