To cut a long Tory short

March 8, 1996

The culture of power without responsibility heralds not only the end of a government but the disintegration of Conservatism, writes John Gray.

We know better than to expect resignations these days - especially from a government that has grown inured to the contempt in which it is held by the public. Resignations may occur, but only after it has been made clear to everyone that they signify no acceptance of blame or responsibility.

To be sure, an indifference to morality is a common characteristic of nomenklaturas all over the world. The original nomenklaturists - the privileged party elites of the old communist bloc - were notorious for their conviction that morality counted for nothing in political life, and power for everything. As Orwell perceived, these elites found the purpose of power in the exercise of power. It had, and needed, no other purpose.

Orwell never imagined that the political culture of power for power's sake was restricted to communist regimes. Yet even the dark imagination of the author of 1984 could scarcely have envisaged the emergence in Britain, under the auspices of a new right ideology, of a neoconservative nomenklatura. The members of this elite share with the nomenklaturists of the former communist regimes the belief that the exercise of power, and the enjoyment of its privileges, are their own justification. It is the elite that won another lease of political life last week, when by the slenderest of margins the Government survived the Commons vote arising from the Scott report and rejected the Opposition's entirely justified demands to resign and call a general election.

It has long been known that the Government will not go to the country until its support in the Commons has crumbled irretrievably. That day may not be far off. The political culture of power for power's sake represents a break with all the traditions of an older conservatism. Many Tory MPs mourn the passing of a tradition in which a man like Lord Carrington could resign on a point of honour. The relentless corrosion of the parliamentary Conservative party by mass retirement and individual acts of defection reflects the deep concern, even within the Conservative party itself, at the emergence of the new nomenklatural culture in government.

This haemorrhaging of support from the parliamentary Conservative party is only the most visible symptom of the decomposition of the Conservative machine. The result of the techniques of news management used brutally and shamelessly to mask the contents of the Scott report may be, in the event, to shorten the lifespan of the Major government.

The impact of the new right policies pursued over the past decade and a half, however, has been far greater. It has been to unravel the intertwined strands of economic self-interest, inherited class culture and institutional conservatism that enabled Tory England to sustain itself for over 150 years. What we are now witnessing is far more than the debacle of a particular Conservative government. It is the passing of an entire regime.

There can be little doubt that during the 1980s Thatcherites believed they had permanently broken the normal cycle of British political life. The callow and hubristic slogan common on the new right at that time, boasting "Labour will never rule again", expressed a central objective of the Thatcher project - to effect an irreversible rupture in the public culture of Britain.

The historical irony - unperceived by Thatcherites themselves, naturally - is that the project succeeded in this objective, but at the cost of the Conservative party and of Thatcherism itself. The pursuit of Thatcherite economic policies demanded an unprecedented centralisation of power in national government, and its subsequent projection through the apparatus of the quango state. These innovations have overthrown the constitution Margaret Thatcher inherited in 1979. There is now no constitutional status quo in Britain. The effect of Thatcher's contempt for the historical continuities embodied in constitutional conventions - regarding the relations of central government with local authorities and with intermediary institutions, for example - has been to unbalance the constitution far beyond any possibility of its ever returning to pre-1979 normality. It is now virtually inevitable that a change of government will be followed by large constitutional reforms, and more likely than at any time in the past that the electoral system will be subject to a long overdue amendment. The most foreseeable upshot of these developments is that the Conservative party will lose its hegemony in British political life. It will split, with the Thatcherites being, in the first instance, perhaps the largest faction - but a faction that can look forward to a generation of impotent opposition.

If the passing of the British ancien regime does finally occur in this way, it will be partly as an unintended consequence of Thatcherism itself. Against the wishes and interests of the Conservatives who embraced new right ideas, the effect of Thatcherite policies will have been to make a new modernising constitutional and political settlement in Britain unavoidable. An immense responsibility now falls on Labour as the decisive agent in negotiating the transition to a new settlement. We do not know, as yet, how the Conservative nomenklatura will react, when it grasps the larger ramifications of defeat in the general election that cannot now be long delayed. Will its actions show that it has lost not only the ability but the will to rule, and fade listlessly from the scene? Or will it lash out, in a final exhibition of ruthlessness, perhaps aimed at wrecking the public finances of an incoming Labour government? At present we find ourselves in a no-man's-land, in which the old political landscape has become uninhabitable and the outlines of the new can only faintly be glimpsed. But we can see clearly enough one of the components of the new settlement that must be forged. It is the renewal of a political culture in which principled resignation (and dismissal) are accepted as moral obligations for those in government. For only when the nomenklatural culture of power without responsibility has been defaced from British political life will we have the new settlement that we desperately need.

John Gray is a fellow in politics, Jesus College, Oxford.

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