Sean Gabb on the Tories back in 1998

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 13
28th February 1998
How to Get Rid of New Labour,
and Why it Will Probably not be Done:
An Open Letter to William Hague

Sean Gabb

Dear Mr Hague,

This Open Letter is being faxed to you at Conservative Central Office. It is at the same time being sent out by e-mail to about a thousand subscribers to Free Life Commentary; and it will, in the next few days, be placed on my Web Page.

My reasons for writing to you now are that as of tomorrow, Britain will have had a Labour Government for ten months. This will be celebrated by Labour in the usual way, with a flurry of news releases and pictures of a smiling Tony Blair. There will be good reason for them to celebrate. just about every other British Government in living memory has been at least sliding into trouble after so long in power. With this one it is different.

On the current evidence from the opinion polls, an election tomorrow would produce much the same outcome as last May. There would be some recovery of seats by the Conservative Party—especially from the Liberal Democrats. But there would be no real impact on the present Labour domination of British Politics.

Of course, there are exceptional circumstances at work here. The Conservatives were kicked out last year in a wave of popular revulsion that has almost no equal in a modern democracy. The Major Government had discredited itself in almost every respect; and Tony Blair had made sure that no middle class voters needed to repeat the teeth-gritting required in 1992—that is, to overlook the awfulness of the Tories in the knowledge that Labour would be far worse.

As after 1832 and 1945, it will take time for the Party to recover; and it would be unreasonable if anyone were to judge your performance as Leader since last summer on the basis of the present opinion polls.

This being said, I am disturbed by what I have seen of your performance as Leader. I may refuse to blame you for the depressing state of today’s opinion polls, but I will question your ability to do what is needed to change these polls next year or the year after. We have different reasons for wanting another Conservative Government. So far as I can tell, you simply want to be Prime Minister. For myself, despite increasing—and lately almost overwhelming—reservations, I have remained committed to the Party as the best vehicle for advancing an agenda of liberty in economic, social and political matters. But while our reasons may be different, we do both want to ensure that the New Labour Government will not remain in power too far into the next century.

The problem is that I cannot see how the Tories under your leadership can win another election. You do not seem to recognise the new circumstances of British politics, and seem determined to keep yourself and the Party out of power for at least the next generation.

The New Circumstances of British Politics

Your prime fault is to see Tony Blair as just another Harold Wilson, and “New” Labour as a clever marketing trick that has put a nice facade over what remains essentially the Party of Michael Foot and Tony Benn. The resulting strategy is to wait until “true” Labour shows through in an orgy of tax rises and nationalisations, and hope for a return to power with nothing learnt and nothing forgotten.

Now, this is a false view—a laughably false view. Tony Blair must really be seen as John Major with the brakes removed. Rather than an interloper who has taken advantage of Tory disunity, he represents the Thatcher consensus in ways that you do not and cannot.

This is clearly the case in economic policy. He can do things that the you and your colleagues wanted to do while in power, but never dared imagine possible. You always wanted to cut welfare, but were frightened of what Labour would say and do against it. Had you and John Major done to single mothers and the disabled what Mr Blair is now doing, there would have been mass-demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, and all the concerned interests would have lined up against you in the media. Mr Blair can get away with it. The concerned interests are emotionally committed to Labour, and cannot imagine opposing a Labour Government. They may turn nasty in the next few years, but for the moment feel required either to keep quiet or to turn the necessary intellectual somersaults.

As for opposition in the House of Commons, people like Stephen Dorrell and Peter Lilly have tried to make their hearts bleed in public—but no one really believes they give a damn about the poor.

It is the same with what is obviously the privatising of schools, and the continued introduction of private finance into health and other public services. The agenda is almost relentlessly Thatcherite. No wonder people like Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute are looking so happy. They have spent the past eight months brushing the dust of plans that made Tory Ministers throw up their hands in terror.

Turning to social matters, here also the old restraints have been taken off. Michael Howard was a thoroughly nasty Home Secretary who came close to scaring the life out of me with his Criminal Justice Acts and his talk of identity cards. But there were limits to what he could actually get away with. In Tory hands, Thatcherism was always formally about freedom—it could be nothing else for a Party that historically is a coalition of English traditionalists and classical liberals. This was hardly ever reflected in legislation outside the economic sphere, but it did have the effect of hobbling the more drastically authoritarian initiatives.

New Labour, on the other hand, has no such inhibitions. Its leaders have dumped Old Labour for good and bad. They have become masters of expediency. If they want to crank up the War on Drugs, or censor the racists, or advance the health fascist agenda against smoking and cars and enjoyable food, or unleash the social workers against parental freedom, or make illiberal gestures to the greens – they will go ahead without regard for the libertarian streak that did run through Old Labour no matter how bad it was on economics.

