Chronicling the Conservatives

Lord Salisbury, three-time Conservative Prime Minister

The Conservatives – A History

Robin Harris, London: Bantam Press, 2012

Robin Harris brings to his account of the Conservative Party not just impressive erudition but also many years’ inside experience of how the party operates and ‘feels’. He is a former director of the Conservative Research Department and government political adviser, and was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit when she was Prime Minister. When she was defenestrated by the ingrates she had led to three victories, he decamped with her, and assisted her with sundry books and speeches. Not content with writing this history of the Party, he is also working on a biography of his heroine — one of several on the slipway in questionably tasteful anticipation of her soon-expected demise.

Histories of the Conservatives are not exactly in short supply either. One thinks immediately of Robert Blake, John Ramsden, Alan Clark, Maurice Cowling, or Anthony Seldon and Stuart Bell’s collection Conservative Century—The Conservative Party Since 1900; and there are yet other contenders. This is stiff competition, and one might wonder what new information or insights the author can hope to add to this corpus. His defensive introductory sentence shows he is aware of this likely reaction — ‘The case for a new history of the Conservative Party is not difficult to make’. For him, the Party’s return to office after the Blair/Brown interlude is one reason to see how earlier Toryisms compare and contrast with Cameron’s agenda. Another is that other histories are now out of print (Ramsden’s was the last single-volume history, and that was in 1999). But the profoundest reason he adduces — the qualitative difference between the Tories and other parties — alone makes this book worthy of attention.

The Party, he observes, is an ‘especially complex historical phenomenon’ — not really a party at all, but rather ‘an institution with a purpose’. In marked contrast, Labour is ‘an organism with a soul’. This difference of psychology-physiology helps explain much about British politics — why the Conservatives often win the electoral wars but their opponents usually win the peace.

The Tory ‘purpose’ is to win elections, and that purpose it has generally fulfilled admirably. Yet having won power, it often does not know what to do with it, and settles for carrying on with whatever policies have been bequeathed to them by the outgoing Labour (mal)administration. Politically correct postures that the Conservatives denounce vigorously (recently with decreasing vigour) whilst electioneering largely continue unchanged once they get into office. The present crop of ‘modernizers’ have even started to introduce such postures on their own initiative.

Part of the problem is that Conservative governments often fail to use their considerable powers of patronage, and so senior personnel appointed by Labour as placemen remain in post, or are even augmented in number, by ostensibly Conservative administrations. Last year, the Coalition appointed five times more Labour supporters than Conservative supporters to positions on public bodies. By contrast, the ideologically driven and ruthlessly passionate Labour Party ‘organism’ loses no opportunity, in or out of office, to promote its own personnel and policies.

There is also a self-congratulatory — and self-defeating — streak among many right-leaning intellectuals that conservatism is essentially non-ideological and therefore superior to the unappetizing and obviously unrealisable ideas promulgated by Labour. This is true so far as it goes; as Harris points out,

Authority, allegiance and tradition . . . may be worth fighting or even dying for . . . but they are not obvious parts of an active political programme.

Yet what could be part of an active political programme might be protecting or promoting the sources of that authority, allegiance, and tradition. Failure to engage in the war of concepts means that the Conservatives are perpetually defending when they ought to be attacking — and even when they defend, the rules of engagement have been set by the other side.

Harris’s scheme when dealing with this complicated party with all its contradictory strains is a clever one—to divide the party’s chronology largely by leader — ‘Peel’s Party’, ‘Disraeli’s Party’, and so on, right up to its present figurehead in ‘Cameron’s Party?’ Readers should note that question mark, the punctuation of a seasoned observer who knows that there are no friends in politics and ‘Dave’ is only as good as his last speech.

Dividing the chapters in this way allows the author to bring together multiple strands skilfully, and show how the modern Party has developed and diverged from its Catholic, Jacobite, ultra-royalist, anti-democratic origins into its present guise whilst retaining certain (sometimes unattractive) character traits. One can trace similarities between many 2013 Conservatives and the early eighteenth-century Toryism encapsulated by Harris —

. . . the creed of the Country against the Court, the ‘outs’ against the ‘ins’, the squires against the moneyed men of the metropolis.

