We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion

<em>Election 2001</em> - Giles Marshall, chairman of the Tory Reform Group (president: Ken Clarke),

What future is there for a liberal conservative in 2001? How could we have so blindly lost control of our party? As chairman of the firmly centrist Tory Reform Group, I remain alarmed at the rearguard action we are continually fighting. Too many of my members - the sort of moderate voters whom the Conservatives desperately need to woo back - are in despair at the party's direction. Some have already left, and an increasing number refuse to work for their local Conservative candidate, even though they deplore the authoritarian leanings of a crypto-Thatcherite Labour government. There is very little on offer from the Conservative Party today to persuade its moderate tendency to stick with it.

The Conservative Party's tragedy is to have lost all hold on its historical moorings, and to be cast off into the eddy of rabid right-wing ideology. The moderate, one-nation trend has all but vanished and there seems only a slim chance of it ever returning.

The Conservatives face the election in a situation that, at its most charitable, could be called chaotic. We have a parliamentary party stuffed full of men and women who give the impression that there is nothing to be learnt from the 18 years of Tory rule up to 1997, still less anything to apologise for. The front bench wallows in a collective, and anonymous, mediocrity from which it only occasionally emerges in order to receive yet more odium, which it then uses to cement itself into the right-wing bunker.

Thus, William Hague, in many respects a likeable and pleasant individual, who should now be four years into a strategy of reconnecting the Tories with the nation at large, takes his party deeper into its laager with his monumentally ill-advised speech about "a foreign land". The dismal publicity - and the predictable alienation of a wide band of potential voters - provokes openly racist comments from an utterly undistinguished backbencher. In any well-ordered party, John Townend's comments would have occasioned his immediate expulsion, isolating him as an odd lunatic amid those who hold predominantly sensible, moderate opinions. Instead, his comments, supported by Christopher Gill, another Tory backbencher of little merit (and exacerbated by the refusal of many Tory MPs to sign up to the Commission for Racial Equality's bland little exercise in anti-racism), add credence to the view that this is a nasty party wildly out of touch with anything other than a base of bigots.

As if the hot potato of race relations were not enough, the party's leaders extend their incompetence to other spheres. Theresa May, the deservedly obscure shadow education secretary of state, rallies forth at Easter with her chirpy and ill-conceived criticisms of teachers, in order to warn off any of that benighted profession who might have begun to think about voting Conservative again. At Health, Liam Fox keeps a low profile following the limited success of his venture into the world of stand-up comedy, in a routine that seemed to owe much to the character of Bernard Manning; he has failed to convince anyone of the Conservatives' commitment to a good, efficient, publicly funded health service.

Even when the leadership recognises the potency of one-nation Conservatism, it falls at the first hurdle. With a preamble by Sir Stanley Kalms - hardly a standard-bearer for liberal Toryism - the literature by the party's "Renewing One Nation" group turns its attention entirely to the activities of faith-based (for which read mainly evangelical Christian) organisations. There is much to be said for the positive impact such organisations can make, but inclusive and wide-ranging they are not.

History tells us it should not really be like this. The Conservatives maintained their dominance in the 20th century by adhering to the values of "one nation" - as evinced in social reform and restricted economic planning - and staying firmly rooted in the centre ground of British politics. When Winston Churchill lost power in 1945, he quickly called on people such as Rab Butler to devise an inclusive, socially reformist postwar policy agenda. The result was a drastically reduced Labour majority in 1950 and a Tory election victory in 1951. In the two subsequent elections, the Conservatives, led by men who believed in the party's national responsibility and who abhorred the right-wing narrow-mindedness of some of the party's activists, increased their share of the vote to margins that Margaret Thatcher would only be able to dream of.

Ah, Margaret Thatcher. She was both our saviour and our nemesis. On the one hand, she gave the party the longest continual run in government in its history. On the other, the party faced growing, and blistering, unpopularity, which culminated in the disaster of 1997. Such a result should have led to a rethink similar to that conducted by Butler after 1945. But Thatcher had not only distorted the usual trend of Tory governments by pursuing a new right-wing agenda, she had also distorted the nature of Tory leadership.

For most of the 20th century, Conservative leaders were successful because, on the whole, they refused to place themselves at the mercy of their activists. Churchill, Eden and Macmillan were merely the most prominent leaders who felt uneasy with Tory activists, and instead saw their role as being to represent the aspirations and needs of the vast swathe of public opinion outside the party. This led to electoral success, and that, in turn, placated the activists. Thatcher was unusual in that she drew her inspiration from the deepest wells of Conservative activism. She carried the same, insular ideological baggage, and viewed the world through the same prism, as her constituency followers. For the first time, the Conservative Party grass roots were fully represented at the top of their party.

Subsequently, Thatcher's two successors have failed to mount an effective challenge to the right's stranglehold on policy. Even more significantly, the selection of candidates for parliamentary seats, an entirely local exercise, has led to a much more ideological brand of MP. Thus the liberal dominance of the party, which depended on the maintenance of a liberal top over a reactionary bottom, was destroyed.

So can one-nation Conservatism return? It certainly should. New Labour has opened up plenty of opportunities to outflank the government on social reform and decentralisation. The adoption of a liberal-conservative agenda would signify more than anything else the break with an unpopular past, and give us once again our chance at government. Even the party activists showed that their desire for winning might be greater than their desire for ideological purity when they voted overwhelmingly, but ineffectively, for Kenneth Clarke as leader in 1997. Yet the outlook is still gloomy. The intake of MPs in 2001, as in 1997, will increase the party's right-wing character. Barely any moderate, one-nation Conservative has been selected for a safe seat in the past four years. The party itself seems resigned to a post-Hague leadership battle that pits a right-wing libertarian against a right-wing authoritarian.

The Tory party, if it should lose the next election (obviously a bit of a daring prediction!), faces a choice: a return to its liberal antecedents or eternal electoral oblivion. If it is not to become the "third party" (or fourth, or fifth, in Scotland and Wales), then it has to face up to the need for a seismic shift in its political thinking. No one-nation Tory should shrink from that battle. There is hope, but almost certainly at the cost of yet more conflict.

Giles Marshall is a former Conservative councillor and parliamentary candidate. Patrons of the Tory Reform Group include Lord (Douglas) Hurd and Michael Heseltine