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Sunday, December 07, 2003

Back to the past

Rather than elect a new generation to lead it, with the promise of a brave new World, greater relevance and revived electoral fortunes, the Conservative Party has played safe and turned its face firmly towards the past and its period of greatest electoral success. That became glaringly obvious yesterday with the visit of new leader, Michael Howard, to Wales and his home town of Llanelli. I have to say that I had not appreciated the full significance of Ann Widdicombe's famous condemnation of Howard, that he has "something of the night" about him, until I discovered that his family are from Transylvania. Suddenly, a comment about the political ambitions and ability of a former Home Secretary has become symbolic of old-school Conservative mistrust of immigrant families. Howard though, continues to live in the past and in particular the Thatcher-past, and because of this it is clear that he can only take his party so far towards becoming a party of government again and no further. His job is to stop the rot, consolidate and motivate the core vote (most of whom also look back on Thatcher as a golden age), and to bring an aura of competence and authority to a party that was beginning to look like a rabble. That will not be enough to get him into power, but it may be sufficient to pave the way for newer blood later, someone who can take the party to the next stage from the solid base that Howard has left.

What prompts these musings is the crass comments of Howard yesterday about Maggie Thatcher's pit closure programme. The issue here is not whether Thatcher was right to do it (I happen to believe that she wasn't) but the fact that the new leader of the Conservative Party either does not understand that the world has moved on or does not care. Mr. Howard announced that the Conservative Party's policy of closing the mines, causing widespread unemployment, actually helped to revive communities. Well, Mr. Howard, you clearly did not visit much of Wales. There are still many communities struggling to come to terms with these closures. They have had to fight depopulation, dereliction, poverty, despair and rejection. Some have turned to drugs, drink, crime, anti-social behaviour or depression. There can be no excuses for any unlawful activity of course, but there are reasons and it is no coincidence that a lot of this originates from those with little hope or self-respect.

The strength of these communities have helped them and their members to survive. That strength did not come out of adversity, it was there already. The vast majority of people living in them are decent, hard-working and law-abiding. They were suddenly thrown on a scrap-heap by the mine closure programme. It is easy to say, as Howard did, that these Communities are reviving. Some of them are, others are starting to, but that is no thanks to Thatcher or her policies. What Mr. Howard and his party has to understand is the damage that previous Conservative Governments, of which he was a member, did to large parts of Wales. He does not of course and he does not have to. That is not his job. There will be no more apologies for the wrongs of past Conservative Governments under this leader. We really have travelled back to the eighties.

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