Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 50
15th June 2001
Inquest on a "Lost" Election
by Sean Gabb
Why the Conservatives lost this month's general election is easily stated. They lost because under William Hague, they made no serious effort to win. Indeed, during his four years as leader, Mr Hague did everything possible to guarantee a second Labour victory. His policy on Europe—"in, not ruled by"—was a joke only sustainable by refusing to answer questions on it. His policies on taxes and the public services, on immigration and asylum, on constitutional change and law and order, on foreign policy and defence—all were variously incoherent. None was stable more than a month at a time. None was ever convincingly explained and defended. He filled his shadow cabinet with ludicrous nonentities like Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo, and did nothing to stop them from making positive fools of themselves.
As for opposition, he did worse than nothing. When Labour launched a war of military aggression in the Balkans, he supported it—even flying to Hungary at one point to persuade the conservative Prime Minister there to let NATO use his country as an airstrip for the bombing. He sabotaged any defence of the House of Lords. He praised the Macpherson Report. On the foot and mouth disaster, his only disagreement with Labour was to say there should be more and faster killing of healthy animals. Nor did he make any real complaint against the astonishing moral and financial corruption of the Labour Ministers.
The further question, of why Mr Hague did this or let it happen, is more complex. Some think he was bribed to lose the election, others that he was blackmailed. Either is possible. He has at least one secret he does not want the world to know for certain. Also, according to the newspapers, he is considering a transfer to some well-rewarded business sinecure. That Mr Hague might, as a payment in advance, have ensured the continued domination of a government friendly to very big business and to European integration is by no means incredible. Granting the truth of either would make him more interesting to future historians. His conduct as Party Leader would then be seen not as the blunderings of a man promoted far above his ability, but as a calculated and successful effort to drive away as many Conservative voters as possible.
However, while personal corruption is possible, I do not think it a sufficient or even a necessary reason for the Conservative defeat. It takes more than one man to produce something that comprehensive. The immediate responsibility for defeat is Mr Hague's. But there is a more general responsibility, and that is collective. What happened earlier this month is better seen as the product of two causes. First, there is a stupidity that reaches across the whole party leadership and down quite far into the parliamentary party. Second, there is the Quisling Right. I have been writing incidentally about this second for several years, but have never fully explained what I mean. I now think it appropriate to give that explanation.
In issue 47 of Free Life Commentary, I wrote about the Enemy Class. This is a loosely-defined group of people who draw status, wealth and power from an activist state. Though this class came to power about a century ago, replacing a landed aristocracy whose interests and moral values required a more limited state, it did not achieve hegemony until 1940. But, having carried the May revolution of that year, it has remained supreme ever since. It has changed its legitimising ideology several times. Until the 1970s, it justified itself by nationalisation and heavy tax and spending programmes. Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted to extensive regulation of a formally private economy. Indeed, it is moving progressively away from economic legitimisations, and is now pushing a "multicultural" agenda at home and helping construct an aggressive and authoritarian New World Order abroad. These are very different ideologies in terms of superficial promise; and there has been and is much heated debate within the Enemy Class about the transitions from one to another. Nevertheless, their underlying implication is always a large and powerful state directed by or otherwise benefiting the same politicians, administrators, lawyers, educators, and supporting business and media people.
The only threat to the hegemony of the Enemy Class has come from the deeply conservative prejudices of the English people. Any conservatism would be a threat, because it means an adherence to values not fully controlled by the Enemy Class. English conservatism, though, is an especially dangerous threat. Its values are those of a roughly libertarian past—of self-reliance, of patriotism, of a vague belief that while government may often be useful, it is not fundamentally necessary, and is never wholly to be trusted.
In a more frankly despotic culture than our own, popular conservatism could be dealt with as the Roman State of the 5th century dealt with paganism and heresy—that is, by legal prohibition combined with a wall of official propaganda. But in England, at least the appearance of representative government and a free press must be maintained. That means allowing a Conservative Party and a broadly conservative press. But these must be heavily policed at all times, so that nothing very conservative is ever done.
This policing is done via what may be called the Quisling Right. These are the equivalent of the people who used to run the Social Democratic Parties and the semi-tolerated churches in the better parts of the Soviet Empire. They have status and income from maintaining the appearance of a pluralism that does not really exist. They accept the hegemony of the Enemy Class while keeping up a pretence of opposing it. They run the Conservative Party. They are heavily clustered in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. They are strategically scattered through other conservative bodies and institutions—not always in positions of overt power, but always in positions of quiet influence.
I must say here that I am not claiming some grand conspiracy. I do not think there has been any deliberate coordination. As anyone knows who has studied Economics or the natural sciences, the world is filled with regularities of structure and behaviour that seem to prove some hidden designer, but that can be explained by purely secondary causes. So it is with the Quisling Right. Ambitious and unprincipled people have seen a demand among the public for a conservative opposition. At the same time, they have understood the permitted boundaries of opposition. They have known that anyone who makes a serious challenge to the power of the Enemy Class will be utterly destroyed by it. Their response has been a balancing of forces. They have wanted office, and therefore have had to keep people voting for the Conservative Party. They have had to know how to make the right sounds and produce the right responses. At the same time, they have had to be careful not to transgress the permitted boundaries.
