Sixtysomethings

Paul Addison

  • True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson
    Oxford, 303 pp, £35.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 19 827786 5
  • Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks: Writings on Biography, History and Politics by Ben Pimlott
    HarperCollins, 417 pp, £20.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 00 255495 X

For every one book or article on the Conservative Party, there used to be ten on Labour and the Left. Lacking as they were in sympathy for Toryism, most academics seemed also to lack curiosity about it. Today the position is very different. The shattering experience of living through Mrs Thatcher’s counter-revolution has awakened both historians and political scientists to the fact that Conservatism is one of the central mysteries of 20th-century British history. The discovery of enormous gaps in our understanding is particularly exciting for younger academics who, irrespective of their own political views, are attracted by sweeping prospects of revisionism.

The new study of Conservatism is more than a question of narrow politics. In the broadest sense it is a question of national consciousness and the ability of the Conservatives to identify themselves with the Crown, the Empire, the Union, England, Englishness, family life and fair play. With their long record of waste and incompetence in office, the Conservatives have seldom been electable on grounds of efficiency or value for money. Time and again they have got by with appeals to patriotism and the character of the nation. Even now, when they are so far behind in the opinion polls, they propose to recover by transforming John Major into a Europhobic John Bull.

The other key to Conservative success was organisation. As Parliamentary reform acts expanded the electorate, the Conservatives recruited a mass membership in the constituencies. These were the party faithful without whose unpaid labours the Conservatives would not have survived into modern times. But where did they come from and why? Were they passive agents of a governing élite, or did they shape the policies and character of the Party? Such questions are not less relevant today, when most of us know little of the Tory rank-and-file beyond the image they present to the world at the Annual Party Conference.

From now on there is less excuse for ignorance. Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson have conducted the first national survey of Conservative Party members, based on a sample of 34 constituency associations in various regions, including Scotland. Since the survey is based on a standardised questionnaire with few open-ended questions, the result is rather abstract. There is little sense of the life-histories of these Tories, the days they might have spent in Rhodesia or Hong Kong, their homes and habitats, the flavour of their conversation over a gin and tonic. But this is an extremely professional exercise which quantifies the quantifiable and reveals a Party different in many ways from the stereotyped images.

In spite of the prominence at party conferences of ladies in hats, 51 per cent of the members are men. Equally false is the impression that the constituency parties are full of estate agents and yuppies: they are too busy making money. The typical Conservative is 62 years old, left school at 16 and is by no means rich: more than half the sample had an annual income of £20,000 or less, and the presence of a large number of retired people is reflected in the fact that more than a quarter are getting by on less than £10,000. There is no sign, however, of the classless society of John Major. Only 8 per cent are manual workers, and only 3 per cent read the loud-mouthed, plebeian Sun, which ranks lower in the esteem of Party members than Jacques Delors or the TUC. This is Telegraph country, with the Mail and Express in support.

Party members, it turns out, are no more extreme in their views than the average Conservative voter. They are ‘Thatcherite’ in the sense that the majority are in favour of capital punishment and against a federal Europe. Seventy per cent are disciples of Enoch Powell and believe that a future Conservative government should encourage the repatriation of immigrants. But as elderly people who depend on the welfare state they do not share the rugged individualism of the free marketeers. Eighty per cent believe that the Government should put more money into the National Health Service and 83 per cent that it should spend more to relieve poverty.

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