Hague, William Jefferson


Hague, William Jefferson
▪ 1998

      On June 19, 1997, 36-year-old William Hague became the youngest leader of a major political party in the United Kingdom in 200 years. As the new leader of the Conservative Party, he embarked immediately on radical changes designed to reverse the fortunes of a party that had just suffered its worst election defeat since 1906.

      Hague was born on March 26, 1961, at Rotherham, Yorkshire, into a family that ran a small soft-drink business. He attended local schools—like John Major, his immediate predecessor as Conservative leader, but unlike most prominent Tories. At the age of 12, Hague sold his collection of toy soldiers and began devoting his attention to politics. Four years later he spoke at his first Conservative Party conference. The confident attack on the then Labour government by a 16-year-old schoolboy with a pronounced northern accent captivated the media and impressed the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher.

      Hague attended the University of Oxford, was elected president of the Oxford Union debating society, and obtained a first-class honours degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. After graduation he joined the Shell Oil Co. as a management trainee, but a year later he was recruited by the management consultants McKinsey and Co. In February 1989 he was selected to contest a by-election in the "safe" Conservative seat of Richmond, North Yorkshire, and within two years he had become parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont. When Major, by then prime minister, appointed him secretary of state for Wales in 1995, the 34-year-old Hague became Britain's youngest Cabinet minister since Harold Wilson in 1947. Despite having no previous connections with Wales, Hague won the respect of his new constituents for his sympathy, good humour, and intelligence.

      In May 1997, following the party's heavy defeat by the revived Labour Party under Tony Blair (Blair, Tony ) (q.v.), Major announced his resignation as Conservative Party leader. One of the men widely expected to take over, Michael Portillo, had lost his seat in the election and was out of the running, while other contenders from the party's right wing had their detractors. Hague stood on a centre-right, Euroskeptic platform and finally won on the third ballot.

      Hague then set about reviving his party's fortunes. He announced a series of reforms, similar to those implemented by Labour in the 1980s and early '90s, to bring greater internal democracy to his party, including giving local party members a say in future leadership elections. In October, at his first party conference as Conservative leader, Hague sought to soften the party's image by declaring his support for more compassionate policies. He also advocated "understanding and tolerance of people making their own decisions about how they lead their lives," including accepting the rights of people to have gay relationships or to bear and raise children outside marriage. Hague's speech marked a clear break with the strictly pro-family ethos of the Thatcher years.

PETER KELLNER

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Universalium. 2010.

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