The Conservative Response

This being said, what can the Conservative Party do to shake Labour’s grip on power? Your answer so far has been simply ridiculous. There is no point trying to challenge the Government from within the Thatcher consensus. The present Government is manifestly better at working this than the Tories were under John Major. From a Thatcherite point of view, Gordon Brown is an excellent Chancellor, with his determination to keep taxes and spending within a tight corset. Other Ministers, as said, cannot be faulted on their plans to privatise the State and deregulate and bully the unemployed into jobs.

Looking at personalities, the New Ministers are equally unassailable. They stand head and shoulders over the seedy non-entities who sit beside you on the Tory front bench – non-entities who messed up when they had the chance, and who would probably be just as bad if ever given another chance.

How about Europe? Here, you think you have an advantage, with your talk of opposition to European Monetary Union. You are wrong. I hate the idea of a single currency and further integration, but I also doubt if Tony Blair much likes these. For all his emollient language on Europe, he knows that it gets in the way of economic Thatcherism. The lectures he likes giving European leaders on labour market flexibility are a flat challenge to the Continental economic consensus. Many Tories insist—and perhaps rightly—that Europe has become the most important issue in British politics. But it is not a party political issue, because there has been no fundamental change in policy since the election. Or if there has been a change, it has been the replacement of a Prime Minister who painted himself into a corner at Maastricht by one who can do as he pleases. On Europe, Tony Blair is not so much an advance beyond John Major as a reversion to Margaret Thatcher at her most Euro-sceptic—which is surely why both she and elements of the normally pro-Tory media did nothing for the Tories at the election.

And look at current events in the Persian Gulf. On a superficial level, there is no British advantage to had from siding with the Americans. We have no imperial interests in the region nowadays, and no national interest whatever in who dominates the Middle East. Nor since the end of the Cold War have we had any need of American goodwill. British policy on the Gulf only makes sense at the moment as a symbol of English-speaking solidarity against Europe. A Britain that follows America, in policies to which the Continental powers are opposed, is advertising its incompatibility with any pan-European foreign or defence policy.

You and your colleagues talk about opposition to EMU as if it were a potent weapon against the Government. But the Government has declared its intention not to consider joining until after the next election—by which time it will either have collapsed or have been revealed as an obvious and avoidable attack on national independence.

The Transcending of Thatcherism

The only way to break the New Labour stranglehold on power is for the Conservative Party to repeat its intellectual revolution of the late 1970s. It may then have established what has become the Thatcher consensus, but this plainly no longer works in Tory electoral interests. Equally important, that consensus was, in Conservative terms, not so much a final destination as only a staging post on the road to something more radical. That something—call it free market libertarianism or, more accurately in local circumstances, liberal English nationalism—is what the Tories should now be embracing.

They did sort of embrace it in the 1970s. As said above, it was the window dressing of Thatcherism, and it often got in the way. For Thatcherism was never really about freedom even in the purely economic sense. It was a minimal solution to relative economic decline. It liberalised just enough to make British economic management slightly better than that in other countries. Bearing in mind how collectivist most other countries remain, this meant far less than liberalism in the 19th century sense. It meant making life easy for big business—with tax breaks and a mass of regulations to shield it from unfettered competition. This was an improvement on the Attlee-Macmillan consensus, and on the mismanagement of the Wilson-Heath-Callaghan years. But it remains no more than a stabilisation of the social democratic mixed economy that grew up after the 1930s. And it is open to a savage and effective attack from a truly free market position. It is time for the window dressing to take over the shop.

In social matters also, there is now room for a more libertarian alternative. The intellectual case for the War on Drugs is has been largely recognised by the voters as nonsense on stilts. And the War has been lost. On any weekend night in London, two tons of cannabis are smoked. The street price of all drugs has fallen in the past two decades, and their purity has improved. The War smashes lives and benefits a range of special interests—drug dealers, the Police, the banks who launder the proceeds, and the authorities set up to try stopping the laundering. With its imperative of increased police powers and powers of inspection and control over financial transactions, it is the biggest single enemy of freedom today, far eclipsing even the health fascists and the greens.

If you stood up and told the truth about drugs, your party would lose scarcely one vote. The notion of a British public foaming at the mouth over drugs is an illusion created by a few newspapers. It remains a fiction even applied to the remaining membership of the Conservative Party. Bear in mind that perhaps a majority of Tory activists have been exposed to libertarian arguments in the past two decades, and are prepared at least to debate applications of these in a fairly sensible matter.

At a stroke, though, by talking about legalisation, you would cause uproar in the Labour Party, as its more libertarian fringes turned in rage on people like Jack Straw—who would in turn be forced to make a serious defence of arguments that have no defence.

Much the same can be said about pornography, and video censorship, and Internet regulation, and consenting sexual acts, and the continued degradation of the criminal justice system from a machine for enforcing the Common Law into an instrument of despotism.

