Another National Party No More?

December 1, 2005 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: IslamismToryIslam

Another National Party No More?

Mini Teaser: Today's conservatives can learn from their Tory forbears.

by Author(s): William Anthony Hay

John Redwood, Singing the Blues: The Once and Future Conservatives (London: Politicos, 2004), 320 pp., $39.95.

Anthony Selden and Peter Snowdon, The Conservative Party: An Illustrated History (Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2004), 256 pp., £25.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Strange Death of Tory England (London: Allen Lane, 2005), 336 pp., £20.

BRITAIN'S CONSERVATIVE Party today appears caught between crisis and malaise, prompting informed observers to speculate whether the trend since 1997 marks a realignment in favor of Labour or even a terminal decline for the Tories. As the world's oldest political party, the Tories have also been one of the most successful. Conservative governments or Conservative-dominated coalitions held power more often than not since 1874, and despite occasional setbacks, the Tories became Britain's natural party of government during the 20th century. Conservatives held so strong an electoral position by the late 1980s that some analysts speculated it might exclude other parties and become a permanent governing party akin to Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, with power shifting between factions. A series of failures in the 1990s, combined with the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair, shifted the political landscape dramatically. Not only have the Conservatives been excluded from power, but their defeat fed the factionalism that pushed them further to the margins.

Political journalists and Tories themselves have struggled to explain what happened and how it will affect the party's future, and these questions touch on broader issues. The Conservative Party's collapse or decline into a third party would radically change Britain's political landscape. Any possible successor for the Tories on the center Right seems unlikely to identify with the nation-state and traditional British institutions in the same way. A party grounded in either neo-liberal economics or national populism would introduce a very different character to politics, and what Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in The Strange Death of Tory England, predicts as the demise of Tory England might carry other things away along with it. But are things really as bad for Conservatives as they seem?

The Rise of Tory England

THE PRESENT Conservative Party dates from the 1800s, when the political heirs of William Pitt the Younger led Britain through the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. George Canning and Lord Liverpool revived the Tory label from 18th-century disuse, and governments up until 1830 defined the party as it would later develop after the 1832 Reform Act.

Anthony Selden and Peter Snowdon argue in The Conservative Party: An Illustrated History that the Conservatives have been far less settled a party than popularly believed, and it is their very flexibility that has allowed the party to survive for so long through seismic changes in the political landscape. Success came from the Tories' ability to align their party with powerful interests, identify it with the nation and find effective leaders. Internal divisions and weak leadership combined with disengagement from rising interests typically mark the periods of Tory weakness. While Selden and Snowdon elide the latter point, history shows that Tory factions squabble like cats tied in a bag when conditions permit.

Policy differences and personality conflicts among leaders periodically spill into divisive quarrels. Lord Liverpool's departure from politics after a stroke in 1827 began a confrontation between factions that continued until the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel resigned in 1830. Not only did Wellington face a revived Whig opposition, but he had also lost support from Tory factions on both Left and Right, who were alienated by his autocratic style and opposition to electoral reform. When Peel brought the Conservatives to office again in 1841, he quarreled with backbenchers and then split the party by repealing the Corn Laws. By treating the men who looked to him for leadership with indifference verging on contempt, Peel made conflict inevitable regardless of the substantive point at issue. The break left a Peelite rump that drifted to the Liberals, while Tories led by Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli struggled to gain a majority in the House of Commons through the 1860s. Less dramatic splits among Conservatives over tariff reform and then appeasement of Nazi Germany followed in the 20th century. As Wheatcroft notes about recent events, divisions always involved more than just a clash between "Left" and "Right" or "progressive" and "reactionary." Personalities played a key role.

Despite their continued problems, Conservatives had two key advantages from the 1870s. First, they established themselves as a patriotic party identified with the nation-state and popular sentiment. Their previous identification dated from the 1790s, when Pitt made them into the party of King and Constitution, but as William Wordsworth had presciently warned, the old "Church and King" label excluded non-Anglican Protestants, and the marginalization Tories faced after 1830 showed the danger of losing touch. Then, in the 1870s, Disraeli combined patriotism with practical social reform and bargained successfully that democracy would enfranchise voters more sympathetic to Tories than to earnest middle class reformers and intellectuals. The "silent majority" he anticipated became a key part of a Tory Party that linked new groups with old elites. Liberal support for Irish Home Rule and socialism's foreign overtones helped Tories claim the mantle of patriotism. Stanley Baldwin shrewdly muted class conflict during the 1920s to cast the Conservatives as the party of middle England. Seldon and Snowdon's lavishly illustrated history depicts the Tories' persistent appeal to ordinary voters on the basis of shared identity. John Redwood's Singing the Blues: The Once and Future Conservatives stresses that the Tories drew support from working people aspiring to a better life. Upward mobility became a central theme for Thatcher and John Major who both stressed their modest origins.

