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Mad Tories and Englishmen

Wonder boy William Hague is off on his travels. His mission—to reassure the Tory faithful, still in a state of shock after the events of May 1997, that there is a flicker of life in the party, that it is not yet time to switch off the bleeping machine by the bedside and tip toe out of the room. It has not been the Tories in just this country, who have received this message from the Intensive Care Unit. None of them, it seems, wherever they are, will be safe from a visit from their floundering leader. Recently, for example, Hague went to see what the Tories in exile in Marbella think about him, the party and life in general.

Now Marbella has something of a reputation as a resort attractive to certain English people not just for the sun, the paella and the sangria but because it was preferable to stay there than to go back to England and help the police with their enquiries. Whether that has fostered an unusually abrasive view of the world, or whether it is too generous an exposure to gin and sunshine, it seems that Marbella harbours some especially mad and unpleasant supporters of our William. Some of them were chillingly free with their opinions to the Guardian last month. Scottish people are "tight bastards" who should be made to "pay their own taxes". Criminals should be tied "to a post in the middle of Wembley before a match and (birched) in front of the crowd". English is a place with "wogs pouring in" (during the early 1980s about 150,000 British people "poured" into Spain to settle there. A lot of them formed groups like Conservatives Abroad in Marbella).

Differences

The message Hague carried on his tour was that the Tories are now a listening party. The days when they surged on regardless—he says—of what anyone thought of them are over. Come and meet me. Tell me what you think. I will listen. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that he will be surprised to hear the opinions of the Marbella Tories because such views have been popular in the party—would regularly provoke a storm of applause at their conferences—for a long time. The interesting point, though, is why Hague has only recently become aware of the need to listen to what might be called the grass roots. What was he doing about governmental complacency when he was a minister? Why did it take a disastrous election result to persuade him that such things needed to change? The answers to these questions are too obvious to need spelling out here.

Of course one of Hague's problems is to convince the people he is listening to that there is any real difference between the conservative and Labour parties. This has become especially difficult since Blair's government carried on roughly where Major's left off. Even symbolically the parties are coming to resemble each other more and more. At their conferences this year they both abandoned their traditional platform colour scheme in favour of multi-coloured shapes and panels (Labour's to show that they are the party of modern technology, changed colour according to the speaker.) Hague announced that he was scrapping the party's torch of liberty logo—perhaps cursing that Labour had already pinched the red rose of England. So alike are the two parties that Gordon Brown has accused Hague of repeatedly using the phrase "the British way" when Brown had already flogged it to death in a speech.

The Real World

Soon it may be so difficult to tell the two apart that we shall have to rely on things like Hague's wife having fair hair while Cherie Blair's hair is black. Like Hague having very little hair while Blair has enough to re-arrange the styling according to whether he is in tough-decision-making mode or "I'm a pretty straight guy" mode. But we may rely on it that the show battles—the mock-indignant press releases about the other's tricks, the MPs braying and hooting at the knockabout of Prime Minister's question time, the relentless denunciation of the other side's incompetence, dishonesty and cynicism, will go on its meaningless way.

Meanwhile in the real world capitalism is bracing itself for another recession. In the Far East, South America and Russia the system is showing itself at its chaotic worst. In this country the immediate prospect is of a serious slump. The Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, has been warning that banks will be hard hit by huge losses from their investments in industries affected by the slump.

Somewhere else in the real world the statisticians at the Department of Social Security have reported that even before the effects of the approaching slump are felt, the condition of those in the severest poverty does not improve. In 1997 there were 24 percent of the population living below the official poverty line of less than half the average income. In the event of a slump the lot of these people will get worse and their numbers will swell as more and more workers fall deeper and deeper into poverty.

Powerless

We have already seen how Blair's government—and before them how the governments of Thatcher and Major—react to this kind of situation. They do not inform us that capitalism is a system beyond human control, which inflicts the sufferings of poverty on its people as a matter of routine. Instead they care about things like the so-called dependency culture—which does not mean the ruling class depending on exploiting the rest of us to maintain their privileged position in society but a supposed addiction among unemployed workers to living on a starvation income.

They do not hark back to their many promises to control the economy, through a few meetings at Number Ten and the stroke of the Chancellor's pen, so that poverty becomes a thing of the past. So they do not confess that they are powerless to do anything, in any real sense, about capitalism and are in fact reduced to floundering about in futile reactions to its procession of crises. They do not, in other words, tell us that to support them is a waste of our power to change society in a fundamental and permanent way and that we should immediately stop voting for them and instead trust in our own ability.

This is not the message Blair gives out and it was not passed on by Hague to those seriously deluded Tories in Marbella. On the Costa de Sol, as elsewhere, fantasy rules.

IVAN