Turning to the Union, the idea of a United Kingdom is probably dead. Devolution is only the first step to full independence. It is in Tory interests to embrace this fact. It should abandon what remains of its organisation in Scotland and Wales and become an English Party. This would put Labour on the defensive—a transnational Party drawing much of its support from nations increasingly independent of London. An English party talking of English traditions of limited government and free markets might win an election in England next time round, and could tear a Labour Government to pieces that survived on non-English votes.

An additional argument in support is that, freed from Central Office control, the Scottish and Welsh Conservative Parties might revive and challenge Labour in those places where it has been supreme since the 1960s. Their conservatism would be far less liberal than the English sort; but a decent regard for the Scottish and Welsh peoples involves helping them towards the best government of which they may be capable.

The Chances of Success

There are obvious risks to this strategy. The English people might not be entirely ready for libertarianism; and you might not win the election after next—the next one being written off in any event. On the other hand, the present Tory strategy is only more secure in the sense that it will certainly not win you the election after next, or even perhaps the one after that.

So what holds the Party back? Part of the answer is the scale of the defeat last May. In the 1970s, the revolution was achieved by dumping enough of the Heathites to let Margaret Thatcher appear a break with the past. This time round, there are no young alternatives to the Majorites. Their grip on the Tory front bench rests on the fact that they really are the brightest and best the Parliamentary Party has to offer. And what could we think of Michael Howard and Peter Lilly arguing for spending cuts and limited government, when they delivered neither when they had the chance?

But where there is a will, there is usually a way. The real answer lies in the fact that in you, the Tories may have chosen the least imaginative and most intellectually timid leader since records began. What else are we to think of a man who, unbidden, has actually gone on record as saying he will never even consider legalising drugs? Despite your wild ambition, your faults may already have condemned you to being the first Tory Leader in the past 200 years not to make it to Downing Street.

And that is why we have—and may continue far into the future to have—the once unlikely spectacle of a Labour Prime Minister clothed in the purple of the Thatcher consensus, and not a hope in hell of doing anything about it.

I may have reason to change my opinion about you and your strategy in the future. If that happens, I will make a full retraction. But this is how I see things at the moment.

Yours sincerely,

Sean Gabb

5 responses to “Sean Gabb on the Tories back in 1998

  1. If only they had listened.

  2. Thinking on the Thatcher government, that which was part right, part wrong, but that gave a huge respite from tyranny and allowed 30 or so years of comparative growth and financial liberty.
    Which was mostly squandered over the years following the Tory surprise win in 1979, indeed.
    Unless one saw the Grunwick strike, or the peaceful National Front march being pelted with stones by a raging mob just prior to ’79, I don’t think the truth about those opposed to freedom and what they were trying to do, and how they did it then and almost succeeded, can be actually understood. (Hey, okay the National Front policies were not good, I am simply and only referring to the way the various players behaved on the streets of London.)
    The “meta-contexts” are set by people who keep largely out of sight. Not to say they are hiding but they simply don’t make a lot of obvious noise.
    And those meta contexts are what shape our debates.
    Freedom was made fashionable towards the end of the ’70s. It stayed fashionable until a few years ago by which time its erosion was begining to show.
    The only way to try to stay free from that “meta-context” that has been gradualy re-established in which freedom is downgraded and social concern enhanced, in my opinion, is to constantly try to review one’s own ideological drift.
    Brainwashing works. We are not exempt. Setting the acceptable parameters of public debate.
    When I realise, as I did recently, that the main protagonists of the Grunwick strike and their friends are now running England, I realise that obviously, the debate is going to be filtered.
    To be asked to believe that the movers and shakers in the Conservative Party did not see this happening, and then that they were unable do anything effective about it, is to insult one’s intelligence.
    It does look like the post-Thatcher Conservatives may not quite have been what they led one to believe.
    Nobody fights to lose unless they want to.

  3. “Nobody fights to lose unless they want to.”

    Well said. I thought back in 98 I could have got Labour on the run. The Tory boys of the day replied with contemptuous laughter. Looking back, was I so wrong?

  4. Steven Northwood

    Great commentary Sean, but I do think you may have slightly mishandled him with the criticisms at the start. Mind you, he’s in politics and all. I’ve got a few ideas I intend to develop relating to the tax and welfare systems – I’m thinking about using a touch of what they call ‘quantiative analysis’ or at the very least it would be similar – so I’m thinking it could be an idea to circulate it around between the LA members. I’m snowed under with other work till mid-year but we could send it in to the main parties if it’s any good.

  5. Guess what? Your blog is amazing! I can’t remember when was the last time i’ve overcome such a good blog that almost all articles/posts were interesting and wouldn’t regret spending my time reading it. I hope you will keep up the great work you are doing here and i can enjoy my everyday read at your blog. 04:01