Whatever happened to Britain's Conservatives?

A wartime lexicon.
Feb. 27 2007 12:06 PM

A Kindler, Gentler Tory Party

Whatever happened to Britain's Conservatives?

David Cameron. Click image to expand.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron 

Britain's obituary pages are almost designed to bring back memories of a lost or forgotten world, but the news on Monday about the death of Earl Jellicoe was remarkable, at least to me, for recalling an utterly vanished time that elapsed a very short while ago. The late earl was one of those men who used to make the Tory Party formidable: a solid member of the ruling class with a strong sense of his family's obligations. His father had commanded the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (being described by Winston Churchill, then at the Admiralty, as "the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon"). That's where the original earldom had come from. George, the first earl's eldest son, had succeeded to the title as he was about to go to university and had gone on to earn several military decorations in the Mediterranean theater in World War II. Before entering politics, he had served as a diplomat in many capitals, including Baghdad, where he'd been secretary to the short-lived "Baghdad Pact," under which Britain and the United States had attempted to shore up a version of constitutional monarchy in Iraq.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

In government, he had kept up his interest in defense and foreign affairs and been a strong upholder of the two pillars of British Conservative orthodoxy: the military "special relationship" with the United States and the attempt to win Britain a larger place in the councils of Europe. He had opposed those in his party who, nostalgic for a lost dominion, were sympathetic to the white-settler rebellion in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Even his temporary departure from office in the early 1970s was the result of what you might call a classically Tory scandal. Tory scandals are about sex, as the saying goes, and Labor ones are about money. The noble earl went the whole hog by getting his name into the personal address book of a Soho procuress who also furnished call girls to another minister with a hereditary peerage, Lord Lambton. Jellicoe confessed all, resigned his post at the defense ministry, but continued to pop up as a member of useful blue-ribbon commissions and on the boards of various companies.

Advertisement

O Tempora, O Mores! During the week I recently spent in London, almost all the political gossip was about whether or not the latest leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, had made recreational use of marijuana—and perhaps other drugs—while at Oxford. There were also photographs of him in his undergraduate days, garbed in the uniform of an upper-crust student dining club that could have been captioned "Brideshead Regurgitated." Thus, if only in a slightly frivolous way, the association of the Tories with the nobs and the toffs and the privileged was still preserved in tabloid form. But there was a time when no serious Conservative would have been caught dead with a joint—the very symbol of '60s fatuity. And the interesting thing was to notice not how incongruous the story was with the style of today's Tory leadership, but rather how perfectly it seemed to fit it.

David Cameron has become the green challenger. His party's events feature tie-less informality and earth tones and much grave talk about the need for "organic" attitudes. Confronted with things like youthful crime, which used to bring out the authoritarian beast in his party's traditionalist ranks, Cameron speaks soothingly of root causes and compassion. He has publicly regretted the way in which his party was too late in seeing the virtues of Nelson Mandela. Most astonishingly of all, he is running against Tony Blair (or rather, against Blair's heir-presumptive, Gordon Brown) as the candidate who wants to refashion Britain's relationship with Washington in such a way as to take distance from the American alliance. The press conference at which Cameron announced this new initiative was held on Sept. 11 last, as if to emphasize that the American Embassy could no longer take Tory sympathy for granted. And Cameron has appointed William Hague, a former leader of the party, as his spokesman on foreign affairs. Hague takes every opportunity to criticize the Blair administration for its slavish endorsement of George Bush and to promise that a Conservative government cannot be counted upon for Republican military expeditions.

Twenty or even 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that the historic left-right divide in British politics could have taken this form. Old leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labor's front bench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a part of the noble anti-fascist tradition, while dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries are warning against American hubris. I keep having to pinch myself.

Some of this is dictated by public opinion, which generally regards the Iraq operation as an exercise in hysterical egomania by a prime minister too eager to please his master in Washington. At the moment, British politics are still too dominated by the figure of Blair for opinion polls to be very useful as a guide, but there is a lot of intuitive evidence that Gordon Brown would have a very tough time fending off a challenge from the younger and fresher Cameron—especially a younger and fresher Cameron who chose to appear in so many of the borrowed plumes of environmentalism and multiculturalism.

If you look at it in this light, it can even seem like a plus that the latest leader of Margaret Thatcher's no-nonsense party is now inescapably linked to certain dreamy voyages of the imagination. But I can't easily adjust to the fact that for the first time in memory, there is nothing intimidating about the British Conservative Party. For all I know, its current leader might regard that as a compliment.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.