The reward for being a good Quisling Rightist is to be allowed to seek election to office, without alienating the Enemy Class. He will be denounced—but with none of the force and venom reserved for people like Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher. For all the public hostility he faces, he will be fully accepted in private. He will remain welcome at the Aldeburgh Festival and the smart dinner parties. He will be invited on to programmes like Question Time, and even get to make the occasional programme of his own. He will be awarded honorary degrees from the good universities. He will be able eventually to retire into some nice business or media or academic sinecure. In short, he will be given personal success and a standing advantage over less compliant rivals. He can have all this, so long as at the right moment he always betrays those who voted for him.
This is why, despite long periods of electoral dominance by the Conservative Party, the past 60 years have been so generally disastrous in England for the linked causes of freedom and tradition. The leaders of that Party have specialised in putting on an impressive charade of conservatism without achieving a single conservative end. In the early days, nothing was done to stop—let alone turn back—the advance of socialism. More recently, nothing has been done against the attempted smashing of the English cultural identity. What the Quisling Right has achieved is the political equivalent of decaffeinated coffee. It has the same aroma and the same taste, and it requires the same rituals of making and drinking. It only lacks the effect that makes it worth bothering with in the first place.
The Quisling Right had its golden age between the end of the War and the middle 1970s. With leaders like Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Robert Boothby and Quentin Hogg, it smothered even as it seemed to advance the conservative cause. With the rise of Margaret Thatcher, it went into a 15 year eclipse. It was never entirely dislodged, and remained an often decisive institutional force throughout her ascendency. But the 1980s were broadly a conservative decade. The economic liberals had won the intellectual argument, and the Enemy Class was divided over how to respond. This being said, the 1980s were an interlude. By 1990, the Enemy Class had mostly settled its division over economic policy and was moving toward its current position. Just as the victors in a civil war always reassert control over foreign satellites, so it was made clear to the Quisling Right who were the new dispensers of patronage and moral legitimacy, and thus who were the new objects of deference. Margaret Thatcher was soon pushed out; and the New Labour ascendency, it is now clear, started not in May 1997, but in November 1990, with the restoration of the Quisling Right.
The problem, it soon emerged, was personnel. The early Quisling Rightists were able to look like the real thing. They were members of the old ruling class. They had a good education. They had fought in one big war and directed another. They knew how to act fierce against their opponents in television studios and in Parliament, and how to cover their eventual retreats in the right language of inevitability and moderation. Their successors are in every way inferior. They have frequently done their best to acquire the surface characteristics of the old ruling class, but that is all. They have put on the right clothes, and cultivated a semblance of the right accent, but they lack the polish, the background learning, the experience of leadership, the aristocratic self-confidence, and whatever else made the voters trust the old Quisling Right. In acting terms, the difference between the two generations is like the difference at playing Lady Macbeth between Sian Phillips and Lily Savage. They have not the same credibility. To be sure, the electors have become less trusting and deferential than they used to be. At the same time, the sell-outs have become more obvious—especially so with European policy. But, every allowance being made, the problem is one of personnel.
This explains much of the Conservative incompetence before and during the election campaign. Look, for example, at how William Hague tried to play the "race card". Whatever its merits, this is a good card electorally. Since about 1995, there has been a return to mass immigration, and this has been widely unpopular. According to a study by the European Commission, 20 per cent of the British electorate now believes in compulsory repatriation of legal immigrants. There is probably a large majority in favour of deporting all the illegals and bogus asylum seekers. Therefore Mr Hague made a series of speeches laced with enticing phrases like "foreign land", and "let me give you your country back". The manifest intention was to say just enough to bring over the white working classes without promising anything that might upset the Enemy Class. Robert Boothby could have done it. Perhaps even William Whitelaw could have done it. William Hague, however, failed on both counts. The Enemy Class turned nasty and crucified him in the media. Everyone else ignored him. So it was with every other issue. The strategy was the same as it always had been. It was the execution that was a mess.
Looking outside the Quisling Right, the party leadership is hardly more inspiring. I cannot count the Conservatives who, meaning well, have thought nothing new since around 1985. They remember that they beat Labour in those days by advocating a timid economic liberalism. And that is what they still think an infallible weapon. There really are Conservative politicians who have spent the past four years waiting for Labour to put up income tax or renationalise British Telecom. Of course, Labour has done neither. By the standards of the past 60 years, Gordon Brown has been an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has kept spending and inflation under control. He has not greatly raised taxes. He has paid off much of the national debt. It may be that the Blair Government is about to relax those controls, and to start a round of tax and spending increases just as the economy is sliding into recession. Equally likely, though, it will pass the next few years cutting taxes while forcing improvements to the National Health Service and state education through sweeping marketisation. I do not think anyone in or near power in this country intends to do anything criminally stupid to the economy. Everyone to that extent is now a Thatcherite. Instead of complaining about "stealth taxes"—bad as these undeniably are—the Conservatives would more effectively have been resisting the Enemy Class by analysing and exposing the plotlines of the television soaps. That, at least, would be fighting nearer the new line of battle in British politics—which is about culture and national identity.
