Tories

The Sunday Times published some stupid article the other day about how hip and trendy it was these days to be a young Conservative. I’m not going to link to it, partly because I have despised the Sunday Times ever since the days of Andrew Neil/Carmen Proetta, partly because I don’t think it gives free access to overseas readers, and partly because I think the articles only hang around for free access to UK readers for a short while. (These last two beliefs may be false; I don’t care). But I saw this piece mentioned over at Harry’s Place, where it has prompted some discussion.

The best intervention, however, has come from Matthew Turner, who rather punctures the claim that the Conservatives are the Party of Youth (how I dislike that word) by listing the products that are being advertised in the current edition of the Tories’ own magazine for loyal members, Heartland:

Accountants
Retirement investment advice
Vitamins ‘for a healthy lifespan’
Wine
Savile Row shirts
Medical insurance for the over 50s
Retirement homes on the South coast
Leg ‘relaxa-stool’ supporter
Margaret Thatcher books
‘Back-care’ chairs
‘Easy-bather’ bath aid
Typewriter
Pensioner’s hearing aid
Branded ‘comfort stretch’ trousers
Reproduction antique gramophone

In 1994 Whiteley, Seyd and Richardson reported in their book, True Blues that the average age of Tory party members was 62. Do we have any more recent information than that?

Michael Howard

Bernat Hecht was born in Ruscova on 13 November 1916, a member of Romania’s Jewish minority, three hundred thousand of whom would be murdered during the Second World War. (There’s a page memorialising the Ruscova dead, who include members of the Hecht family, here.)

Thanks to the assistance provided by the Landys, a South Wales family descended from refugees from Tsarist Russia, Bernat Hecht was able to come to the UK. In 1940, he married Hilda Kershion, a Landy cousin, and in 1941 a son was born in Llanelli. Bernat Hecht changed his name to Bernard Howard, and was naturalised as a British citizen in December 1947.

That son, Michael, is about to be anointed Leader of the Conservative Party.

On the whole, as we all know, the authorities were keen to keep Jews out of this country throughout the 1930s, and they were supported in this by influential sections of the British press. In a now famous passage, the Daily Mail wrote on 20 August 1938 that “The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming a an outrage – the number of aliens entering the country through the back door… a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed”. (So, no change there.)

But the numbers had not been large, and only 11,000 German Jews were resettled in Britain between 1933 and November 1938. Following the vicious state-sponsored pogrom on 9 November 1938 known as Kristallnacht, however, public pressure on the Home Office led to an increase in the number of visas offered to foreign Jews, and 40,000 Jews were able to come to Britain between November 1938 and the start of the war in September 1939. Although I don’t think we do know quite when Bernat Hecht made it to Wales, it’s very likely that it was in this period, and that he was able to come here thanks to this relaxation in the rules on immigration and asylum and the sponsorship (which was still required) of a family in this country.

It is excellent news that the child of an asylum-seeker is about to become Leader of the Opposition.

It is extraordinary, however, to reflect on the fact that this child is one of the key architects of the politics of persecuting and demonising asylum-seekers which has so disfigured British politics over the last decade, and shamed so much of our political class and our press in the process.

In the 1995 article from which I learned most of the above information, Nick Cohen asks the uncomfortable question, “whether Hecht would have reached a safe haven if his son had been in office at the time”? He ends the piece with these sentences:

“For the moment race is impinging on politics in the loud campaign to keep out refugees. Any Jewish politician who adds his voice to the clamour must, inevitably, be asked what would have happened to him if the new authoritarianism had been in place in the Thirties. And, with an equal inevitability, the answer will be that he would have been shut out and left to die.”

— Nick Cohen, from an article in The Jewish Quarterly, December 1995, reprinted as pp.208-217 of his excellent book, Cruel Britannia.

UPDATE [1/11/2003]: Today’s Guardian has more details on Mr Howard’s family background.

Tim and Ed

I saw Tim Collins on telly last night and recognised him. My diligence is paying off.

But — and this is the point of this blogpost — I also saw Ed Vaizey on the same programme. And since he was hymning the virtues of Michael Howard, I was reminded of what he wrote about him a little over two years ago in the Guardian.

He said then that while Michael Howard has “never been loved by the public”, “he is someone the public instinctively turns to when it wants genuine action…” This rather alarmed me — for, as I asked at the time — do you turn to Michael Howard when you want some, um, “genuine action”?

