The Tories' Young Men

Article from the <em>New Society</em> archive, 13 October 1977 by Peter Wilby, selected by Brian Cat

All but Arnold made it to the front bench, though only Rifkind reached the cabinet. He lost his seat in 1997 but returned in 2005. MacKay has been an MP throughout, while the others stood down in 1997, Smith after implication in the cash-for-questions affair. New Society merged with the New Statesman in 1988.

Andrew MacKay, the victor of the Stetchford by-election last march, was born in August 1949. Tim Smith, who triumphed in the mining constituency of Ashfield, was born in October 1947. Tory MPs, like policemen, look young nowadays. If the party wins more improbable by-elections, propelling the young hopefuls who normally fight solid Labour seats into premature glory, more members of this generation will enter the House of Commons. What will they be like, these first Tory children of the welfare state? Will they differ very much from the traditions of conservatism?

Besides MacKay and Smith, the post-Hiroshima generation has three other members in the parliamentary party: Tony Nelson (Chichester), Thomas Arnold (Hazel Grove) and Malcolm Rifkind (Edinburgh Pentlands). In one respect, they conform to the traditional Tory Party profile: all five of them were educated at independent schools, and four went on to ancient universities - Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh.

In another way, however, the five men suggest the decline, even the demise, of a tradition Tory social strain. None of them has the remotest connection with the land owning classes. One had a father in the Merchant Navy and another in the RAF. Three of them were born into small family businesses. Another striking characteristic is the lack of any identification with the authoritarian right in the Tory Party. These young MPs have an instinctive sympathy for liberal social reform in such areas as divorce, homosexuality and abortion. In one case, there is even a tentative, qualified sympathy for the legalisation of cannabis. If they tend to lead towards a permissive economy, they also accept many of the principles of the permissive society.

Otherwise, the five men’s views and interests are remarkably diverse. Two of them favour the reintroduction of judicial corporal punishment. Two volunteered a firm belief in strengthening our defences against the red menace; one wished to dismantle the social services.

One of them strongly favours comprehensive education. Another takes a hard line on race. One is highly indignant about the anachronisms of parliament. While most of them are politically ambitious (and one has been a front bench spokesman), one has already settled into the role of the backbench MP and seems to expect little more than that.

Andrew MacKay seems set to be the most controversial of the five. He talks rapidly and fluently, saying: "I do believe" and "I don’t believe," as if addressing an open-air revival meeting.

MacKay is a member of a fifth generation Birmingham family and has lived and worked in the area all his life. He is in the family building and estate agency business that his grandfather founded in the 1920s. He makes much of his roots.

MacKay could have gone to London University to read estate management. But, at that time, he said, the idea of following the family business filled him with dread, so he preferred to spend four years working in motor distribution. He has been a Tory since his school days, because he is a firm believer in the individual. That means, he says, a minimum of taxation and of government interference. "I dislike socialism because I dislike bureaucratic control - he individual is more right and more sensible than any collective body."

Freedom, to MacKay, embraces abortion on demand and repeal of the race relations laws. "People should have the freedom to decide who they want to mix with. Racial intolerance is created when you tell them whom they ought to sell their houses to. I have close contacts with immigrants in Birmingham (the Asians are natural Tories) and they don’t want the race relation laws either."

During the Stetchford campaign, MacKay issues 300,000 leaflets calling for an end to immigration. He says he is against further immigration because the economy is weak, the country is overcrowded and the social services over-stretched. Above all, he says, it will damage race relations. "I don’t agree with official Tory policy that it’s practical to let all dependants in. The potential harm outweighs our moral obligations. There should be exceptions but, in general, if someone has been separated from dependants for so long, how dependent are they?"

MacKay’s belief in freedom is coupled with an equally strong passion for law and order. "On this, you may safely call me right-wing. Innocent people in our cities can’t walk the streets. Our duty is to protect that innocent 95 per cent, not mollycoddle the 5 per cent. Punishment should be a deterrent. Longer and harder sentences wouldn’t fill the prisons because there wouldn’t be so much crime. And I don’t rule out corporal punishment."

