Bruce Anderson: Parris and Portillo are wrong to disdain the views of grassroot Tories
On Saturday, there were two interesting articles, by two of the most original Conservative politicians of the past generation. Although neither man is a devotee of the party line, they came to the same conclusion, Both of them were wrong.
Matthew Parris (Times (£)) and Michael Portillo (FT (£)) would have us believe that David Cameron should ignore most of his own party members, who are reactionary bigots, obsessed with Europe and wholly out of touch with public opinion. Mr Parris, the gentlest of men in private life, would go further. He compared members of Tory associations to troublesome insects. It would not be unfair to say that both pieces exude intellectual complacency. The writers share a weary disdain for anyone unsophisticated enough to challenge their own de haut en bas conclusions. That is not necessarily a fault. None of us is obliged to tolerate noisy nonsense. But in each case, the writers should be obliged to earn the right to be so scornful, by explaining the evolution of their own views.
In Mr Portillo's case, he is objecting to the very opinions that he expressed with force and eloquence during the Major government, of which he was an uncomfortable member. In the Seventies and Eighties, he spent time in Enoch Powell's company, and would have been honoured if anyone had described him as one of Enoch's disciples. Many of today's Europhobes were also disciples once. They started off as Portillistas. Before he treats them with contempt, Mr Portillo ought to appear before a truth and reconciliation commission.
Around the same time, the Tory government proposed to make it compulsory for car drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat-belts. There was overwhelming evidence that this would save lives while also reducing the dreadful damage that road accidents inflicted on human flesh.
Matthew was involved in the Committee stage, and opposed the Bill. I upbraided him. "You lot are hypocrites. You are merely trying to use fatuous and misleading anecdotes to obscure truth. 'My Aunt Hilda's Cousin Horace knew a man who met a man in a pub who swore that if he had been wearing a seat-belt, he would have been killed'. It's all obfuscation. None of you is willing to admit that although this measure would save lives, you will oppose it because it intrudes on the liberty of the subject". "You are right," said Matthew. A couple of days later, I received a Committee-stage Hansard, in which Matthew Parris, MP, while accepting that compulsion would save lives, proclaimed his opposition, in order to defend the liberty of the subject.
In the 1980s, Messrs Parris and Portillo were both on the phobic wing of Euro-scepticism. They both believed that the power of Europe had increased, was increasing and ought to be diminished. Neither was convinced that the British electorate had made a wise choice in 1975. So what has happened since to persuade them that they were wrong?
It is true that a lot of extreme Euro-sceptics are also Euro-bores, who cling to their obsessions with a manic intensity. Kenneth Clarke boasted that he had never read the Maastricht Treaty. Some of the Euro-phobes could recite it backwards. With a fair number of them, one is in Ancient Mariner territory. If you see them coming, you dodge behind a pillar and pray that they have not spotted you. We would all rather have dinner with Ken Clarke than with Douglas Carswell. Few human rights are more important than the entitlement to a good dinner in amusing company.
Even so, is that the only relevant criterion? For all their faults, the Euro-phobes can claim redemption, because there is one sin of which they could never be accused: lack of patriotism. Albeit clumsily, awkwardly, tediously, long-windedly - plus every other conversational fault which you can think of, plus the ones which they are busily inventing - they are defending the national interest. That used to be true of Messrs Parris and Portillo. Is it still the case?
There is a further point. Both of them now seem to assume that hard-line Euro-scepticism is unpopular with the public. The most formidable psephologist of modern times would have disagreed. I am not referring to an academic, who was good at analysing elections, but to a politician who was good at winning them: Tony Blair. Mr Blair was a federast. He thought that Britain should join the Euro. He lacked the courage of his convictions, because he understood the public mood. I still prefer his assessment to Matthew's or Michael's.
In that regard, if in few others, Mr Blair was a realist, however reluctantly. So: the Eurosceptics were right about British public opinion. There were also right about the threat from European federalism. Back in the Eighties, Matthew Parris and Michael Portillo, both sceptics, were both right. Why are they now behaving as if they wish that they had been wrong?