And today it struck me that maybe Ann Widdecombe‘s famous remark about there being “something of the night” about Mr. Howard has been systematically misunderstood…

OK, I’ll stop there. It’s too unpleasant to contemplate.

Tim Collins

Since my friends and I failed so lamentably to identify Tim Collins earlier this month, in a Guardian quiz on the composition of the Shadow Cabinet, I’ve been doing my best to keep up, mostly through regular visits to timcollins.co.uk, where you can read gripping stories like this or this. What appears on the website mostly focuses on celebrating his tireless work on behalf of his Cumbrian constituents, though, and this is of less interest to someone like me who isn’t really interested in Cumbria, and who has become convinced that Collins’ talent overflows his constituency boundaries and deserves a more prominent role on the national stage.

Which was why I was very pleased to hear Tim Collins on the Today Programme this morning, discussing the forthcoming votes on the leadership of the Conservative Party. Selected highlights appear below.

A couple of things to remember are (i) that Mr Duncan Smith had earlier suggested that his critics were cowards, since they weren’t going public with their plotting, so now that his critics were going public another line of criticism had to be developed; and that (ii) this interview went out shortly after 8am this morning, and that by 9.30am, Sir Michael Spicer had told IDS that the twenty five names were in the bag, and that he’d have to submit to the confidence vote. The interviewer is Jim Naughtie, and this is my own transcription, so no promises of strict accuracy down to the last syllable.

Q: Mr Collins, good morning to you.

–Good morning.

Q: Francis Maude has now come out as an opponent of Mr Duncan Smith’s. That may well encourage some others to do the same. Do you believe that the twenty five letters will go in, or not?

–No I don’t, and, to put this in context, it’s been an open secret around Westminster that for weeks, indeed, very possibly for months, Francis has been briefing against the Leader, has been seeking to organise efforts to destabilise him. I think, frankly, it’s a mark of desperation on his part that he’s has felt that has to come out and out himself this morning, because I think that that indicates that he and his colleagues are not confident of getting the twenty five names they have promised so many times by tomorrow evening.

Q: Do you think Mr Duncan Smith will survive?

–I do. We’ve heard from the plotters, or the intriguers, or however you want to call them, we heard two weeks ago that it was going to be within days, we heard last week it would be by the week-end, at the weekend that it would be by Monday, yesterday they told us it would definitely be by Wednesday. Iain took exactly the right decision, a bold and courageous decision, to say, “Now, come on, either you can do it by Wednesday evening or it will be clear that, frankly, you’ve been bluffing.”

Q: If you’re right, and if the twenty five letters don’t go in, what sort of condition will it leave Mr Duncan Smith’s leadership in after the last six weeks?

–Well, I think actually the position is moving potentially, decisively in Iain’s favour over the last twenty four hours, because there’s no doubt that the last few weeks [sic] the one thing every Conservative has been agreed on, whether it’s in the grassroots or in Parliament is that we can’t carry on like this. Now Iain is now the person who is charting a way by which we can bring this process to an end. If it is clear by tomorrow evening, as I hope and believe, that he has faced down his critics, exposed them as a very small minority, not even able to get fifteen per cent of Conservative MPs to call for a vote of confidence, then I think his position will be immensely strengthened, and that he’ll be able to go on from that to make whatever changes he’s believes are appropriate so we can prepare for the next election…

He ends by saying that since the plotters are having so much trouble assembling twenty five letters to force the ballot, he really doesn’t think they’ll be able to get the eighty-plus they need to topple IDS.Sadly, if Mr Duncan Smith does go down in flames tomorrow, that may be the end of Tim Collins’s Shadow Cabinet career, unless dribbling rightists are in demand under the new regime. We shall see. These are interesting — and entertaining — times.

The Iron Lady

Good news: the second volume of John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, has been published. Matthew Norman, in today’s Guardian Diary, has a bit of fun at Peregrine Worsthorne’s (and Mark Thatcher’s) expense:

In the Spectator, Peregrine Worsthorne reviews the second volume of John Campbell’s brilliant Thatcher biography, quoting a passage about how “the paradox of Thatcherism is piquantly embodied” in her family history. Campbell compares Alfred Roberts, the shopkeeper with a strong sense of civic duty and an obsession with thrift, with “Mark Thatcher, an international businessman possessed of visible abilities, qualifications of social conscience …” Perry’s always been a broad brush chap, and it barely matters, but in the original text is a “no” before that “visible”. How many times must we tell these young ‘uns about the sovereign importance of checking the detail?

