Monday, November 05, 2007

enoch is back

Should I feign surprise that in the brave new world of this 21st century, in an England where politics is irreversibly dominated by the liberal collosus which is Dave Cameron - the man who has single-handedly banished intolerance from the newly touchy-feely Conservative Party - the likes of Nigel Hastilow continue to evoke the name and the policies of the hated Enoch Powell? No, I shan't - it really couldn't be more predictable.

A day or two after Hastilow - who was a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tory party - published his ill-conceived article and came very close to endorsing the racist demagoguery of Powell, the journalist and would-be politician has been hauled over the coals by the fearsome Caroline Spellman and has handed in his resignation. The Tories, meanwhile, are exposed once more as precisely the 'nasty party' that Theresa May warned them they were becoming.

What makes this story interesting, of course, is not that yet another Tory is so bone-headed as to once more open this familiar can of worms, nor that Hastilow will be a great loss to the electorate (he won't), but rather that the fault line between Cameron's leadership tone and his own supporters is once more so clearly highlighted. Over at Conservative Home the mood is predictable - lots of people willing to criticise Hastilow for poor judgement but very few willing to themselves decry Powell's speech. Why? Because they believed him then and they believe him now.

Plenty of Labour voters do, too, I suspect, and Liberals also. But the relationship between Conservatism and xenophobia goes far deeper than any comparable links in the other British parties. People 'become' Labour because they appreciate their links with the working classes, or because they admire their liberalism, or because they support social justice. There are certainly racist Labour voters, but it's very hard to imagine that they became Labour voters as a consequence of their attitude towards foreigners. Yet for a great many people their dislike of immigration (just like their dislike of Europe) is a central plank in their identification with the Conservative Party. Cameron tries hard to convince us that this bond is broken. This plainly isn't so.

In the office today I had a long chat with a (tremendously nice) Tory, who has campaigned and stood as a Conservative candidate, and while he shook his head that Hastilow so openly stood up for Powell, he was quick to reassure me that "what he said in public is exactly what every Tory says to core voters on their own doorsteps". For him, mentioning the 'rivers of blood' was a huge tactical mistake, and a misjudgement because the country has so clearly moved on from Powell's speech in '68.

But even in that context, he told me that "what Powell said was acceptable in public then, but it isn't now". This kind of myopia is typical of the modern Conservative, because it fails to appreciate – indeed it blindly refuses to remember - that what Powell said in '68 was so far from acceptable then that Ted Heath immediately sacked Powell from the cabinet. The world has changed, yes, but not from a world where racism was acceptable to one where it is not.

The world has changed in the sense that Powell's words (which were just as unnaceptable then as they are now) have been proved to be not just inflammatory, or insensitive, or politically unsound, but profoundly wrong. Cameron must do more than just persuade the country that he understands this. And he has to do more than persuade the country that his fellow-travellers in the Tory party feel the same. He must actually bring about this change. And this is an impossible task.

The Tory footsoldiers don’t want to change. And every time someone does what Hastilow has done, and every time Cameron condemns them for it, they will make his battle all the harder and his sinking yet more inevitable.

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