She wore black to give the speech, I recall. Funereal, I believe the phrase was. Fitting, because in 2002, to be Tory party chairman must have felt rather like attending a wake. And I remember the reaction, then as now. I remember the cynicism.
It was a PR trick, no more, this chairman of the Tory Party standing on the stage telling her audience that their base had grown too narrow, their obsessions too weird, their focus too pale and stale and white.
And maybe, to a degree, it was. I find it hard to believe that anything is done in politics without at least one eye on a goal. But, on the other hand, to another degree it worked. The Tory party opened out a degree more. A touted future Prime Minister is a Pakistani of Muslim heritage; the much praised leader of the Scottish Tories a lesbian kick-boxer. Both of these appear talented individuals on their own merits, so this doesn’t merely feel like tokenism.
But at the same time, the fact that they are around the summit of the party of Tebbit, who less than a decade before had been raging about cricket tests and unnatural practices does imply a change. However deep you wish to see it as being, from cosmetic to bone-deep, the Tory party is not Tebbit’s party any more.
A portion of this must also be assigned to the fortuitous rise of Ukip. Yes, Theresa May stood up and told her party some bald truths. And those that didn’t like it had a vessel to sail off in. But this, I would say, is by the by.
Why am I revisiting political history of 14 years ago?
It’s not as though, in the interim, I have warmed to Tory party policy. I’m not a fan of their economics. I’m very wary of their educational policy, and their health policy for that, both of which seem to succumb to the myth of choice being the most important driver. I’m four-square against their benefits policy. I’m not a supporter of large aspects of their foreign policy, which at best seems muddled. I could go on, but you get the drift.
But I don’t have to be a Tory, or indeed, ever feel like voting for them (neither, just to say) to recognise that May had a point and her words have borne fruit. The opening up of the party made them accept new talent, accept new ways of clothing their old verities for a modern audience, made them palatable to the UK once more.
Consider the other side of the fence now, 14 years later. Consider how the words “Labour Party” and “antisemitism row” have gone from being something that would shock you, to something that you note with a weary resignation. 20 years ago, the words you’d expect would be “Tory party” and “race row”.
You can remember those days. So can I. I must admit it left a lingering distrust in me. We had one quite recently, about Oliver Letwin’s reported statements *in the Eighties*.
A quick Google search of the terms finds the occasional one – in 2013, a Tory front bench peer in his 70s used a term ending “in the woodpile”. The odd councillor here and there, making some bigoted remark. They still happen.
They aren’t perfect, the Tories, and I can’t say I’ll ever fully trust them on race but there is currently only one party having these accusations thrown with a regularity that has become monotonous. You know what party that is.
And when we brought up these fears, last year, when we mentioned the party was heading towards being a place more welcoming to this behaviour? We were – at best – ignored and dismissed and at worse, told we weren’t talking about that at all, that we were using racism for our own goals. Well.
Or, should you choose to look at abuse, look at how certain women have had it thrown at them in the past nine months for differing from the party line. Sure, you’ll respond to me, Diane Abbott received a load of sexist and racist abuse over the years on the left of the party. Sure, I’ll grant you that.
But, and here’s the distinction, this came, vastly, primarily, massively, from outside the party. The abuse thrown at Stella Creasey during the Syria debate last year, at Jess Phillips this year, at Liz Kendall since last year – this came from within (or at least, from stated supporters of) the party. And sure – just as not all the abuse thrown at Abbott was racial or sexual – not all thrown at these three women was sexual. But a chunk was. And it has been noticed.
And then there’s other things. One hates to police language. I really don’t like it. If I believe a policy is mad, I’ll use the word mad. It has a broad definition that doesn’t merely mean mental health per se. I’m not going to stop you saying “this Medium post is mad”. Fine. Do that. But a high profile NEC member mocks the mental health of a fellow party member and then – after a grudging quarter-apology forced from him – months later is heard on live radio laughing at a comedian doing the exact same thing. I don’t want to get too precious about this, but it’s hardly welcoming, is it?
People who oppose the leadership on moral issues are painted as venal and motivated by personal ambition. They are bitter. They aren’t true believers. They are interlopers who stole the party. Union leaders who haven’t been party members for the best part of three decades, having spent their life trawling around the more risible shores of the further left, join on Tuesday and talk of deselecting MPs on a Thursday.
In a sense, a kind of reverse May has happened. The party has grown, and yet it has grown narrower, more intolerant, more dogmatic. 100 years of a broad church debate between right, centre and left has somehow been reframed as true believers and Blairites.
And with that comes a lack of understanding of your opponents and a lack of ability to reach beyond your base.
This is made worse by the left’s assumption of virtue and compassion. We are left because we bleeding care, OK, not like those Tories. And so we ignore what our opponents are talking about and fight our imaginings of what they are talking about.
Say, benefits. Let’s look at that. The fact is, a conservative may care as much for the poor as you. They may think that the way out of poverty is to remove the state, to encourage self-reliance.
When Iain Duncan Smith spoke about work setting you free and making you healthier and more fulfilled, the instant response I saw – not from politicians but from party members – was to make Arbeit Macht Frei references.
You know, Occam’s Razor may suggest that IDS is ideologically blinded. Or that he’s incompetent. Naive. Disconnected. Shamefully disconnected, no doubt. But that’s not what we went for. We went for “it sounds a bit like what they had above the door of that concentration camp, therefore…”.
Did we ever stop to think how unappealing that rhetoric made us sound? How narrowed we became because of it? I – just to reiterate the point – oppose cuts in benefits to the poor, the disabled, the needy. I want our benefits system there, I don’t want it cut. But people who equate a reduction in money given by the government to industrial genocide lose the argument to begin with. You cry dragon one too many times, nobody listens when the wolf is at your door.
How many suicides did we leap upon? Oh, it fitted our mantra of cuts costing lives. We ignored decades of movement towards nuance in mental health. To understanding it wasn’t a simple effect of single cause = death. The minute somebody killed themselves and we knew their benefits had been cut we were there.
And of course, maybe they did have an effect. Who knows? I’m not going to say that when a man whose benefits have been cut and then kills himself, there is definitely no connection. But that’s a far cry from instantly assigning blame.
And now it’s bearing toxic fruit, that tree we’ve planted. All those decades of demonising the enemy and refusing to engage their arguments has left us with this. A movement that is willing to sacrifice things we espoused to believe in – anti-racism, anti-sexism, understanding of mental health issues, there, three very pertinent and immediate issues – we jettison them in an instant if it advances our cause. A cause less and less people are drawn to. A cause turning in on itself, listening only to its own rhetoric, dancing only to its own music.
And then we think – with that going on – we think we’ll be elected? That the masses will sweep us into power and trust that our policies do not match our rhetoric and moral squalor? That they’ll lay aside the shrillness of our shrieking and our glossing over of unpleasantness and comforting blindness. And for all we look over the aisle and condemn the policies of our opponents, our inability to relinquish the manacles we have forged for ourselves condemns the very people we claim to fight for to those very policies we enjoy opposing so much.
Are we the nasty party redux yet? I can’t tell. But until we wake up to the possibility that we may be, or we may be seen that way, until we lose the unearned belief in our unchallengeable virtue, the possibility grows ever stronger.