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

Wheatcroft takes a critical view of the Tories laced with historical analogy and tart asides. His well-written account flows smoothly enough, but Wheatcroft clearly enjoys his erudition, and his cleverness sometimes creates a facile tone. Regard for the old elite and its ethos informs his critique, and, like Dangerfield, he regrets the passing of an order that gave much to England and now finds itself swept away by change.

Problems and Prospects

ARE THE Tories as badly off as Wheatcroft contends? He hints that the party faces a return to its 18th-century oblivion or a decline to third-party standing, but predicting a Tory collapse may be as far-fetched as the earlier view that they would become a permanent governing party. Similar warnings followed defeats in 1906 and 1945, yet the Tories recovered and thrived. Redwood covers similar ground to Wheatcroft, albeit from a very different perspective. He combines memoir with polemic to argue why the Tories appealed to ambitious people from modest origins and how the party can regain their trust. Although known for being more Thatcherite than Thatcher, Redwood particularly points to errors in substance and style that hurt the Tories. He emphasizes economics to the neglect of cultural issues and foreign policy beyond preserving British independence from Europe, and one need not reject Redwood's conclusions to think he misses something important.

Indeed, Wheatcroft scores telling points that even a partisan like Redwood acknowledges. The Tories operate in a new context that calls into question whether they can still draw upon the assets that sustained their dominance and balanced their flaws. Party loyalty has fallen throughout the developed world, forcing parties to compete harder for votes with fewer supporters. Both Labour and the Tories have lost members with the general decline in volunteerism since the 1950s. Since fewer businesses are locally or privately owned, the Tories have suffered losses in a constituency that provided both funds and supporters. Centralization under Thatcher that weakened local government hurt the Tories disproportionately because they had the strongest local base. Deference declined sharply at the same time that consumerism began to affect politics, and as politics became more of a profession, a gap--highlighted by the 2005 election--widened between politicians and voters and bred cynicism and disengagement. These structural changes make it difficult for Conservatives to regain lost ground.

Factionalism among Tories may be more a fact of life in the party than a fatal blow, but it also reflects a deep ambivalence toward the party among some of its members. Since 1900, ambitious Tory politicians have periodically called for a Center Party that would provide consensus leadership on a national basis while repudiating the extremes of Right and Left. Winston Churchill and F. E. Smith took this line in the 1910s with an anti-socialist bent, while others after 1945 saw it as a means of making corporatism and the managerial state work. In 1946 Harold Macmillan even suggested changing the Tories' name to the "New Democratic Party." These ideas failed to gain favor among most Tory MPs and peers, let alone Tory supporters in the country, but their persistence shows how longstanding is the divide that detonated into open conflict with Thatcher's deposition.

Britain's postwar decline pushed Tories like Keith Joseph and Thatcher herself toward neo-liberal economics and the rejection of consensus politics, but others saw the perceived failure of British institutions and the traditional identities that Toryism represented as the real problem. They found an alternative to the nation-state in the European project and the technocrats behind it, and allegiance to Europe merged with the old Center Party ideal. This provides an important undercurrent, which most commentators overlook, to the fight over Europe within the Tory party since the 1970s. The resulting conflict over the meaning of both conservatism and British identity offers little scope for compromise, but ample space for vituperation, as the post-Thatcher era shows. Tory supporters in the country rejected Europhile arguments, while Europhiles like Kenneth Clarke periodically dismiss party members as small-minded populists. Those sentiments won few converts, and Clarke's defeat by the inexperienced Iain Duncan Smith in the 2001 leadership elections indicates that the debate over Europe marginalized the Europhiles. Recent developments in Europe make political integration even harder to sell to the wider British public. The real debate among Conservatives now focuses on how the party can modernize itself to appeal more widely to the current electorate, and bridging those differences is becoming a more realistic prospect.

A Future or a Past?

REBUILDING THE Conservative Party and reconnecting with public opinion presents the Tories with a challenge that tests their adaptability. When the Tories lost control of the political narrative in the 1990s, overcoming their media image as the "nasty party" became as important as developing an agenda. But the preoccupation with image brought further introspection that became a substitute for serious restructuring. Like many parties with a long tenure in power, Conservatives found it hard to function as an effective opposition. Even their success as debaters in the House of Commons against a less eloquent Labour front bench has not resonated beyond Westminster itself. So the answer must look beyond parliamentary tactics or public relations.

Several candidates for the Tory leadership have called for a revival of local government as a step toward improving responsiveness and engaging public cynicism. Redwood emphasizes this point, admitting that the centralization under Thatcher was a mistake and arguing that local government offers Conservatives an opportunity that plays to their old strengths, even as times have changed. The very process of becoming competitive in towns and counties would build ties with voters and revive moribund party organizations. Tories looking to the Liberal Party for ideas might do better than Wheatcroft's focus on the early 20th century; they ought to consider the Whigs' experience as a marginalized opposition party a century before. Painful though it may be for the Tories to emulate the men who forged the Liberal Party that eclipsed them for a generation, the Whigs responded to the challenge of opposition in the 1820s by building a coalition with new interest groups in the provinces and the political narrative to present themselves as advocates of a public frustrated by the status quo at Westminster. Their efforts brought local and national politics together; Disraeli and Salisbury managed a similar transformation of the Tories decades later. Leadership and organization on both occasions transformed an unpopular opposition into a viable governing party that could capitalize on the failures of the party in power. So perhaps the real question is not whether the Tories are dead, but who will bring them back to the forefront of public life.

William Anthony Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, is the author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (2005).

Essay Types: Book Review