Organization connected Tories with public opinion as much as their image. Lord Salisbury continued Disraeli's efforts to build party institutions that worked within a democratic mass electorate. The Primrose League, named after Disraeli's favorite flower, and other groups gave supporters, including women, an active role in the party and a stake in its fortunes. Conservative associations expanded during the 1920s and 1930s, drawing more men and women from the lower middle classes, and Tory membership in the early 1950s approached 2.8 million. The Young Conservatives, founded in 1946, provided a popular social scene--as well as canvassers for elections. Where Labour relied on trade unions for its grassroots organizing, the Conservatives had a highly adaptable machine backed by unmatchable volunteers. Besides their role in parliamentary constituencies, Tory organizations also helped the party in local politics where its traditional dominance survived the transition to democracy. Local engagement kept the party close to popular concerns while training future talent. The Tories' blend of identity and organization gave the party a decisive advantage over rivals and enabled it to recover from defeats in 1906 and 1945 in an even stronger position.

The Death of Tory England?

GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT argues that changes in British society have turned against the Tories and pushed them outside the political mainstream. Some Tories have challenged Wheatcroft's pessimism, calling his book a thriller without a corpse. After the May elections, he retorted in the Guardian that their problems are worse than he had claimed, since they now have fewer MPs than Labour did after its catastrophic 1983 defeat and have lost the popular vote in three consecutive elections for the first time since the 19th century. He even likens the Tories' current plight to their long, 18th-century exclusion that marked the party's effective demise. His title alludes to George Dangerfield's study of the political upheavals from 1910 to 1914 that ended the Victorian liberal consensus and began the Liberal Party's terminal decline. If Labour and the Tories absorbed some of the Liberals' ethos along with their voters, as Dangerfield claims, the Liberals' decline as a third party offers an intimidating portent for Conservatives today.

Wheatcroft's story begins in the 1960s, when the conflict over Harold Macmillan's choice of successor changed how Tories selected their leaders. The old Tory elite formed by Oxbridge and the great public schools, particularly Eton, gave way to a more aggressive set of self-made figures including Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Consensus politics defined partly by the "One Nation" Toryism that looked back to Disraeli's efforts to bring together rich and poor collided with what Thatcher styled "conviction politics" that repudiated the post-1945 consensus. Personality conflicts, sharpened by the ease with which new rules allowed leadership challenges, provided another current. Edward Heath's fumbling efforts at modernization, combined with his autocratic style, alienated colleagues and voters alike, and his defeat by Labour in 1974 paved the way for Thatcher's rise. Contemporaries viewed her as a temporary leader in opposition, but Thatcher proved a tougher competitor than they expected. Her opportunity came when Labour's debacle during the "winter of discontent" in 1979 brought a sweeping repudiation at the polls.

After its architect took office, Thatcherism emerged more slowly than it seemed in retrospect. Only after the Falklands War, the 1983 election and the subsequent defeat of the miners strike did Thatcher have a complete mandate. Her reforms, ironically, had a contradictory impact, because solving the structural economic problems and taming the unions removed two of the key issues with which the Tories had differentiated themselves from Labour by slanting political debate in favor of capitalism. Wheatcroft argues that while the public accepted the need for her policies, they disliked Thatcher herself. Tories seemed "right but repulsive" in the clichŽ that stuck, while Labour was "wrong but romantic." Even after it failed as practical politics, socialism offered what he calls an edifying myth to contrast with the reality of capitalism and consumerism. Miscalculations about the poll tax panicked Tories who feared an electoral backlash, and the conspiracy to overthrow Thatcher in 1990 inflicted lasting damage. The split it left fed other policy differences. Thatcherites, whom Wheatcroft dubs "Maggobites" for their nostalgic pining after a lost leader like the 18th-century Jacobites, undermined the leaders they blamed for her deposition. Britain's relationship with the European Union became a particular flashpoint. Linking the pound with the deutschemark through the exchange rate mechanism during the early 1990s brought an economic crisis that wrecked the Tories' reputation for competence. Major's government won re-election in 1992 only to face more quarrels and a pattern of scandals that branded the party with sleaze. After their 1997 defeat, the Tories turned upon themselves in arguments that further alienated them from mainstream politics. Despite electing three leaders during their years in opposition, the Tories still failed to engage the British public, and Michael Howard's plan to resign once the party chooses a successor brings a round of further introspection.

Essay Types: Book Review