November 27, 2000
Bill Newton-Dunn is not the best known of International statesmen. Indeed he is a rather mediocre figure all round. However, he made a mild splash in the newspapers this week when he left the Conservative Party in the European Parliament for the Liberal Democrats. Not big news, insignificant men in an emasculated institution but the lessons that it holds for the right as it reshapes are immense. The fact is that the old conservative alliances are dying the Cold War is not the cement that it was on the right and new ones are forming. However, the personnel will change.
Of course, Conservative Central Office only has itself to blame. In 1999, the European elections were held and there was a real mood within the Conservative Party to purge Eurosceptics. There was no incumbent advantage so the Conservative Party could, and would have, written again on a new slate and elected only those who were sufficiently Euro-sceptical for the newly honest party. Of course, the political geniuses in Central Office did not see it that way. They were afraid of appearing too "right-wing". This was of course the big no-no, and for some good reason. It is a cliché that the average Conservative Party activist is either a reactionary colonel's wife, a selfish City-boy or a xenophobic working class ignoramus. What does the Conservative Party do about this? Talk about Conservative themes in a way to bring in the majority of people, who believe in them or to try to argue the merits of their party on the Left's terms. I know stupid question and sadly a stupid answer. The truth is that the Conservative hierarchy pushed rather successfully for the moderates. Tory party activists were told, cajoled even, into voting for balanced tickets by supposedly neutral officials and party bigwigs. The Conservative Party faithful, with their dwindling but still overwhelming ethic of deference, obeyed. Some MEPs who represented their members' views were elected; Dan Hannan was a good example, although good many others were Europhiles to the core, like our friend Mr. Newton-Dunn.
How did the wets react to the efforts of the party hierarchy? Gratitude? Not a bit of it. Professional politicians in Britain rarely change their party; they have had twenty odd years to do that before going pro. With that in mind, there has been a relative flood of defections from the left of the Tory Party to the other two parties. This did not start with the Blair government, there has been the slow drip-drip of defection since John Major. To be fair to the Wets, this is inevitable. With new issues arising and the centre of gravity on the old issues going more and more to the right the left wingers in the Conservatives will find a more snug home in the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats. In the same way, moderate Republicans will resume their drift to the Democrats if class-war Al does not succeed in his bid to overturn the Electoral College. This does not mean instant death for the Conservatives it is instead a sign that their underlying agenda is winning and that the other parties are rushing to take the territory. What it does mean is that the Conservatives are going to have to be more careful about who they select to represent them.
One of the illustrations of the basic treachery of the professional political class was that of Shaun Woodward. This man, although gay, married into the incredibly wealthy Sainsbury family, and used the money to make himself the local Lord of the Manor. Having previously worked in the Conservative Party headquarters (the party being notoriously permissive about who they let work for them) he thought he would turn his hand at politics. So he went to his local association, in what was a safe Tory seat, and put his name forward. He said the required things and they voted him in. Unfortunately, what he had not said was that he was prepared to switch parties. This time the issue was not Europe, well not mainly Europe, but gay rights. Why someone who was publicly not gay should have been so worked up about homosexual rights was little explained, let alone to his constituency. But there it is. It is fairly clear to any Conservative Party selecting candidates that they have to choose those who do not have a history of moderation, but of loyalty to the party.
The test to see if the Conservative Party has learned the lessons will be coming in the affluent constituency of Esher and Walton. There the perpetual rebel Ian Taylor has had a last minute challenge to his nomination as MP. Naturally, he has appealed for help from Conservative Central Office, and it looks as if the party hierarchy will ride to his rescue. I am very bad at predicting British politics, but my prediction in this case will be that Mr. Taylor is reselected, and that he will show his gratitude by defecting from his party in the next five years.
Party activists are often derided for choosing "extremists" to fight elections for them, and often rightly so. However, for the Conservatives, and for other parties of the right, the momentary flux will mean that they have to batten down the hatches and choose the hard liners. They should not just be hard liners on economic issues, but also on cultural and international issues. The idea of the right being a one-dimensional economic entity is past, the Left has discovered that capitalism can work for them as well. However, this new emphasis on non-economic issues has a potentially huge payoff. The much-discussed political promiscuity of the upper middle classes is oft discussed, but it is nothing compared to the disgruntlement of Labour's working class core vote. While some of this vote may go to the remnants of the old Socialist movements, most of this will go to the party that represents their non-cosmopolitan views on other issues. When no one is talking about social justice, the working class will go to the party that is closest to them on crime, social issues and, yes, even sovereignty.
Conservative activists now have the tools at their disposal to vet the wets from their midst, the most prominent is the well researched candidlist site on the web. The advantages are many, hard-line candidates will stick to the party which elected them and they will attract voters far more than the born-to-rule wets. It does mean that my vaguely libertarian social beliefs will take a hard knock, but it is a question of priorities. The right will have to face new issues, raw and emotional issues like national sovereignty and the necessity of wars. If the Conservative Party or the Republicans do not face up to this, it won't just be their numbers diminishing by defection and their message being incoherent, the country they profess to love may be lost as well.
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