October 6, 2004


The Victor Meldrews need to launch a cultural revolution (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, 10/06/2004, Daily Telegraph)

Most Tories shudder (rightly) at the thought of introducing, say, America's abortion politics to Britain. But if you define the culture wars more broadly in terms of shared values, two things stand out.

First, the Tories used to be past masters at it. Margaret Thatcher convinced lots of working-class conservatives that her values were those of Basildon Man; they should stay well clear of the loony Left's unpatriotic views, big spending and dubious social agenda.

Second, Tony Blair has proved an extremely shrewd cultural warrior. It is not just getting rid of Militant; he knows how to use both populist conservative jargon ("tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime") and stunts (threatening to force yobs to pay their fines from cashpoints).

He has neutralised fears that Labour is the anti-patriotic party: the Iraq war may have cost him dear, but the Tories can hardly depict him as soft on terrorism.

He has relentlessly portrayed New Labour as the party of modernisation; and the Tories as the party of unearned privilege. Nowadays the loony jibe is far more likely to be used about Tory Euro-sceptics than Labour councils.

Even if they can identify the opportunity, the Tories will not gain from it immediately. Culture wars are not a short-term business. When William Hague focused on keeping the pound and tightening up asylum policy, he was widely attacked as an opportunist.

Mr Howard's speech yesterday was more pragmatic. Over time, there is surely room for the Tories to make more headway than they have on a whole range of traditional themes: that Labour is more likely to give away sovereignty to the European Union, that Labour is the party of the metropolitan elite, that Labour is the great interferer.

One of the lessons of America's culture wars is that it does no harm to take a position that is not that of the majority, if it helps energise your base and caricature your opponent as extreme. Foxhunting may prove such an issue; it has certainly galvanised the Tory base, and it proves Labour's willingness to crush the rights of minorities.

There is also cultural ground to conquer in education (all those Left-wing teachers to castigate) and crime: one of the better bits of Mr Howard's speech yesterday was about politically correct Labour forcing the police to spend six minutes filling out a form every time they stop people.

Two things may give the Tories' cultural assault some traction: the manoeuvring among the Labour apparatchiks to succeed Mr Blair (which will involve some pandering to the Left) and, eventually, the battles over the European Constitution and the euro.

A party that's more horrified by abortion politics than by abortion isn't close to recapturing the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 6, 2004 11:42 AM

Um, aren't Britain's abortion laws far more restrictive than those in the US?

Posted by: brian at October 6, 2004 11:46 AM

How interesting that Micklethwait and Wooldridge wrote this, considering their general antipathy to social conservatism.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at October 6, 2004 10:54 PM