In the first sentence of his review, Worsthorne notes that Campbell “poses the question of what Alderman Roberts would have thought of the new Thatcherite Britain”, and comments that, “It is a question which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been asked before”. Odd, perhaps, to review the second volume of a book when you clearly haven’t paid attention to the first.

Tory Party Conference

[This is another of those uncharacteristically long posts, so you might not want to bother with it. Unless you, like me, enjoy reading about the trainwreck on permanent loop that is the contemporary Conservative Party.]

The Conservative Party conference continues to be a fun distraction from the serious business of the day. Once it was a rather grim occasion, since the assorted ghastlinesses on parade in Brighton or Blackpool had a rather firm grip on the apparatus of the British state, and what they thought, said and did mattered in our lives. But now that the Party has had the stuffing beaten out of it over eleven years of catastrophic failure, it’s just a sideshow: a bunch of people who don’t really matter any more, talking to the only people who listen to them. And me, since I’ve just been enjoying Iain Duncan Smith’s speech on the telly.

Shorn of the trappings of power, the Conservatives really are a threadbare crew: an odd combination of elderly activists (an image the Party is trying to shed), a good number of unpleasant-looking young people (probably ditto), and the occasional TV close-up of people vaguely familiar from the twilight of the Major administration (ditto). (And, somewhere, one assumes, there was Tim Collins — though I didn’t manage to recognise him. But I’m working on it.) What you see is certainly nothing to do with a government-in-waiting. And it’s still a very confused party, whose confusion is happily on display in this priceless snippet from Andrew Gimson’s account of Theresa May’s speech on Tuesday in yesterday’s Telegraph:

They [= Conservatives] have very good manners. And they want Mrs May to succeed. They applauded at any opportunity. They began to applaud as soon as she mentioned Enoch Powell, not realising that the only reason for mentioning him was to point out triumphantly that his old seat, Wolverhampton South-West, now has an Asian woman candidate, Sandy Verma…

Today’s attraction, if I can call him that, was Iain Duncan Smith. Now I’ve written in these columns about Iain Duncan Smith before, when he was elected leader of the Party. He commands attention not because he’s an attention-commanding kind of person, but because he isn’t. A Conservative party in danger of sliding into permanent mediocrity caught its own private spirit of the age perfectly by electing to its leadership a man who was going to be permanently mediocre. They did this before, with Major Major, so this may be an instance of history repeating itself as farce, as it has been known to do. But it does make for a surprisingly gripping spectacle (at least for people like me, and also for people like Matthew Turner, too).The speech this morning was a disaster. (It’s available here). I’ve heard some people on the TV trying not to call it a disaster. But it was a disaster, and the rest of this overlong post will point to some of its disastrous features.

First of all, the conference layout didn’t suit IDS. He stood on a platform, alone, with his audience on three sides and no lectern. I assume he was supposed to look accessible, but for a man with very little physical presence, he came across on television as isolated, uncomfortable in the spotlight. Nye Bevan said something about going naked into the conference chamber; I doubt we�ll come closer to seeing this metaphor-made-flesh than this, and it wasn�t a pretty sight. (OK, so a genuinely naked IDS would be an even unprettier sight, but I don�t want to go there.)

Then, the speech itself. There are some things he should avoid doing in his oratory (a kind word, for what we were served up, but it’ll do for the time being). Here’s a quick tour:

  • Early on he sought to label the government as corrupt, lying, and incompetent. The lying charge is a good one: ministers do say a lot of things which are not obviously true, and Mr Blair is casually and repeatedly dishonest in a way that, on the whole, his predecessors weren’t. But words like “incompetent” and “corrupt” still resonate far more powerfully with the memory of the Major government of 1992-7 in the public imagination than they do with our current lords and masters.
  • He should be careful not to exaggerate, too. It is just not true that the government’s “blackest act” was the outing of Dr Kelly. Ministers behaved irresponsibly, Mr Blair was (despite his denials) intimately involved, and consequences were tragic. But that�s not the same thing at all, and Mr Blair has done some far blacker things (many of them cheered on by the official Opposition).
  • Nor indeed is the UK in the grip of dire poverty. Unemployment is comparatively low, inflation is low, the number of people in work is high, the government has found some effective means of alleviating the condition of the very poor, and so on. This means that passages like this — “For some families Labour’s tax rises mean no holiday this year. The children’s clothes must last even longer. Millions have to work extra hours to make ends meet” — are misplaced, and he is not going to be able to persuade voters that a new Conservative government will be good for the poor.
  • When he reads parts of his speech like this one, detailing the problems faced by ordinary families, he has this “compassionate” voice that he slips into. It is obviously phoney.
  • He has a stupid way of talking about social problems. Labour says crime’s falling — but, look!, a woman was shot in Nottingham yesterday. Labour says the economy’s strong but, look!, 500 people were sacked the other day. The aggregate statistics don’t back up his claims, so he resorts to anecdotal evidence. But that’s stupid.

