Nik Darlington 2.30pm
The passing of Baroness Thatcher has elicited a great deal of Tory stock-taking and soul-searching, as well as comment upon comment upon comment as to what the legacy is of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. As John Harris wrote in the Guardian, “Thatcher’s death has Britain peering back through time”.
In a subsequent article, born from his introspective itinerary around Britain researching Lady Thatcher’s legacy, Harris asks readers to “spare a thought for the late unlamented one-nation Tory”. His argument is that “centrist, socially-concerned Conservatism” had already died long before her, and largely because of her doing.
Let’s be frank. The Tory Reform Group, its members and leading political representatives have not always seen eye to eye with all aspects of Thatcherism. Respected her achievements and they way she led the country in dark times, yes; but there have been policy disagreements along the way.
However, Harris is simply wrong. The ‘One Nation Tory’ might be a minority concern in today’s Conservative party, dominated as it is by people who cut their teeth during Mrs Thatcher’s battling leadership of the party, and the aftermath; but it is alive and well. Harris claims that every year he attends the Conservative party conference “looking for any signs of its revival…but it is nowhere to be seen”. Based on attending a ConservativeHome fringe event, that is not surprising. Did he not care to call in to any TRG events, which every year seem to outnumber those of other Tory groups? Even stars of stage and screen turned up to Ken Clarke’s midnight party last year.
It is perhaps fashionable to presume there are no centrist Tories left, which is peculiar considering the efforts of David Cameron to steer the Conservative party in just such a direction - and indeed, it is more plausible to say that the party did not make it fully over the line in 2010 because it had not moved far enough in that direction, than it is to say it moved too far. It is even more peculiar coming from a Guardian writer, when that newspaper has on occasion so wholeheartedly championed Mr Cameron’s stewardship.
Perhaps it is simply thus: no Tory of whatever ilk can be as “centrist” or “socially-concerned” as the Guardian. Harris may be a columnist, not an editorial writer, but he does a fine job of blending into his surroundings.
Harris is right that too slavish an adherence to the free market - a common and unfortunate conclusion reached by today’s self-proclaimed Thatcherites - has landed post-Thatcher political parties (including the Labour party) in hot water. As Sir Ian Gilmour said, “the balance will have to be redressed”.
Harris is right that the present plethora of Tory groups, if they coalesce at all, do so around one interpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s policies. Yet this misses the point, which is that the fact a plethora exists suggests how confused even Conservatives remain about her legacy and what to do with it.
Harris wonders “what would happen if the grandees of pre-Thatcher Conservatism were raised from the grave, and confronted with Britain’s current problems”. He need not resort to table-turning, though many have indeed passed away. Just look at Lord Heseltine’s continued role in public life at the ripe old age of eighty. His growth review, which at its heart recommends a more decentralised approach, has largely been accepted by the Government. Meanwhile, Ken Clarke’s experience, not least as a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, remains indispensable to the Government. Though not necessarily a ‘pre-Thatcher grandee’, Lord Baker is a life member of the TRG and remains an influential figure in education policy.
Ed Miliband, as Harris says, has “tentatively” attempted to expropriate the ‘One Nation’ theme for the Labour party. I spelled out last October why Mr Miliband’s interesting approach falls flat. His post-Blair (and by extension, post-Thatcher) Labour party is in the grip of myriad interest groups fixated by an ideological nihilism. Signs of this are bubbling to the surface even in his own positioning, until now so often non-committal.
Michael Gove recently told a Policy Exchange gathering that in order to interpret her legacy honestly, we have to view Mrs Thatcher as a “historical figure” - much, indeed, with the detachment we deploy to consider Sir Winston Churchill, or William Gladstone, or even Pitt. Most agree that her prescriptions and demeanour were right for her time. Party political Conservatism has moved on; Thatcherism has moved on too. It means different things to its adherents today than perhaps it did even to Mrs Thatcher herself. In the same vein, One Nation Conservatism, so sidelined since the 1990s (and largely to do with a single policy issue: Europe), has moved on.
Our relative anonymity, and the fact John Harris thinks we are dead, might well be a problem. Yet we have in power a largely centrist, modernising Conservative-led government dealing with economic disruption and deeply moral dislocation - not least in education and welfare policy - that the opposition Labour party refuses to confront.
So while the Tory Reform Group does need to do more to get its message heard above the cacophony of Conservative voices (small ‘v’), I respectfully believe Harris’ pessimism is misplaced.
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