So how is this battle now to be won? The long term answer is unchanged. We need a party that will gain power, and destroy the Enemy Class by shutting down the various institutions that sustain it, and then put into effect a mixture of libertarian and traditionalist conservative policies. In the short term, however – wherever on the political right we may stand—it is being insistently argued that we have just suffered a shattering defeat, and that there is no future prospect of victory. Labour is back with its majority undented. The Conservative Party appears set to fall into the hands of Kenneth Clarke, or at the best Michael Portillo – this second being a man whose every instinct will tell him to seek office by running a more sophisticated Quisling Right campaign than the one that has just failed. The word going round is that perhaps the best hope for the right is to line up behind him and try every so often to remind him of the economic liberalism that he used to find it convenient to support.
I do not agree. The election was not by any means a disaster for the right. Consider:
First, the Conservative defeat may have been the best available outcome. A victory would have benefited only the Quisling Right. I cannot believe that William Hague would have done anything very conservative if elected. On Europe, there would have been an immediate betrayal. He and Francis Maude would have come back from a reconvened Nice Conference with a few substantive improvements to last year's Treaty—and these would have been easily had, as the other European governments want our taxes to fund their pension commitments. The new Treaty would then have been rammed through Parliament to a conveniently admiring chorus in the media. Nor would there have been any retreat from the multicultural agenda or any victory in the cultural war.
The only change would have been a split on the right. Many of us would have fallen silent, hoping for changes that were ever promised but never made. Some would have turned on the die-hard rump, accusing it of disloyalty and of objectively working for a Labour restoration. That we have not fallen apart in this way, but have time left to grow and consolidate, is a good outcome.
Second, the Conservative Party has survived. Bearing in mind how it has been led for the past four years, this should be a comforting fact. There might easily have been a further loss of seats, followed by fragmentation. In the event, eight seats were lost and nine gained —an overall gain of one. If the Conservatives can do that even with Mr Hague in charge, their long parliamentary decline may have ended. At the same time, the UK Independence Party has suffered a complete electoral collapse. It kept the Conservatives out in a few seats, but won nothing for itself. Though in a sense disappointing—and I did vote UKIP—this leaves us with only one viable party of the right.
Third, the Conservatives go into the new Parliament as definitely a party of the right. For all its fraudulent nature and incompetent presentation, their manifesto was broadly of the right. It got them 7.6 million votes in England, as against nine million for Labour. It is reasonable to think that these people voted Conservative mostly because they are themselves on the right. They are the hard core foundation on which a Conservative victory next time can be built. There is the focus group tendency within the Party, which will argue for finding out what people say they want and then offering more of it than Labour. This might win. On the other hand, it is just as credible in electoral terms to present a real alternative from the right and to spend the next four years arguing for it.
These three points suggest that taking over the Conservative Party from the right is both feasible and desirable. If we can capture its institutional structure, we can have a political cleansing of the Quisling Right, and then an attempt at taking power in the country as a whole. I do not think such a takeover would be easy. But I do think there is sufficient chance of succeeding to make the effort worthwhile. Undoubtedly, looking only at the current and likely party leadership does justify much despair. Left to himself if he became Party Leader, Mr Portillo would be a disappointment—and he may be the best viable candidate on offer. But political parties are seldom taken over at the top. Long before they were able to try capturing their leadership, the radical socialists in the Labour Party had spent years infiltrating and taking over the local associations. They did this all through the 1970s—turning up to all the committee meetings, volunteering for all the boring and otherwise troublesome jobs, getting control of committees, sending their own people as delegates to regional and national meetings, coordinating tactics with each other across the Party, making themselves into power unable to be ignored or suppressed. All that ruined the Labour entryists was that they had a false ideology, and they lost their war with reality. That is not a problem generally faced by the right.
This may now be the most fruitful approach. How it is to be done requires further debate, and perhaps several false starts and perhaps even several competing efforts. But given the continued radicalisation of the more energetic Conservative activists, and given that the Internet makes entryism both easier and more enjoyable than it was in the past, success may not need the decade or so that it needed in the Labour Party.
The worst thing anyone has said about Mr Portillo is that he is a complete opportunist. This being so, we need to make sure that, long before the next election, he is given a choice between being leader of the Quisling Right and a front man for the forces of conservatism. Those who are utterly cast down by the loss of this election need to accept that nothing much has really been lost, and that another and a better chance of victory lies just a few years in the future.
© 2001 – 2017, seangabb.
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