From Old Adam to New Eve

Peter Pulzer

  • The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher by Robert Blake
    Methuen/Fontana, 401 pp, £19.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 413 58140 3
  • Westminster Blues by Julian Critchley
    Hamish Hamilton, 134 pp, £7.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 241 11387 3

The history of modern Britain is to a considerable degree the history of the Tory Party, Europe’s – and perhaps the world’s – oldest political party. Or at least the equal oldest party, since it is unusual for the supporters of the status quo to initiate partisan politics. Conservative politics are reactive, a poor second best to the conservative’s preferred condition, one of no politics at all. Conservatives organise only when challenged. But whenever one dates the origins of the British party system, whether with the attempt to exclude the Catholic James from the succession to Charles II, with the rivalry between the Younger Pitt and Charles James Fox, or with the battle over Parliamentary Reform in the 1830s – Lord Blake prefers the second of these – it is evident that the two parties arose simultaneously. They have not shown equal powers of survival. Whiggery has long disappeared, though 20th-century Conservatives have included a few Whiggish eccentrics. The Liberal Party of David Steel bears little resemblance to it, except in some residual link with religious dissent and the geographical periphery. The old-style Labour Party inherited some Whig nostrums, especially in foreign policy and constitutional matters. The Tory Party, on the other hand, has survived, metamorphosed but whole.

This should not surprise us. Britain is almost unique in Western Europe (Sweden and Denmark are the only other exceptions I can think of) in having experienced no traumatic caesura in its political development in the last three hundred years. None of its major institutions has been abolished, few seriously threatened. The campaign for Irish Home Rule came closest to a threat: in the end, it too was absorbed. Where continuity reigns, we may expect the party of continuity to rule. No wonder Disraeli, an essential though not impartial witness, called Toryism ‘the English system’. Yet, as Maitland reminded us long ago, the past was once the future. ‘Who would have thought in the 1830s,’ asks Lord Blake, ‘that the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Established Church would still be features of the British scene some 130 years later?’ The rhetorical question shows how ambiguous continuity can be. What is it that has survived: form or substance? The Church of England is no longer the Tory Party at prayer, nor the House of Lords the Tory Party in hibernation. Rumour suggests that the Royal Family is not that sound either. Indeed how alike are the Tory Party of today and that of 1968, when Lord Blake delivered the Ford Lectures that form the backbone of this book? Is it only the faulty perspective of daily politics that makes one wonder whether the gap between the Tory Party of Margaret Thatcher and that of Harold Macmillan is greater than the gap between Macmillan and the third Marquess of Salisbury? We shall probably not know until she has gone whether Mrs Thatcher was an erratic episode, a mutant, a comet-like irruption, or a genuine revolutionary who left as lasting a stamp on the political landscape as Peel, Joseph Chamberlain or Lloyd George. Lord Blake treads warily. Indeed, one of the disappointments of the later, added chapters is that he feels obliged to be indiscriminately polite to anyone not yet quite dead. Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint. His tribute to the organisational genius of Lord Woolton and Sir Michael Fraser is diminished by the extravagant encomia for Anthony Barber and Cecil Parkinson.

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