Monday, October 27, 2003
Frankly, I may have hallucinated all of this while feverish --- but I'm pretty certain Thomas L. Friedman was hosting a programme on CNN International over the weekend on the causes of 9/11. This is a worthy thing to do, but having watched 90 seconds of it my only reaction is FOR GOD'S SAKE MAN BUY A NEW SHIRT. He has some sort of tailored white T-shirt with lots of brown horizontal lines around the shoulders. It looks like a cigarette packet from 1980. I know, I'm really the last person to give fashion advice, but it bears repeating: FOR GOD'S SAKE MAN BUY A NEW SHIRT. NB: remember, possible hallucination.
Dr Marshall is offering to go to New Hampshire and report on everything he finds. It's a cliche to point out, though I will anyway, that if New Hampshire actually mattered as far as frontrunners go (it matters more for the back of the pack, I think) then we'd have seen as major-party presidential candidates Hart, Buchanan, Tsongas, McCain, etc - of course, we haven't. So this is a worthy cause but I find myself wondering if it wouldn't be a bit more useful if he went to, say, South Carolina or another crucial state.
I'm better - unlike the Conservative party, which may be in terminal decline, as Calpundit notes.
(nota bene to the American English part of the world. The governing party of UKOGBANI is the Labour Party, not the Labor party, no matter what variant of English you speak --- just like the book The Color Purple is spelled thus even in English English. It's a title. This is closely related to another hobbyhorse of mine, which is American news sources referring to nonexistent English newspapers like the London Times and even the London Guardian --- which I bet they didn't refer to as the Manchester Guardian even when it was. Both these things --- representing the tendency to misreport titles by recording them as-if-they-were-American --- are minor, infuriating and unfortunately revealing of that great foggy blanket of narrow introspection that characterises American media reporting of the rest of the world. I bet Americans themselves don't even notice it --- unless, like Bill Bryson (who is very good on this subject), they've lived abroad for quite a long time.)
Anyhoo, them Tories. Yes. It strikes me that it's actually quite hard to say at what point the Tories became unleadable --- as they clearly now are. It's true that the doctrine of Conservative loyalty --- similar to Reagan's 11th Commandment for Republicans --- is a pretty limited one: that the Conservatives have always been characterised by pretty unsentimental treatment of leaders, like Heath or Douglas-Home or indeed Eden, who seem to be in such trouble that they are unlikely to deliver victory next time round. But for some time now the Conservatives have been in terrible, terrible trouble with their leaders --- really, no Conservative leader has had more than a year or so without some rumbling of a leadership challenge since 1988 or so.
There seem to me to be two candidates for When It All Went Wrong for them. The first, chronologically, is that something nasty happened in the woodshed of late Thatcherism. In early Thatcherism, there was internal party opposition to some of the more radical policies of the government but it was pretty meek and ineffective. However, after the departure of Michael Heseltine from the Cabinet in 1986, and particularly after the third consecutive general election victory in 1987, Thatcher was in deep trouble: there were constant parliamentary revolts over issues like the poll tax; there was an ongoing leadership campaign by Heseltine; there was a stalking-horse challenge to Thatcher's leadership in 1989 which attracted few votes but much interest; and then there was the eventual removal of Thatcher in November 1990.
John Major then had a reasonably peaceful year or so until it all fell apart again after the 1992 election - and this is the second candidate for When It All Went Wrong. Two things over which Major had minimal control --- the Nej vote in the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, and the unseemly exit of the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism --- deeply unbalanced the party. After that point Major's leadership was never secure: the passage of the Maastricht treaty through parliament was agonising and slow, facing considerable internal opposition led by people such as Ian Duncan Smith. Major's attempt to restore his authority through a party vote of confidence in 1995 --- in which he faced no serious opposition --- was at best partially successful, and its effects quickly faded. When Major suffered what is probably the worst defeat in British electoral history (you have to go back to the early 19th Century for something that is even close to that catastrophe) he resigned from the leadership almost immediately; probably he perceived the party's problems as resulting from his own personal weaknesses and wished them to be over.
