The strange death of Tory England
The Conservative conference may be good to laugh at, but it's actually not that funny.
Watching the Tories flail around in Blackpool, it is difficult to imagine that this was once the ‘natural party of government’. Yet for 120 years, the Conservative Party defined British politics.
The story of the Tories’ decline and fall is also the story of the decline and fall of British political life. For this reason, while no tears should be shed for the old Tory Party it is difficult to derive much satisfaction from the discomfort of Duncan Smith.
The Conservative Party as we knew it began during the nineteenth century, when it transformed itself from the party of the landed aristocracy into the party of modern industry and commerce. The Conservative Party built an organised mass base in advance of the Liberals, establishing a network of Conservative Associations soon after franchise widened in the 1860s. The Tories claimed to be the party of one nation, representing the interests of all social groups; in the twentieth century, they accused Labour of being ‘narrow’ and ‘sectional’.
More often than not, British voters believed them. The Tories were in government, either alone or in coalition, for around 70 years of the twentieth century. Even when out of government, the Tory Party was not really out of power. When Labour governed it was often within boundaries that the Tories had established. In addition, Tory supporters ran the establishment – including the civil service, the professions, press, management and the Church of England.
The establishment of a strong social and ideological base around traditional values and institutions allowed the Conservative Party considerable flexibility, while remaining stable. This enabled it to maintain a coherent sense of identity while working in the ever-shifting interests of British capitalism.
An early example of Tory flexibility in policy came in Benjamin Disraeli’s carrying of the Second Reform Act in 1867, even though this extended the franchise and undermined the Tories’ aristocratic supporters. Similarly, the party wheeled out Churchill, an old imperialistic aristocrat, to ‘fight them on the beaches’ during the Second World War – and then pushed his ideas back into the locker afterwards, in the climate of the postwar consensus. During the 1950s, the Tories developed the welfare state – although they had initially opposed it. And the party of Queen and Country found it in itself to oversee the liquidation of the Empire under Harold Macmillan, and to take Britain into the European Common Market in 1973.
Tory membership also moved with the times, as the party incorporated the more dynamic sectors of society. It brought in the middle and working class in the late nineteenth century, and during the 1950s and 60s replaced remaining retired majors and landowners with representatives of modern industry. Middle-class and lower-middle class individuals were moved up into the leadership: after the well-connected aristocrat Alec Douglas-Home lost the 1964 election to Harold Wilson, in which Douglas-Home was mocked as the ‘fourteenth earl’, Tory MPs switched to the lower-middle-class Edward Heath. By the 1970s, for the first time in its history, there were more Conservative MPs from grammar schools than Eton, and half of MPs were occupied in business. In the 1980s, the party attracted the young ‘yuppies’.
So what happened to the firm-but-flexible Tory Party of yesteryear? Why does it find it so hard to adapt successfully to changes today?
Today’s Conservative Party is caught between outmoded traditions and an uncertain future. The old tension between the party’s tradition and its pragmatism, which was previously the secret of its success, today puts it in a no-win bind. Traditional Tory ideas have been broadly discredited. Campaigning from a little-Englander anti-Europe position did William Hague no favours in the 2001 general election. Modernisers are keen to dissociate themselves from the party’s tradition, as they recognise that this is out of step with modern Britain.
When the Tories try pragmatically to adopt the methods and vocabulary of New Labour, though, this often has an even worse effect. For a start, they risk alienating the core upon which they depend. And to everyone else, this approach seems fake and empty. Just think of Michael Portillo’s never-repeated attempt, in 2000, to develop something of the therapeutic confessional style of Blair and Clinton by speaking about his ‘personal journey’. The trouble for the Tories is that New Labour’s words now appear meaningless when spoken by their innovators: they seem even more vacuous when spoken by imitators.
The crisis seen in today’s Tory Party has its origins in the 1980s and 90s. In the Major days of the early 1990s, the Thatcherite ‘revolution’ had worn itself out and nothing new was forthcoming. John Major’s attempts to cohere an agenda around Back to Basics campaigns, citizens’ charters or Second World War celebrations degenerated into farce. The Tories were unable to develop a response to the economic crisis of the early 1990s, suffering an ignominious exit from the ERM. The party was eaten up by infighting and marred by accusations of sleaze. The former deputy party chairman, Jeffrey Archer, and former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, who both ended up behind bars, provided a dramatic symbol of Tory isolation and disgrace.
Before the grey Major days, there were the Thatcher Eighties. Although Thatcherism is often seen as one of the most dynamic periods in Tory history, rescuing the party from its problems in the late 1970s, it was in fact the last hurrah for the Tories. By defeating the organised working class, and trying to force the ‘law of the market’ through institutions, Thatcher wore away the bases of conservatism.
Even right-wingers see that Thatcherism eroded some of the Tory Party’s support. Ex-Thatcherite John Gray writes in Is Conservatism Dead? that Thatcherism proved to be a ‘self-undermining political project’. The pursuit of free-market individualism, he argues, destroyed ‘mediating structures and autonomous professions’, and left the party at an ‘intellectual and political impasse’ (1). Thatcher tore through social institutions that had been important to Conservatism, such as the civil service, and the medical and teaching professions.
But while Thatcherism played a role, the collapse of the Tory Party was one part of the story of the collapse of left v right politics – an event that occurred the world over. It was the international defeat of the left, capped by the break-up of the Soviet Union, that revealed the malaise of the right. The right had principally defined itself in terms of what it was against (hence Thatcher’s war against the ‘enemy within’), rather than what it was for. Once it lost its enemy, the right was left without a mission or direction; right-wing governments fell from Europe to the USA.
With the end of the conflict between left and right, political life lost the axis upon which it was structured. If there was really ‘no alternative’, no choice about the way in which society should be organised, then what is the point of politics? Parliamentary democracies everywhere began to corrode, as voters turned away in droves.
New Labour is now suffering from many of the Tories’ old problems. The accusation of ‘sleaze’, for example, was used by Labour against the Tories in the 1997 election – but has now been turned against Labour itself. This shows that the ‘sleaze issue’ was never about the particularly bad behaviour of a group of Tory politicians, but instead about the idea that politics is a sleazy, disreputable business.
The Tory Party, the most rooted political institution in British history, is now the most rootless. The leadership leaps on to any passing bandwagon, opportunistically trying to score points. This has been seen most clearly in the response to the Hutton Inquiry, to which the Tories responded by stirring up an anti-political cynicism of politicians, continually shrieking that ‘Nobody believes a word Tony Blair says!’. Iain Duncan Smith’s conference speech focused on calling Blair a ‘liar’. In a desperate leap, the shadow transport secretary even blamed the increasing number of child deaths on the roads on the government’s ‘prejudice and intolerance’ (2).
These cheap shots don’t score any points for the Tories. They don’t do the rest of political life any good, either. Flailing around for a foothold, the Tory Party ends up destabilising everything around it – by further turning people off politics, confirming their view that political debate is pointless and that politicians are liars. The party that guaranteed the steady progress of establishment interests over the past 120 years is now the most parasitic force in British politics.
While the Tory Party conference may be good to laugh at, it’s actually not that funny. The fact that we are still watching the event is indicative of the fact that, though the Tories have fallen, they haven’t been replaced with anything much better. The death of Tory England would have been a good thing – had it not taken politics with it.
(1) Is Conservatism Dead?, John Gray and David Willetts, Profile, 1997
(2) The Times (London), 7 October 2003
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