I was repeatedly struck by what an extremely reactive speech it was, responding to the political agendas shaped by other actors with more energy and more imagination than he can muster. To wit:

  • Mention of his own leadership in the first sentence could not help but remind his listeners of everything unkind the papers — the Daily Telegraph in the van — have been saying about him over the last few days.
  • His remarks about the Liberal Democrats were just vacuous partisan noises responding to recent events, mostly but not exclusively in Brent East. “They are not a party fit for government”, he said, one of those remarks which reminds you that the Tories patently aren’t, either, and which was followed by the ovation-inducing floppiness of, “and we are going after them!” (Bet the Lib Dems are scared.)
  • His rhetoric was derivative, too. There were echoes of Blair’s speech in Bournemouth (Blair: “I know many profoundly believe the action we took [over Iraq] was wrong. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me.” IDS: “I know some say the war was wrong. And I respect their opinion.”) His soundbites were sad parodies of other politicians who had a better grip on the art of speaking: He would be “tough on tax and tough on the causes of tax”, he said, and he would “fight, fight and fight again to save the country I love”. And the ones that weren’t derivative were either pathetic (“And, yes [PAUSE], we plan to cut taxes!” [WILD APPLAUSE]) or incoherent (“The Quiet Man is turning up the volume”).

All of this was basically a function of the way in which IDS seems to have accepted one of the graver criticisms his critics can make of his party, which may be true, but which he should at least be attempting to deny. That is that the Tories are now effectively little more than disgruntled spectators in contemporary Britain, incapable of playing any kind of active role in shaping national life, of doing anything, in fact, that we might usefully label as politics.When he ran through a list of the various scandals in which the Government had been embroiled — Hinduja, Ecclestone, Mandelson, Mittal, Geoffrey Robinson, Mandelson again — it was striking that none of these had been provoked or deepened by the Conservative Opposition. All had been generated inside the government or provoked by media inquiries (or, in one case, by Lib Dem questioning in the House). Nor are there any recent stirring parliamentary performances whose memory he can invoke to rally the spirits of the Party faithful, because the Tory Party in parliament is basically useless, in a way that the Labour Opposition of the 1980s and 1990s never was. IDS is reduced to saying obvious things (Blair lies, the trains don’t run properly, and so on), and he insists that all this is very bad. But that is more like punditry than Opposition.

Indeed, if we play the game of imagining the circumstances under which Mr Duncan Smith might make it to Downing Street (yes, let’s pretend, just for a moment), they all involve the government self-destructing under the weight of its various rivalries or, if we like this kind of jargon, its internal contradictions. There’s no remotely plausible scenario which involves a British electorate being won over to Iainduncansmithery because of the appeal of his ideas or his policies, or because of the sheer brutal efficiency of the ruthless election-fighting machine that he has at his disposal (OK, that’s cruel). So the general reactivity and passivity of his stance might be a sensible reflection of current realities — which include yesterday’s headlines, last month’s by-election, and two general election defeats in 1997 and 2001 — but they don’t do anything to project his Party as anything other than a bunch of washed-up losers.

There were some silly moments. IDS mentioned that the Tories had the fastest growing youth movement in the country, and the BBC cut away to a shot of beaming geriatrics in the audience, which is a useful reminder of the reality that the average age of the members of the Conservative Party is still surprisingly high. That one wasn’t his fault.

Some were, though. The silliest moment of all — apart from a casual reference to our “first term in government” — was this sublime passage: “As Oliver Letwin has pledged, under the Conservatives there’ll be 80,000 fewer asylum seekers — and 40,000 more police officers.” Then he improvised (at least, I’m assuming he improvised, because this bit isn’t in the published version of his speech, but it’s this bit that made it so splendid): “If that’s hard to visualise”, he said, before returning to the script, “That’s twelve more police forces the size of the Lancashire Constabulary”. Because visualizing the Lancashire Constabulary en bloc and multiplying that image twelvefold is such a natural thing to be able to do… (Perhaps it’s easier for Tories, and especially for Tories in Lancashire).

