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Issue 35, February 1999

The case for the prosecution

Guilty Men: Conservative Decline and Fall, 1992-1997
By Hywel Williams, Aurum Press, 1998, 19.95.
Reviewed by Mike Watkinson

HYWEL WILLIAMS was John Redwood's chief of staff from 1993 to 1997, and can therefore write with authority about the Tories' decline and fall.

He sets his theme out from the beginning: "This is the story of an incompetent government, a petulant prime minister and an arrogant political party". He feels that 'the traditional political cycle' may not be enough to refloat the Tories, with Major becoming the last Tory prime minister. The 'guilty men' of the title responsible for this are Major (plus advisers) and Thatcher (sic), who Williams calls "the Leninist of the right".

But nor does John Redwood escape Williams' finger of accusation. Having said of Hague during the leadership contest, "I've had more interesting conversations with a bathroom sponge", Redwood was subsequently 'absorbed' into Hague's shadow cabinet, and humiliated into abandoning the think-tank he had established after his 1995 challenge to Major. For Williams this amounted to the breaking of Redwood's spirit. His old boss had become part of the same Tory malaise.

The Conservative Party won a record 14.1 million votes in 1992. But they 'enjoyed' only six months of relative calm before they were were consumed in the helter-skelter of events beginning in September 1992 with the sterling/ERM fiasco. Then their pit closure programme unleashed mass opposition, and was followed by lies, sleaze and corruption, and the arms to Iraq scandal etc. This culminated in the loss of 4.5 million votes in the rout of 1997.

  Much of the publicity this book attracted last year was for its more colourful aspects, such as the Tory whips trying to discover sexual indiscretions to hold over MPs and Portillo cracking Spitting Image jokes about Major's appetite for peas. And there are plenty of character sketchs of individual leaders. Peter Lilley, for example, is given this entry: "The house in Normandy, the coat-trailing banality of the frequently invoked admiration of Charles de Gaulle, the portrait of the General in his office, were too obviously attempts to camouflage a more fundamental poverty of taste and knowledge". Major meanwhile was obsessed with his make-up and hair for his TV appearances, which he would watch alone afterwards - though he never carried his own powder compact like Michael Howard.

Even Portillo, who retains the affections of the right, does not measure up in Williams' estimation, attacking 'foreigners' who 'bought their academic qualifications' and vowing that Brussels would never command British troops (odd considering NATO headquarters is in Brussels) then having to apologise to the chiefs of staff.

Williams observes from all this that politics no longer deals with the 'great issues', and "MPs of all parties were being drawn from a narrower and more homogenous pool of apparatchiks. The outcome, the professionalisation of politics, created a small and isolated political class".

The one ray of hope had been when Ken Clarke and Redwood joined forces for the leadership. Michael Heseltine, who helped broker this move, hailed "a historic moment in the history of the Conservative Party. It is the end of years of conflict". Guardian columnist Hugo Young noted a "sighting of the Conservative Party we used to know and fear. Ideas, its turns out, matter less than hatred, calculation and power". It was not to be. Hague was elevated to the leadership, leading Williams to conclude that "the Tories in the 1990s mislaid the idea that government was national rather than partisan".

Although not as good a read as Alan Clark's diaries, it is, nonetheless, a vivid description of the Tory crisis - which one hopes is terminal.

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