History / Politics

William Hague vs the Liberal Elite

This is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s…

Those who attacked hunting with hounds saw themselves as fighting decadent privilege; those defending it saw themselves in opposition to metropolitan liberals. The latter was a theme that William Hague took up with some enthusiasm, believing that it offered a way forward for the Tories, a chance to break out from the party’s continuing slump in the opinion polls.

After their dreadful drubbing in the 1993 election, the Canadian Conservatives had staged a comeback in the middle of the decade by adopting the slogan ‘the common sense revolution’, repositioning themselves as the party of low taxation and individual responsibility, fighting the incompetent bureaucracy of government. The policies were largely drawn from the examples of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and resulted in a major victory in the Ontario election of 1995.

Now, having tried out various options including ‘kitchen sink Conservatism’ and ‘compassionate Conservatism’, Hague revived the same slogan. By experimenting with the inclusive New Labour model, and accepting the social and cultural changes in the country, he had failed to make any headway, and he felt that something new was needed.

The shadow cabinet was still split between the wings represented by Michael Portillo and Ann Widdecombe, and if the former’s modernisation programme wasn’t connecting with the electorate, perhaps it was time to try the latter’s traditionalism. ‘If we could get the common sense revolution to stand up and walk around,’ declared Hague in 2000, ‘it would look like Ann Widdecombe.’ He knew he would be accused of ‘lurching to the right’, but the Countryside Alliance demonstrations made clear that Tony Blair didn’t represent the whole nation; there was still a wellspring of opposition to be tapped. And in this campaign, the battleground was, inevitably, law and order.

Unfortunately for Hague, some of his interventions looked simply inept. The publication in 1999 of the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence saw him articulate a familiar argument. ‘The liberal elite have seized on the report as a stick with which to beat the police,’ he thundered. ‘We will take on and defeat a liberal elite that has always given more consideration to the rights of criminals than the rights of victims.’

This alleged distortion of the justice system in favour of wrong-doers was a long-running complaint – despite Michael Howard’s promise to deal with it when he was home secretary – though the murder of Stephen Lawrence was hardly the best example. It was the police, rather than liberals, who had so comprehensively failed the victim and his family here.

More convincing, for many, was another case later that year: a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer named Tony Martin, who was charged with murder after he shot dead a sixteen-year-old burglar, Fred Barras, who had broken into his house. Martin lived alone and had been burgled on several occasions, and there was widespread support for his right to defend his property since the police were evidently unable so to do.

The case was not quite so clear cut as first presented, however: the shotgun used had been held without a licence, and Barras had been shot in the back whilst trying to flee from the scene. But Martin had publicist Max Clifford working on his behalf, ensuring that much of the press coverage remained favourable. ‘It’s something people are really angry about,’ Clifford argued. ‘William Hague, who desperately needs something to improve his image, should get behind this because the support out there is huge.’

Hague did indeed join in the debate, promising that if he were prime minister, householders would have greater rights to defend their property without fear of such prosecution. His comments rattled Blair’s inner circle. ‘We need to appear more in touch with public opinion than Hague,’ worried Lance Price. ‘Having the right to take on burglars is a good populist issue.’ But even a prime minister keen to win public approval was unable to indulge in such grandstanding when a court case was imminent.

Meanwhile Hague was revelling in the attacks he faced from some quarters for playing to the gallery. ‘We’ve got the whole liberal establishment railing against me,’ he exulted. ‘It’s just what I wanted.’ Common sense said that people had a right to protect themselves, using whatever means they had at their disposal; it was only the liberal elite who got hung up on the belief that, in the words of the Guardian’s David McKie, ‘execution, official or freelance, is not a proper sentence for burglary.’

Hague might have paused for further thought when the verdict was returned. Martin was convicted of murder, though this was reduced to manslaughter on appeal, when his defence argued that he suffered from paranoid personality disorder. He didn’t make an obvious hero, and public opinion – expressed through the focus group of a jury – was evidently unimpressed.


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