Reclaiming the centre ground
Published in: Daily Mail
Astonishingly, Michael Howard has declined to express any pleasure at the re-election of President George W Bush, and defiantly insisted instead that he would not allow the White House to tell him how to do his job.
Such coolness towards the President is all the more remarkable, since this week Tony Blair gets a privileged early audience with President Bush to discuss Iraq and the Middle East.
A Labour Prime Minister is thus being rewarded by a Republican President for his loyalty, while the Tory leader appears merely to have deepened the rift that has developed with the Bush administration over what it regards as his flakiness over Iraq.
Worse still, rather than trying to repair this estrangement Mr Howard allowed front-bencher Alan Duncan to say on the eve of the election that a win by the Democrat candidate, John Kerry, would be better for Britain and the world.
The explanation for this falling-out between supposed ideological bed-fellows reflects a continuing crisis within the Conservative party itself. For far from learning from President Bush's success in mobilising conservative America, the Tory party is turning its back on it.
An aide to Mr Howard said at the weekend that the social conservatism of the Republicans was 'not for us'. And a member of the shadow cabinet said 'George Bush's morality and neo-conservatism also does not exist over here, thank goodness'.
Such disdainful remarks display not just ignorance and prejudice towards American society and politics, but far more alarmingly a profound failure to understand British society, too.
The Tories dismiss the fact that so many voted for President Bush over moral issues on the grounds that American society is totally dissimilar from Britain. And yes, there are significant differences.
But there are still many more similarities. It is quite wrong to imagine that America is a country basking in the orderly conduct of Christian and conservative principles. On the contrary, these values have been under assault for years. The divorce rate, for example, is far higher than it is here; and education there has all but collapsed into the mush of multiculturalism and child-centred drift.
But there has also been a strenuous fightback by a wide alliance of people, who have come together under the umbrella of social conservatism to prevent American society from going under.
President Bush did not win because of the vote by evangelical Christians, whose participation did not increase from the previous election. He won because he galvanised suburban, hitherto disengaged, middle America. And he did so through using the language of moral values, which speaks to the mainstream of society which has understood that its basic tenets are under attack and must be defended.
Exactly the same attack is being mounted in Britain. The big difference is that the Conservatives do not seem to understand that it is happening, let alone that they should be leaping to defend our society against it.
They claim instead that in Britain the mainstream is no longer socially conservative, but has embraced the agenda of alternative lifestyles and instant gratification. So in order to win power, they say, the party must go with the flow of such cultural change.
It is indeed idle to deny that Britain has changed. And of course, elections can only be won on the centre ground. But this begs the key question of just what is the centre ground.
For the Tories are making an enormous error in failing to recognise that the terms of the British debate have been shifted sharply to the left by an agenda which has targeted the fundamental values of our society for attack. As a result, the centre ground has found itself not only assaulted and undermined but then further vilified as extreme.
The battleground in Britain is the linked assault upon nation, democracy, family and social order. On all these issues, of fundamental importance to our society, millions of people feel that the ground has been cut from under their feet.
They are desperate for politicians to defend this territory. And the opportunities here for the Tory party are so obvious - and so neglected.
First and foremost is the need to defend national identity and liberal democracy against attack from within and from without. That means, for example, putting the European Union on notice that unless we regain control over our own governance, we will leave.
It means standing up for British traditions and values by campaigning relentlessly against the erosion of British political history in our schools, or castigating such idiocies as the school which dropped its saint's name for fear of offending other faiths.
It means identifying and countering the attack on democracy and natural justice by the human rights culture which has transferred vital decisions from Parliament to activist and politically correct judges.
It means exposing the onslaught upon liberal values in one measure after another - the attack on freedom of speech in the bill on incitement to religious hatred; the injustice against men in the rigging of rape trials; the threat to life itself from the Mental Incapacity Bill or the private Euthanasia Bill in the Lords.
It means championing beleaguered parents against the subversion of their authority through the official promotion of under-age sex by providing abortions for 15 year-old girls without their parents' knowledge, or condoms for 11 year old boys. It means fighting the relaxation of the cannabis law, of such concern to so many parents.
It means promoting and protecting the stable married family. Contrary to Tory cynicism, there is huge support for this. And it can be combined with showing respect for those who choose to live alternative lifestyles and resolving specific examples of hardship for them - provided nothing is done to undermine or weaken the institution of marriage.
Such moral issues, and more, are central to voters' concerns. Yet the Tories ignore many of them. When they do address them, it's often in a muted way or off the point. The problem is that the party is divided between those who are themselves actively pushing the appeasement of social collapse, and those who are too terrified to defend traditional values.
But they will not win power unless people believe that the party stands for the defence of fundamental principles and will stick to it rather than bend with every passing breeze. It's no use relying on core vote issues - such as asylum, on which Mr Howard has got himself into hot water by saying, lamentably, that the Tories would turn away genuine refugees. Victory will only be delivered through mobilising the far wider constituency of broader moral concerns about democracy, order and trust.
With the American election, the Tories are now in even greater danger of being beached on a political tide that has gone out. Ironically, they are in the same parlous state as the Democrats: without a convincing story with which to challenge their political opponents.
But the nature of President Bush's popular victory will change America. And so the Democrats will almost certainly be forced to embrace the Republican moral agenda.
What happens in the US eventually happens here. If the Tories don't see that the future is socially conservative, they really will be history.