The party's chosen successor, William Hague, presided over a change to the method of leadership election --- which was now to involve the party membership rather than only its MPs --- but otherwise was unable to lead the party in any substantive way; his leadership was constantly threatened and an initial attempt to move towards more libertarian and sympathetic policies had to be replaced by an appeal to loyal Conservative voters' core values. He himself (perhaps perceiving the situation similarly to Major) left office immediately after an election in which the Conservatives made essentially no progress.
IDS, the first leader chosen through the new Hague mechanism, has perhaps been even weaker than his unfortunate predecessors --- even though, under his leadership, the Conservatives have occasionally broken out of the ~32% poll rating they have been scoring since September 1992 and the ERM debacle. Barely a month has gone by in which a leadership challenge has not been imminent; there has been barely any sign that the Conservatives believe themselves able to get back into government, even though they have occasionally led Labour in the opinion polls.
So, when did it all start? Well, I think the strongest case is for the first candidate - late Thatcherism. The same thing fuelled Heseltine's resignation from the Cabinet and his brewing leadership challenge, the 1989 leadership challenge, and the eventual resignation of Geoffrey Howe which brought about the 1990 leadership challenge and Thatcher's resignation. That issue, of course, was Europe: Heseltine, Sir Anthony Mayer (the 1989 challenger) and Howe were all substantially more pro-European than Thatcher. Thus, Major seemed capable of reuniting the party as a somewhat more pro-European Thatcherite. But the events of 1992 --- as well as the Tory parliamentary intake of 1992, which included Euroskeptics such as IDS --- made that strategy unworkable. The battles to undermine and succeed Major were between those who were substantially more pro-European than him --- Clarke, Heseltine --- and those who were more Euroskeptic --- Baker, Howard, Portillo. Ultimately if you stand in the middle of the road you are run over.
In practice, nowadays, the European divisions within the Conservative party are much more limited, or at least less visible --- it is much easier for the party of opposition to deal with the issue than it is for the party of government, as Labour has found out. The party has moved in a clearly Euroskeptic direction, and apart from a handful of party grandees such as Clarke, the IDS policy is not really one that seems to arouse much opposition. Of course, this puts the lie to the idea that the problem is caused by Hague's election scheme --- that it is the party members who made the mistake by electing IDS. It is simply inconceivable that Clarke could have led the Conservatives over the last five years unless he had radically changed his views on the Euro and on European Union more generally. Portillo would have been acceptably Eurosceptical but would, I think, have divided the party on other issues on which he has begun to pursue a much more libertarian line. IDS really was the only plausible candidate out of the top three, I think.
Although the European issue has died down quite a lot within the Conservatives, they have now learned to take ideology seriously --- and this is the real reason that the current unleadability dates to before Major, since it was Thatcher who inspired the Conservatives to take this step. It was the characteristic lack of ideological concern of the party which made them appear loyal: what united them was electoral interest, not some airy-fairy ideas. The problem with the turn the party has taken is that if you are more committed to ideas, you are less committed to electoral interest; and if you are more committed to ideas than to electoral interest, every step the leader takes that you do not agree with will be undermined. And that is why Conservative MPs are --- maybe --- about to take the unbelievably risky step of changing their leadership 18 months before an election, in the hope that a new leader will be able, somehow, to square the circle and make them loyal again. I don't think the omens are good for them, and, if I am right that the party is now unleadable rather than just badly led, I think the Liberal Democrats are probably the new pragmatic opposition.
UPDATE: IDS is now trying to draw a line under this unpleasantness: if there's no challenge by Wednesday, he says, there should be no challenge at all. Alas there is no more characteristic Tory-leader activity over the past fifteen years or so than the attempt to draw the line under some past episode of disloyalty with a moment of cleansing, and then return to the broad sunlit uplands of yore. The Thatcherites spun this message (though it wasn't called spinning then) in 1989 after the leadership challenge, and were ready to do so had she won in 1990; the Major people spun it at the end of the Maastricht process, in any of countless policy relaunches, after the vote of confidence he brought about in 1995, and even during a special press conference called during the 1997 election campaign itself; the Hague camp tried it on for size, although his leadership was sufficiently uneventful that there were no real turning points to attempt to use; and I think IDS has already tried it at least twice before. It doesn't, absent some other more fundamental change, seem to have much effect.