The other man who favours corporal punishment (though neither favours capital punishment) is Malcolm Rifkind. "It is no more barbaric to give a short, sharp beating," says Rifkind, "than to lock people up in confined spaces for six months." Rifkind believes that there is too much imprisonment, particularly in Scotland, for petty offences. "Imprisonment means the offender loosing his job, breaking up his family and coming into contact with hardened criminals." He wants more use of probation and community service orders, as well as beating, as an alternative to prison.

Rifkind is a native of Edinburgh and went to school and university there. He studied law and politics and is now a member of the Scottish bar. His belief in freedom and individual rights involves opposition to blanket social service provision because "it leads to a tax system that is confiscatory." He says it is meaningless to talk of education being free. "The majority of people are paying for it through their taxes. So we’re talking about the best way to pay for education. Is it best to give the money to central government, which then spends it on centrally determined services? Or should people spend it themselves if they can afford it?"

Born in June 1946, Rifkind is the oldest of the five MPs. He has already had time to suggest that he has a glittering career ahead of him. He contested his first parliamentary seat in 1970, entered the house in 1974 and was a front-bench spokesman by February 1975. Less than two years later, he completed his political induction course by resigning over the second reading of the Scotland and Wales Bill. He was not a member of the shadow cabinet and was therefore not obliged to resign when he refused to vote against the bill. But he preferred to do so, first, because devolution policy was his own special responsibility and, secondly, because he felt it would be incongruous to continue under such a rabid anti-devolutionist as Teddy Taylor. Rifkind quotes Lord Salisbury’s remark on resignation - like adultery, it is most difficult the first time. In other words, Rifkind intends to be back.

Thomas Arnold, on the other hand, seems a natural backbencher. He rarely speaks in the House, but frequently tables questions. He looks older than his 30 years. His manner is taciturn and his opinions tentative. On most issues he talks of his constituents’ views rather than his own. What were his views on divorce reform? "I have received no representations for further changes." Were there any issues on which he disagreed with Tory front-bench policy? "Not in terms of the way matters have evolved." A political conversation with Arnold is rather like a game of tennis played from the baseline. A statement of what appeared to be his political credo was intriguing: "I am in the centre of the party. But I don’t think of myself as part of the centre. The pressures I have to respond to don’t fall easily into left-right categories. Policies have very little to do with policy. It has a great deal to do with who mixes with whom, for how long and why."

Arnold works in the family impresario business, Tom Arnold Presentations Limited, which puts on the annual ice show at Wembley. He was educated at Bedales, at a Swiss school and at Pembroke, Oxford.

He was adopted, on his first application, to fight Manchester Cheetham against Harold Lever in 1970 and moved to Hazel Grove, on his second application, in 1972. He defeated the Liberal incumbent in October 1974. In a reversal of the MacKay/ Rifkind pattern, Arnold abhors corporal punishment ("I saw it and experienced it at prep school"), but supports capital punishment for the murder of policemen and prison officers. He is an ardent EEC supporter.

Tony Nelson, born in June 1948, made a late entry into politics. After Harrow and Christ’s College, Cambridge ("where I was a highly non-political sportsman"), he went into merchant banking with Rothschild’s. Once he had resolved to enter politics in 1971, he consulted Sir Keith Joseph and was told to join a research group. Nelson chose the Bow group and later fought Leeds East against Dennis Healey.

On most social policy issues, Nelson is firmly on the left of the Tory Party. He is against capital and corporal punishment. He supports race relations legislation. On comprehensive education, his line is similar to that of his predecessor at Chichester, Christopher Chataway. "We should not be involved in tangential debates about direct-grant and private schools. My constituents are concerned about opportunities for their children within the comprehensive system. We must make it work." He has been heavily involved in penal reform campaigns and in the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

On economic issues, however, Nelson thinks he is slightly right of centre. "I am very strongly pro-Thatcher. She has delivered the goods. She has got over the simple message that ordinary people have the inalienable right to improve themselves and their families through retaining the products of their labour." He takes a hard line on defence, which he describes as one of his special interests.

