A Tory Third Way?

On the Right Lines: The Future of the Centre-Right in the British Isles

Perri 6 <em>Demos, 87pp, £

Demos, those clever begetters of the Third Way endlessly jostling for intellectual headroom in Tony Blair's ante-chamber, are now keen to show their independence as occupiers of the radical centre ground. Perri 6 has beaten most Tory think-tanks in the race to produce a comprehensive prospectus for the Conservatives, plus an allegedly new big idea for us.

In our present state, all help to start thinking again is gratefully received. If we do not shift from listening to bruising our political brains soon, oblivion beckons. This is despite Lord Blake's law, as propounded by that greatest of living British historians, which lays down that the Tory party inevitably reinvents itself after every catastrophe. So far, political theory is on his side, but will not always necessarily repeat itself.

It is too easy to jibe at the Third Way on the grounds that it is vacuous, but the same could be easily said of contemporary Toryism. There is nothing wrong with reorganising and modernising our party, changing our logos and softening our colours. All of these are in tune with the times - but they are no substitute for thinking.

Mr 6 thinks that the centre-right will return to power eventually, if only because of metal fatigue in new Labour. But this may not be as the cultural and political force that we recognise as Conservatism. He pours scorn on us as an archaic island creed, neither modern nor global, ". . . not necessarily even appropriate for all time in Britain for the centre-right".

This short and smoothly written book is determined to fashion something modern called the centre-right, to be the mirror image of the Third Way. That brilliant piece of intellectual marketing remains a brand in search of substance, bereft of deep cultural roots. Thus far, it has been an attempt to halve the difference between left and right, to bring about the end of politics. Such sleight of hand, little more than Keynesianism got up by contemporary spin-doctors, could only succeed in an era of unimaginable economic contentment.

Mr 6 thinks that now is the time to move on, because one part of our political civil society is in trouble and in urgent need of something called "reconnection". So he comes up with what is, in effect, the "Fourth Way". This has nothing to do with the old-fashioned, deeply embedded Conservatism of the "paleo-Burkeans", which is right-wing and headed for the dustbin of political history. Rather it is everything to do with the discovery of something new called the centre-right, which has abiding commitments to social order, private property, a cocktail of authority and liberty, with substantial dashes of individualism and a garnish of community.

I remember that those were always the central concerns of Conservatism but, no matter, they are due to be reborn in a deracinated form. This must have a big idea of its own: risk. Mr 6 thinks we should market ourselves as risk managers: "The prospects for preventing harms will be central to both the reinvention of the centre-right after the 1997 electoral defeats in Britain and the 1995-96 defeats in the USA." Most of our citizens do not appear to be convinced by the liberal arguments about the merits of taking more personal, family and private responsibility, thus gaining more freedom. Old-fashioned Tories tried too much to privatise risk, too little understanding the popular desire for security against economic turbulence, and the ineluctable hazards of human life.

In reality, casting around like this for some new big idea is a waste of time. There are just two of them - the command society and regulated capitalism. Centre-left Third Way-ism or Mr 6's new style centre-right Fourth Way-ism are rootless inhabitants of the political frontier zones between the two.

Conservatives should read this book, be irritated by it and start reinventing ourselves, but with reference to our own roots. Our little list of core cultural principles needs refashioning. We should never be fearful of doing what Evelyn Waugh said no Tory would ever do again, and turn the clock back. We need to rethink our economic act; be robust about the nation state without being xenophobic; be vigorous about the promotion of freedom before intervention; promote the family; drop all that dissembling policy-wonk rhetoric about "civic Conservatism" which resonates nowhere outside the seminar room. We should say in a language that the voter can understand that we must now become as concerned about the moral environment as 30 years ago we woke up to the importance of the natural environment. Essential to real Conservatism is to be responsible for your neighbourhood. It is very demanding to be a Tory. We should deplore the spectator society just as much as nannying new Labour.

Only by establishing what we think we are will a restatement of what we actually are as Tories emerge, and with it a proper programme. If we do not do this, then Mr 6's next book may be called "The Strange Death of Tory England".

Lord Patten was education secretary, 1992-94

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians