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Don't Fall for It: British Conservatives Haven't Changed

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David Cameron made his own face the apex of the Conservative Party's first burst of electioneering as British polling day looms. He stared out across Britain's high streets and motorway overpasses with a giant airbrushed glower of concern, while the word 'Conservative' was tucked away on the posters in small letters, like a slightly embarrassing smell. There's a reason for this: the reality of the British Conservative Party today severely punctures Cameron's central pitch - and he knows it.

Since he became leader, he has been telling us "the Conservative Party has changed". But is it true? Let's start with the issue that Cameron said was "terrific evidence" of a "different Conservative Party" - global warming. Until 2005, he had never mentioned the subject, except to mock wind farms as "giant bird-blenders" and to demand "a massive road-building programme" in defiance of all environmental sense. But then he abruptly announced he was the true champion of this cause and people should "vote blue to go green." The influential website ConservativeHome thought the New Cameron didn't speak for the Party, so last month they commissioned a poll of the candidates selected to fight the most winnable Tory seats. They were asked to rank nineteen issues facing Britain in order of importance - and global warming came at the very bottom. The soon-to-be Conservative MPs think radically altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere is less important than imprisoning even more people and reclaiming powers from Scotland.

But even this is misleading. The party doesn't just accord a low priority to deal with this problem - most actively deny it exists. The Spectator's political editor, James Forsyth, reports: "At Tory country-house gatherings, global warming scepticism has replaced Europe as the issue of the day." Tim Montgomerie, the head of ConservativeHome and physical embodiment of the Tory id, says: "I'm confident the sceptics are going to win. It's for Cameron to decide how he's going to get out of this - he's lost the battle already." This has only grown over the past month, when a handful of the tens of thousands of scientists working on this issue have been shown to have made a few mistakes. The massed ranks of the Tory party have seized on this as "proof" that releasing massive amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere won't cause the planet to get warmer. The true message is: vote blue, screw green.

How about opposing the stale old prejudices the Party used to marinate itself in? In his mid-twenties Cameron went on a week long "jolly" to white supremacist South Africa, breaking sanctions against the regime, paid for by a shadowy pro-Aparthied lobbying group. But he says he regrets that and the party now abhors racism. There's a fascinating insight into whether this is true in the new book 'True Blue: Strange Tales From A Tory Nation.' For the past three years, the journalists Chris Horne and David Matthews have volunteered for the Conservative Party, to uncover what its activists really think. Matthews is a warm, charismatic - and black.

Everywhere he went, he was treated with suspicion and contempt. Horne writes: "The proportion of people who gave him a wide berth was around three quarters, and it was hard to escape the conclusion that this was because he was black... The Tories we met seemed fantastically uncomfortable around David." Even in the most liberal Tory surroundings, like inner London, there was a "constant, almost knee-jerk mild racism," where they felt the need to obsessively talk about immigration and race in disparaging ways in his presence. At a typical Tory dinner they attended, Cecil Parkinson said of Africa: "God decided to create the most beautiful continent on earth - wide rivers, fertile land, and every kind of natural resource you can think of. An angel said to God - if you make a place like that then it will completely dominate the earth. And God said - wait until you see the people I am going to put in it." The assembled party members loved it, and said they missed good old Ian Smith, the last white supremacist ruler of Rhodesia.

When they were campaigning against the Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer, they were repeatedly told to emphasize she was an "outsider" and a "foreigner." Horne asked what it meant, and he was told: "She's a Jewess, but we aren't allowed to say that... So all we can say is that she got off the train from Hungary."

Everywhere they went, the Party's candidates and members said Cameron's claims to have reformed are mere spin to win the election. For example, Ian Oakley, who was selected to be Tory candidate for Watford, bragged: "Last year it was all green this, and all green that... all that bollocks. People just want lots and lots and lots of cheap petrol. And we are going to give it to them." He then boasted that he planned to make many trips to Israel where he would take a machine gun and a flame-thrower to destroy Palestinian villages. (He was later forced to resign, over an unrelated matter.) Yes, there are some nutters in every party, but Horne and Matthews found similar reservoirs of prejudice everywhere they looked in Conservatism.

Indeed, any minor attempt to put meat on Cameron's professed agenda is being met with projectile vomiting from the guts of the party. When Joanne Cash - a pregnant woman - was imposed on the constituency of Westminster North, there was a rebellion by the local party that forced Cash to resign. They said she wouldn't be able to have a child and work at the same time. The local party agent Jonathan Fraser-Howells reportedly fumed to her: "It makes me sick seeing pregnant stomachs around." (He denies saying it.) Cash was only reinstated with great effort, after the Cameroons realised what a biting PR disaster it was.

Next week, I'll look at how two other forces - cash from the City, and evangelical Christians - are also distorting the Party's agenda.

Of course, you might say that none of this matters. Cameron is the leader, and he is sincerely committed to a modernized agenda. But there's two flaws with this argument. Cameron can tuck away the Tory Party on a poster, but he can't tuck them away in parliament: they will be the source of his power. A leader can't defy this Party's core instincts for long, especially when he has (at best) a small majority. Every barking-right backbencher will have to be wooed and soothed and fed red meat to get legislation through. Cameron will be accountable to deeply retrograde forces - and they will demand policies that worsen poverty or global warming or prejudice.

Even more importantly, Cameron's commitment to this agenda is shaky and superficial anyway. Remember: his reaction to the Great Crash was to tell the City "we must not let the left use this as an excuse to wreck an important part of the British and world economy" and to start preaching hardcore Thatcherite slash-and-trash economics. He told the Spectator: "If you want to know if I'm a Tory, ask John Redwood" - the global warming denying, market fundamentalist Vulcan who represents the ugliest fringe of the Major years. When he thought an election was looming, the Tory leader decided to make it a front-of-the-window policy to give a huge tax cut to the richest 3000 estates in Britain - a revelation of his priorities that should cause any claim he is "progressive" to be greeted with belly-laughs.

The evidence suggests that when he is faced with a challenge, Cameron rushes right back up the road to Damascus - into the loving arms of an unreformed right-wing party.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here. You can email him at j.hari *at* independent.co.uk