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Of Donald Trump and Council Houses

Donald Trump may have won the nomination. But he has already lost the election. The advantage that the Democratic Party enjoys in the American electoral system, coupled with Trump’s beyond catastrophic polling numbers among women and minorities, together mean that Hilary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.

Trump’s defeat will make one thing clear. The right cannot win without thought.  Successful election campaigns must do more than to express fears. Negative campaigning sometimes has its place, as long as it does not slip into encouraging prejudice. But a party that wants to form the society that it addresses has to do much more than this. For example Clement Attlee’s post war British Labour government was grounded in the work of the Fabian Society, and reflected the experiences of the British working class in the pre-war depression. Moreover it benefited from the confidence about government activity that seemed to have been justified by victory in the war. The trope “If we can win the war, we can win the peace,” had considerable traction in the summer of 1945. Conservative ideas too can have a powerful appeal, but only when they are wisely articulated, and are embodied in sensible policies that enable people to understand the general theme which is being developed….

The incidents I mention took place on the East coast of the island, probably in either Sandown or Shanklin.

In October 1974 I was canvassing for a Conservative candidate on the Isle of Wight. During the campaign Ted Heath quietly announced the policy of allowing the tenants of the council houses to buy the houses in which they lived, but he then let the issue drop and hardly referred to it again. However  I began to mention the idea on the doorstep, and  met with a delighted response, and it immediately became clear to me that this policy could win us the election. I was so excited about the importance of what I had discovered that I made my way to Conservative Central Office, then in Smith Square.

I knew no one there, so having made my way past the stern commissioner on the door, I could do no more than unburden myself to the women behind the counter in the bookshop. She listened to what I had to say, and told me that the previous weekend she too had been canvassing and had seen an exactly similar response to the proposal that I had noted, and that as a result she had distributed a memo in Central Office about the popularity of promoting home ownership in this way. Naïve and powerless as I was, I decided that no more could be done and went home.

Heath continued to ignore the policy that he himself had announced, and went on to lose the election. But, of course, the story did not end there. In the eighties the sale of council houses turned to be the political nuclear weapon which, as deployed by Mrs. Thatcher, destroyed the left in Britain for a generation. How did it do this? Of course there were selfish motives involved. People wanted to get hold of their own houses. But it went deeper than this. The policy made sense of everything else that the Conservatives were saying about property-owning democracy, and the importance of initiative. I shall always remember the sense of intellectual excitement I saw on the faces of some of those I canvassed. Property, and by extension economic freedom, was for them ceasing to be just words employed by the rich Tories, but was becoming a living reality to be enjoyed by everybody. The left was powerless to respond because for them ownership was something to be tolerated rather than something deep in human nature.

Such policies do not fall from heaven. They have to be forged. Just as the Manhattan project that created the real atomic bomb succeeded by merging theoretical physics and engineering, so Mrs Thatcher’s political nuclear weapon was a fusion of conservative ideas about the value of property, with the practical insight that the stock of badly administered council houses provided a way of a popular way making these ideas relevant to people’s lives.

Theoretical wisdom, knowledge about what people wanted, have to be yoked together to produce a winning synthesis. But this harnessing is not easy. It requires disciplined thought, serious application, and imagination. ( Heath had the application. He lacked the imagination.)

But how is this relevant to Trump? It is relevant because disciplined thought and serious application are two qualities that are quite foreign to him. Donald Trump is no Hitler. He lacks murderous hatred. But like Hitler he also lacks any moral centre or coherent vision. For example he has announced that the United States should both stay neutral in the Palestinian conflict, and at the same time has expressed support for the extension of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. These statements are impossible to reconcile. No one can form any view about what he would do were he to be elected.  Like Hitler, Trump asks his followers to step beyond the confines of rationality.

And the coming election is going to expose this. As I write, the Democrats will be recruiting an army of researchers who will reveal in agonising detail just how unsuited Trump is to be President of the United States. His defeat will be humiliating.  But it will not have been worthless if it teaches the lesson ( one which in truth should never have been forgotten) that the right cannot win if it acts as the stupid party.

Mrs Clinton’s administration will be dull, conventional, unfailingly politically correct and hopelessly bureaucratic. It will be quite incapable of doing anything to assuage the anger expressed by the followers of either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Consequently it will provide real opportunities for conservatives to develop new themes derived from the federal nature of American political order. Washington cannot deliver. But perhaps the states can. Here then is an opportunity for the right. What about a federal activity audit, to examine which activities currently undertaken by the federal government could be better undertaken by more accountable local institutions. Unlike Donald Trump, great conservatives know that in order to win they have to develop coherent  themes expressed in workable policies addressing real needs. There are Council House “situations” all over America waiting for the Republican party to exploit them. Properly handled they could obliterate the liberals for a generation