Tim Smith is also a left wing Conservative on most issues, but is more diffident than the voluble, confident Nelson and still, apparently, dazed at finding himself in the Commons. While Nelson, secure in his rock-solid Tory seat, can think of ministerial ambitions, Smith is in the curious position of knowing that an early election, even if it might put his party in power, would probably put him out of a seat. The contrast is more poignant because Smith, unlike Nelson, has been an active Tory since his Oxford days, when he was president of the university Conservative Association.

"It was a good time to be at university," he recalls. "It was the height of the revolutionary ferment. I had some good experience of speaking at big-open air meetings. At the time, I always took the line that the university authorities were intransigent and created unrest by refusing reform." After graduation, Smith qualified as chartered accountant and became company secretary to an engineering group. He got on to the party candidates’ list in 1975 and was turned down for Wood Green a year later.

Smith says: "I think of myself as a caring, moderate Conservative. I want to dispel the image that the party is associated with the bosses. I am associated only with the interests of the people against bureaucracy, whether it is central government or local."

Of all the five, Smith is the most emphatic that he is not a free-market supporter. A government has to intervene to stop monopolies. A conservative government would have to nationalise if there were a Rolls Royce again. We’d need some agency to hold government investments, even if we abolished the National Enterprise Board. The extent to which we can cut expenditure is limited. There are more possibilities in a switch from direct to indirect taxation."

Smith is an executive of the United Nations Association. He has twice refused to join the Conservative Friends of Israel and has, therefore, been accused of Pro-Arab sympathies ("But I wouldn’t join a pro-Arab group either," he says). He is "very doubtful" about capital punishment, even for terrorists. He is "not very convinced" by the arguments for education vouchers. Privately he has some sympathy for the legalisation of cannabis, but he wouldn’t say so at a public meeting.

I asked all five MPs what they thought the Tory Party would be like in ten years time. "In power," said Rifkind. "Impossible to say," said Arnold. "Moderate, caring, pragmatic," said Smith. Nelson looked forward to a modus vivendi with Labour on major issues like the boundaries between the public and private sectors. "There should be fewer gulfs of philosophy and the electoral choice should be between two teams rather than two ideologies." For me, the most interesting answer came from Andrew MacKay. "We shall become a more urban party. We shall be the grass roots party of the small businessman, the self-employed, the skilled worker. We shall loose touch with city people - many of them are socialists anyway. I am anti-big business - many of our problems are just as attributable to management as to militant trade unionists."

That comment provides a small clue to the new strain emerging in the Tory Party. It is a matter of tone and priority rather than specific policy. It is different from the liberal, professional class of Toryism of, say, Edward Boyle, from the landed Toryism of Lord Home, and from the technocratic Toryism of Heath and Walker. The liberal tradition remains strong, notably in Tim Smith. But, among our five MPs, technocratic Toryism, the Toryism of merger, rationalisation, planning and property speculation - seems almost as dead as land-owning Toryism.

Instead, the new Toryism seems to be groping towards an understanding of people who are not middle class yet not quite working class. These people are technicians, rather than technocrats. They may have post-school qualifications, but not degrees. They expect to succeed through personal effort and initiative, not through automatic career progression. They aspire to modest middle class possessions, not to an overnight fortune. Their roots are in the great conurbations. They are suspicious of the power of the big companies, big banks, big trade unions and big government.

If they do not still live in the heart of the cities themselves, they have relatives who do. So they are apprehensive about mugging and vandalism, about immigrant infiltration, about private and public bodies that rip away familiar landmarks.

In other circumstances, such people might have been the rots of a British fascism. But Toryism is adaptable enough to absorb them.