All in all, the politics were incoherent. A promise of low taxes but indications of support for the government’s expensive foreign policy; a promise to cut tuition fees, end failing schools, relieve the plight of the poor, etc., with no suggestion that these might be expensive goals to realise, or that government might have to make some hard choices about priorities along the way. “Waste” would be cut, we were told — but that’s a dreadful cop-out, as Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to find out. His “I have delivered” claim was thus a piece of meaningless bravado.

The only time in the whole speech when he came even half alive was in the passage on Europe. Then, only then, did his words seem to come from the heart, and only then was the response from the audience at all spontaneous. (The rest of the time there were these stage-managed standing ovations, where on cue everyone rose to their feet following the people at the front: they didn�t look keen on the TV pictures, but still bored, impassive, polite). He was crass, of couse (he can’t not be crass); his remarks about the consequences of the new European constitution were crude ranting; and another of his soundbites was weak (“If the government does not give the people a say on the constitution, that will not be the last word, I promise you”: Them’s fighting words). In these passages of his speech at least he was able to present a kind of authenticity.

But this is again part of the problem: the UK population doesn’t seem to want the Euro that much, and would probably reject the new European constitution if it were given the chance, which it won’t be. But the Conservatives clearly don’t have a strategy for transforming strands of Euroscpetical public opinion into election victory — that’s what William Hague tried in 2001, and he failed badly (“Ten days to save the pound”, etc.) — and to carry on down this road will be to continue to drive that part of the British centre-right which still rather likes the European Union (because it’s good for their material prosperity or because their politics are basically Christian Democrat), even further into the embrace of New Labour. By postponing a Euro-referendum, Mr Blair can keep the Tories paralysed and ineffectual. And to dwell on Europe is again to remind the world that IDS is at bottom a bit of low-grade early-1990s vintage Eurosceptic parliamentary trash, which was somehow transmogrified into being Party leader by the desperately unhappy vicissitudes of Tory politics over the course of the decade from 1992.

The Europe passage aside, the only time that he seemed comfortable, or his audience seemed comfortable with him, was when he was making childish jokes about Charles Kennedy (who won’t raise taxes on spirits) or Carole Caplin (who won’t allow the colour Brown in No.10). It’s a childish party with a childish leader; the speech was feeble.

That’s not a problem for all of us out here who continue to despise the Conservative Party: we don’t want to see another Tory government, and we know that we’re not going to get it with IDS at the helm. But it should be a problem for any Tories out there, though they might reasonably wonder whether anyone else would do any better.

But if any Conservative politicians or journalists or other admirers come away from this speech spinning that IDS has turned the corner and that election victory is in sight, we can reasonably ask them what they’ve been smoking, and on what planet.

UPDATE [9.10.2003]: Ros Taylor‘s piece in the Guardian is shorter and funnier than this one. You might want to try there, instead.

UPDATE [10.10.2003]: Whoops. I’ve got this one completely wrong. Melanie Phillips says that this was a “very good speech. Iain Duncan Smith finally did what was necessary. He told a story in simple and direct terms that joined up the dots, provided a coherent framework of principles on which to hang all his emerging policies, and — at last — spoke from the heart to explain the passion that drives him”. So, that’s that sorted out then. She probably thinks IDS’s performance on the Today programme this morning shows that he’s a man on top of his game who’s more than ready to take up the reins of power.

UPDATE [13.10.2003]: And Oliver Letwin said that “It was an absolutely barnstorming performance. He took the hall and reasserted his authority and he looked like a prime minister today, didn’t he?”

Shadow Cabinet, again

Via Matthew Turner’s blog I see there’s another Guardian ‘How Well Do You Know the Shadow Cabinet?‘ quiz for everyone to take. Please report your scores in the comments section.

I was disturbed to score nine out of ten, which seems indecently high for such a bunch of non-entities, and entertained to see that the one I got wrong was Tim Collins, who was the same one that I got wrong last time round. People tell me he’s repulsive, but I don’t think I know anything else about him (such as what job he does, for example). So if anyone can supply me with Tim Collins-related material, that’d be greatly appreciated.

UPDATE [6.10.2003]: A commenter has drawn my attention to the important timcollins.co.uk website. I’ve added it to the sidebar (scroll down to “In the Bin”), so readers of the Virtual Stoa can keep up with the career of this exciting up-and-coming (if underappreciated by the general public) Tory politician. There’ll be no excuse for Collins-themed ignorance this time next year. I might also keep a gentle eye out for details of his parliamentary triumphs, which are probably frequent, and underreported. We can start by studying his words at Party Conference earlier today.