Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Europe Killed the Tory Party

In the early 1900s, Joseph Chamberlain courted controversy by launching an attack on the shibboleth of Free Trade, and advocating a system of "Imperial Preference" or "Tariff Reform". Despite the protectionist agenda acquiring a lot of support in the press, the 1906 election saw a Liberal landslide (with Conservative leader, Balfour, losing his seat). This was in many ways unsurprising - not only was Asquith's denunciation of protectionism brilliant, but the issue itself split the party. By the 1910 election, the internal party issue had been largely resolved, yet it was not until much later that the Tories were able to get into power.

It is my belief that Europe has caused much the same sort of problem in the modern day Tories. It has been suggested that, in fact, it was victory in the 1992 election which is responsible for the predicament they are in now. Had Labour won, they would have been saddled with Black Wednesday and the stain on their economic competence; the government would most likely have been shortlived and the Tories returned to power. Such a view has some merit to it - but ultimately it is far too complacent.

Tariff reform, too, was a policy formed in response to economic struggles - in the early 20th century Britain had been usurped as the dominant trading power. I do not want to push these parallels too far. Yet it is undeniable the response of the Major government to the events of Black Wednesday was to sit back and allow the party to self-destruct over the issue of Europe. Backbench rebels threatened to derail the ratification of the Maastricht treaty; meanwhile the divisions in the party were opened up for all to see. It is no surprise that one characteristic of the Blair government in its early years was to taunt the Tories over Europe - leading figures such as Heseltine and Clarke were in favour of joining the single currency (anathema to Eurosceptics), yet the majority of the party was not. It was the simple chance for a government to discredit the opposition by portraying it as riven with splits - even if the government papered over its own cracks with the promise of a referendum.

The promise of a referendum of joining the euro was a political masterstroke by Blair - one made even more potent by the ineptness of Hague in continuing to make a general election issue out of "Keep the Pound". That the Tories chose in 2001 to focus on the issue of Europe was a mistake similar (if less racist) than the one they are making now, for it made them seem like a single issue party. Worse still, the party could not agree on the single issue. And, in any case, the voting public didn't see a huge problem with Labour policy anyway, for they would retain the ability to decide on the euro themselves.

The 2001 election was, of course, a "core vote" campaign. The Tories were faltering badly in the polls and the fear was that if the core vote didn't turn out, the results could have been yet more embarrassing for the party than they were. Insofar as appealing to the core goes, it was a sensible strategy, for the overwhelming majority of party membership is virulenty Eurosceptic (and I use that word deliberately, for their usual brand of Euroscepticism is highly dangerous).

The successive Shadow Cabinets of IDS and Michael Howard have confirmed the party purge. When figures like John Bercow and Damian Green were consigned to the back benches in September, it was a clear signal that the Tories were going to become nothing other than a totally Eurosceptic party. The party is now less divided on Europe than it has been at any other time in the last 20 years, and possibly for longer still.

Yet the party is still dead. Why? The reason is simple. The purge of the Europhiles has cleaved away the left-wing of the party - the side of the party with the moderate, electable, popular faces like Ken Clarke and Chris Patten. Why this divide occurs so clearly on a left-right basis within the party, I have no idea. But it is nonetheless true, and the fact that rabid Euroscepticism plays so well to the party faithful has led to the election of a disastrous leader (IDS) and means that right-wing rhetoric is in the mainstream in the party. Hence why Howard has been able to get away with such a racist campaign in this election.

The Tories' obsession with Europe over the last ten years has been nothing short of a national embarrassment. Howard's "countries have constitutions" campaign for the European elections last year typifies the low level to which political debate in this country has sunk. Worse still for the party, it has ruined their electability. Not only has Europe consistently failed to provide a distinctively appealing voice to the party, it has taken the party down a road that has made it more and more extreme - to the point of pandering not only to prejudice, but to outright racism. Europe typifies why the Tories are so out of touch with the mainstream of politics at the moment, for when you mention the words they become shrill and hysterical. Until they can soften on Europe, I find it hard to believe they will soften elsewhere.