These ‘outs’ were often anti-intellectual almost on principle, for Harris personified in the character of the bluff Squire Western in Tom Jones. Burke, now regarded as the ultimate Tory theorist, was of course a Whig rather than a Tory, and he was kept at arm’s length by the then-Tory hierarchy for more than just party reasons. Pitt said of Letters on a Regicide Peace that they contained ‘much to admire and nothing to agree with’. Burke’s friend Sam Johnson was a professed Tory as well as a genius, but he was one of a tiny minority — and never a party hack in any case. Slightly later, Disraeli complained that the squirearchy ‘never read . . . did not understand the ideas of their own time’. Even the sainted ‘Maggie’, during whose premierships some tried to launch a systematic attack on the Left’s intellectual premises, was at best only partially successful — and her economic liberalization brought new problems as well as some benefits.

Harris writes extremely well, and he views Conservative behaviour with salutary scepticism as well as empathy. When for instance he remarks that Balfour’s accession as Party leader and Prime Minister was surrounded by ‘a peculiarly Conservative mix of good manners, complacency, self-delusion, and hypocrisy’, it is plain he really knows what Conservative MPs are like in the aggregate, and with him we can sense the heady ambience of the intrigue-filled warren that was and always will be Westminster.

He also has an eye for the amusing anecdote, such as the dowager duchess who placed two stuffed rats named Wellington and Peel in her Mayfair living room to signal her feelings about their change of heart over Catholic emancipation. Then there was the sadly unnamed Tory wit who described an 1884 Tory rally about the Reform Bill which had been attacked by furniture-throwing Liberals as ‘a redistribution of seats’.

There are also many quotes that surely required republication, such as Quarterly Review co-founder George Canning’s verses against internationalism:

Through th’ extended globe his feelings run
As broad and general as th’ unbounded sun!
No narrow bigot, he; his reason’d view
Thy interests, England, rank with thine, Peru!

Canning’s sensible approach was emulated by Lord Salisbury, perhaps the Party’s most impressive leader ever, whose

. . . imperial policy generally lagged behind the patriotic ambitions of his fellow countrymen—until something went wrong, of course . . . he had no ambition to civilize or dominate the world.

Salisbury was also the last Tory leader who was willing to make disparaging remarks about democracy. It is passing strange that it was under his three-times tutelage that the Empire and the franchise alike reached their greatest-ever extents; it shows that howsoever shrewd and careful the statesman he is to some extent always a prisoner of events.

The Conservatives cannot reasonably be expected to hold the line against all change, and in any case some changes are desirable or inevitable. But what they could try to do, once in a while, would be to stipulate what kinds of change they should support, and how and at what speed any such acceptable change should take place. It is not good enough simply to expostulate, while all the time being always outflanked. One shrewd move would be to try and reconnect with the working classes abandoned by Labour in favour of new ethnic minority client-voters. Harris reminds us that ever since the ‘jingoistic’ excesses of the late nineteenth century,

. . . working class patriotism has sent shudders down the spines of the more refined Conservative politicians, but it has proved of enormous assistance to the party.

It could do so again, if only the Party was imaginative enough to try – and this would benefit the party, as well as the workers.

Inevitably, some episodes in this rich history are skipped over and others treated at inordinate length, depending on the author’s or reader’s personal interests. The story of the seventeenth-century origins of Tory thinking is perhaps too sketchy, while there is rather too much emphasis on the often-told story of the 1920s and 1930s. It would also have been interesting to have had more analysis of Thatcherism, and whether it was really all that conservative. Presumably the latter will be treated at length in his eventual life of Thatcher. However, Harris’s book fills an undoubted gap in the tale of this unique — and uniquely flawed – organisation.

We are left pondering the central mystery of the Party’s longevity. A private company with a similar track record would long since have gone into bankruptcy. Perhaps the Party has only survived because public memory is terrifyingly short, and the other parties are even worse. As Harris observes, ‘Lasting, enduring, surviving is what conservatives value’, but voters should remember that they are thinking about their party rather than their country. And even the long-term survival of their party is far from assured, thanks to their reckless acquiescence in policies which undermine British independence and identity and the provident classes on whom economic prosperity and electoral success alike depend. If today’s Conservative Party does not start to take a properly strategic as well as a tactical view of the world, it is not impossible that one day it may itself be history.  

The review first appeared in the University Bookman in March 2013, and is reproduced with permission

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