Thursday, 24 October 2013

John Major, the 'Red' Conservative

John Major's emergence as some sort of left-wing tribune is arresting, but not surprising.

Let's leave aside, for one moment, his incendiary intervention on energy prices, which was along entirely accepted and time-honoured Conservative lines. Mrs Thatcher, for one, was happy to see a windfall tax placed on the oil companies when energy prices shot up in the early 1980s - an intervention of a similar type to that this ex-Prime Minister has now called for in his turn. Any Prime Minister in need of cash, and concerned about money just falling into companies' laps without them lifting a finger to justify it, would do the same. It's less of a big deal than it seems right now.

No. It's not just energy prices that were the subject of his ire, revealed in all its unlikely fervour to Parliament's lobby journalists the other day. It was his experience in government, lending him a good nose for disasters in the making. Iain Duncan Smith's ill-fated Universal Credit debacle? Likely to end up in the bin. Leaving the European Union? Economic suicide without entry into some form of free trade zone with the EU - a concession that is less likely than many Conservatives imagine. It was a model of good sense, by someone who's been there and done that. Mr Major (above) actually led a government that was much more successful than it seemed at the time, holding the country and his own party together - and inside the European Union. Generally moderate on Northern Ireland, (eventually) successful economically under Kenneth Clarke's centrist Chancellorship, it is no record to be entirely ashamed of. Mr Major knows a political crisis when he sees it, and he isn't shy of inconveniencing his own party leadership to speak out about it. He has made the present incumbent of No. 10 Downing Street look a fool, not least at yesterday's Prime Minister's questions - quite a feat for such a normally loyal and mild-mannnered figure.

What Major is also doing is speaking up for 'his' people - suburban Tories on low incomes, hidden in their 'net curtain poverty', a type of deprivation uncovered anew by sociologists in the 1960s. Mr Major himself grew up in exactly those straits, and he knows how disappointment looks - disappointment in your parent's eyes, educational failure, failures to live up to your peer's and your culture's aspirations. Conservatives ignore them at their peril - especially when they're led by products of public schools and Oxford, dangerously adrift from their angry and disillusioned rank-and-file.

The main question we should ask ourselves is this: how did we drift so far rightwards, so far out of the European mainstream, and so far away from the great bulk of metroland's loyal-but-often-benighted inhabitants? How did we build a politics that made the last Conservative leader to win a General Election look like such a radical? How, indeed - a dispiriting thought for an era of low politics.