Tory traits and the Guardian’s woes

Here are three arguments for voting Tory in the forthcoming election. First, a hung parliament might spook the markets, causing a run on the pound and a refusal to buy UK government bonds. We would all be ruined and should therefore, whatever our usual allegiances, support the only party likely to achieve a clear majority. Second, a narrow Tory victory would leave David Cameron dependent on the votes of MPs who oppose action on global warming. Third, just as many natural Tories supported Tony Blair in 1997 because he cleansed Labour of any traces of socialism, so we lefties should back Cameron, because he excludes Thatcherite purists from mainstream politics.

But I can't do it, and not only because, whereas Blair believed in what he was doing, it is far from clear that Cameron does. British elections aren't merely about who you want in Downing Street, but about what kind of people you want on the government benches of the Commons and what kind of company they keep. If I ever think of voting Tory, I recall a party conference in the early 1990s where I witnessed, from a few seats away, the orgasmic excitement of overfed, red-faced delegates as speakers ranted about criminals, single mums and benefit scroungers; the minister who, at a late-night conference reception, smacked his lecherous lips while delivering his assessment of nearby women's bodies; the "jokes" about black people some Tories make in private dinner speeches where they think no one will object (or leak to the press).

I recall also the Iraq war. With Labour, there was at least, thanks to a backbench rebellion and Robin Cook's resignation, a significant chance of stopping British involvement. Under a Tory government, there would have been none.

Ten top Conservatives

All the same, one likes and admires some Tories. These include David Willetts, whose book The Pinch, reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Jenni Russell, has been so widely praised.

Which raises the question of who in the post-1945 era would rate as the cleverest Tories - those of outstanding intellect, not the low cunning that often passes for cleverness at Westminster. My top ten, in no particular order, comprise R A Butler, Enoch Powell, Iain Mac­Leod, Edward Boyle, Keith Joseph, William Waldegrave, Leon Brittan, Nigel Lawson and Ian Gilmour, plus Willetts himself. These were or are fairly prominent figures and it may be, given the Tories' preference for stupidity, that some fine brains languished on the back benches or in obscure junior ministerial posts.

I would be interested to hear readers' selections, and particularly whether I am right to exclude John Redwood who, after a painfully stilted lunch conversation, I rated as the slave to a theory on which (at least to me) he was quite incapable of elaborating.

Cross benchers

Next question. Which prime minister in the modern (post-1900) era rates as the most bad-tempered? Though Asquith, MacDonald and Churchill all had fragile temperaments, Gordon Brown's only serious rival at the top of the red-mist league was Anthony Eden. The similarities between the two men are remarkable: workaholism; chronic indecision, allied with anxiety about being thought indecisive; disproportionate rage over trivial incidents (in Eden's case, an official car that broke down in Piccadilly, for example); a tendency to bawl out innocent subordinates; liberal use of strong language.

But there is one difference. To the public, Eden seemed charming, calm and considerate. As his press adviser William Clark wrote, his vile temper was one of the best-kept secrets about him. Whereas, long before Andrew Rawnsley's book, everybody knew Brown was the grumpiest man in politics. Which shows either that Eden's presentational skills were superior, or that it's far harder, in the age of 24-hour media, to hide character flaws.

Printing money

In discussions of press ownership, the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is frequently held up as a model. Far better, people say, than a proprietor who wants newspapers for personal aggrandisement or a faceless conglomerate interested only in short-term profit. But the
behaviour of Guardian Media Group towards the Manchester Evening News is in essence no different from that of a straightforward profit-making concern. The latter wants dividends for its shareholders: GMG wants dividends for the Guardian, in accordance with the Scott Trust's terms, which require it to protect that paper "in perpetuity". Not content with modest profits, both slash costs (eg, journalism) to maximise returns and then, when profits slump, make a quick sale - in the case of the Evening News, to Trinity Mirror, a faceless conglomerate.

I don't criticise the Guardian, which had little alternative. I merely point out that, in this imperfect world, there is no ideal model of press ownership. In recent history, the Thomsons and O'Reillys were widely regarded as admirably benign, hands-off proprietors. The Thomsons sold the Times and Sunday Times to Rupert Murdoch; the O'Reillys propose to sell the Independents to a former KGB spy.

Red royalist

Vanessa Redgrave must be the best-known living Trotskyist, and though I cannot recall which faction she now favours, I have not heard any renunciation of past opinions. Yet when receiving her fellowship from Prince William, the Bafta president, she gave an enormous curtsey (it isn't, believe me, easy to get as low as that once you're past 60, never mind 73), began her speech by addressing "Your Royal Highness", and gratuitously praised Prince Charles for "intelligence, humility and kindness". I wouldn't expect a republican rant, but surely a woman of her age and distinction can do better than that.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum