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.
As the authors show, there is much diversity of opinion among Conservatives. It is astonishing to discover that although 44 per cent oppose the introduction of a prices and incomes policy, 43 per cent are in favour of it. (Come back Edward Heath!) On several issues a substantial minority stand out against the orthodox view. In a Party that has done so well out of the first-past-the-post system it is heartening to discover that 23 per cent are in favour of Proportional Representation. Another 23 per cent favour a Scottish Assembly and 34 per cent support a Bill of Rights. The adulation with which Mrs Thatcher was received by the party faithful, together with the somewhat mythical concept of ‘Thatcherism’, tended to disguise the extent to which Conservative ideas were a mishmash. The authors detect three ideological strains – ‘progressivism’, ‘traditionalism’ and ‘individualism’ – with most Tories combining elements of all three. Progressivism, they conclude, is stronger at the grassroots than might be expected: the Party has not been wholly captured by the Right.
In years to come it may not matter who captures it. The most important finding of the book is that the Conservative Party in the constituencies is withering away. Constituency parties steadfastly refuse to disclose their membership figures to Central Office, and exact statistics are therefore hard to come by, but Whiteley and his colleagues estimate that the Party has been losing, on average, about 64,000 members a year ever since 1960. In the early Eighties, most estimates put the membership at one and a half million: now it is down to three-quarters of a million, of whom only 125,000 are active members. For the Conservatives this is a disaster. With the income they receive from fund-raising activities in the constituencies dwindling away, they have run up an overdraft of £17 million.
After all we have had to endure at the hands of the Conservatives, this might seem to be a cause for celebration. But the authors – who are, I suspect, on their very best behaviour as impartial democrats – urge us to beware. The Conservatives are not alone in their troubles: the party system as a whole is in long-term decline at the grassroots. Unless, therefore, the trend can be reversed, the party system itself will collapse, and down will come Labour, Liberals and all. At the same time, however, Whiteley & Co appear to think that the Conservatives are facing more severe difficulties than their competitors. On the basis of a complex theory of the incentives which lead people to join the Party, they argue that the Thatcher Governments alienated large numbers of natural Tories. By moving the Party to the right they discouraged the Wets, and by steadily reducing the powers of local government they reduced the incentive to participate in local affairs.
It is a plausible case but rests on guesswork. The authors have no means of interrogating the phantom army of people who might have been members of the Party but for the Thatcher Governments. Nor can they be certain that such an army existed. But there is no stopping a team of political scientists in theoretical flight, and they round off the book with a prescription for winning the phantoms back. They urge John Major to restore the balance between local and central government, lead the Party away from the dogmas of free-market economics, and give the members a greater role in policy-making. This is all good, sound advice of the kind you might expect from a Guardian editorial – and hence likely to be ignored.
This advice is based on a reading of the Tory past which is increasingly controversial. ‘The Conservative Party’s long and successful history,’ the authors write, ‘can be largely explained by the ability of the party leaders to adapt to changing circumstances and times; to embrace pragmatism and to try to build consensus around policies which the leaders felt were in the national interest. Mrs Thatcher consciously strove to abandon this long tradition of pragmatic Conservative leadership, and the Party is now paying the price for this abandonment.’
Like many other political scientists and historians, they refer back to the ‘post-war consensus’, an era in which, supposedly, Conservatives of the One Nation school were at one with Labour in upholding a social democratic settlement. This view is now vigorously disputed by critics, who claim that British politics were always polarised between a socialist Left and a capitalist Right, with precious little scope for compromise between them. Prominent among the sceptics is the historian and biographer Ben Pimlott, whose Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks is a selection from his prolific writings as an essayist and reviewer.
It is not unusual in Britain for a historian to win fame and fortune as a biographer: Pimlott’s achievement was to make the lives of Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson – two Labour politicians with flawed personalities and flyblown reputations – into the stuff of compelling biography. Orwell once claimed that everything he wrote had a socialist purpose. It could almost be said of Pimlott that everything he writes bears witness to his faith in the continuing validity and importance of mainstream Labour politics.
In True Blues the authors remark that for many people membership of the Conservative Party is an insurance policy against socialism. No doubt the reverse holds good: membership of a trade union, or the Labour Party, is a form of insurance against the Tories. Ever since 1922 our politics have been dominated by a tribal conflict which even now retains something of its old class and ideological character. It is this perception that leads Pimlott, in an essay entitled ‘The Myth of Consensus’, to predict that the term will one day be consigned to ‘the dustbin of historiography’.
The debate over consensus is partly a debate about the meaning of the word. Some, like Pimlott himself, define it as a state of harmony and agreement between the parties. Not surprisingly, they find little evidence that such a state of affairs ever existed. Others, like Sir Ian Gilmour, define consensus as the pursuit by governments of both parties of policies which avoid ideological extremes and produce a high level of continuity between one administration and another. This is what most people who talk of the ‘post-war consensus’ mean by it. Perhaps they are open to criticism for employing the term in a broad and relative, instead of a strict and absolute, fashion. But the real question is: did the phenomenon to which they are referring exist? According to the ‘consensus school’, both Labour and Conservative Governments operated for thirty years or so after the war within the framework of a mixed economy, full employment and the welfare state. In addition there was a large measure of agreement between the front benches in foreign, defence and colonial policy.
Even in Pimlott’s book it is noticeable that the heresy of consensus, banished from the front door, slips furtively in at the back. Reviewing a study of anti-colonialism in British politics, he writes: ‘The comfortable liberal view of anti-colonial good gaining ground against pro-imperial evil appears simply to be false: the reality was much closer to a slowly changing consensus on imperial matters in which radical opinion was mostly a tiny, and not very dissonant, voice.’ At one point we are reminded of Tony Crosland’s passion for equality and his desire to destroy ‘every fucking grammar school in England’. But then we read: ‘It is a nice irony that the education minister who approved more schemes for the abolition of grammar schools than any other was Mrs Thatcher.’
The protagonists of eternal conflict between the two parties fail to recognise a larger truth: that there are periods in history during which certain major assumptions are shared by the leaders of both. To put it another way, conflict sometimes results in an enduring shift in the balance of power and the pattern of government. The Second World War and the labour victory of 1945 were decisive in this sense: for the next thirty years the Conservatives were obliged to accept many of Labour’s measures as enduring features of the post-war settlement. The electoral successes of the Conservatives between 1979 and 1992 have similarly ensured that the next Labour government will rest on Thatcherite foundations. There will always be terrific rows in politics, and many significant issues on which the parties oppose one another. But these, to borrow a phrase from Rodney Lowe, are examples of ‘conflict within consensus’.
Pimlott has been much in demand as a reviewer of political biography and reprints here the pieces he has written on a gallery of individuals, from Churchill, Kennedy and De Gaulle to Harold Macmillan (‘a music-hall turn way past his best’), Woodrow Wyatt (‘always a bounder and a cad’) and George Brown (‘an alcoholic for whom the twin obsessions of drink and politics were two attempts to escape from some inner grief’). The aim of biography, he writes, is to understand an individual life by describing all the forces that shape it. Since the private and public lives of a politician are indivisible, all attempts to omit the sex, the friendships and the passions behind the scenes are counter-productive. Hence the late Philip Williams, Gaitskell’s biographer, was wrong to assume that his hero’s politics were unaffected by his love affairs. As for method, the biographer is a creative egotist, akin to the novelist or the painter. ‘The aim is to create a picture, not to display the paint: the choice of colours and their arrangement will be highly selective.’ Pimlott is very good on the problem of how biography should be written, but he ought also to consider the more fundamental question: ‘why should a historian write biography at all?’
The only piece in the book which appears for the first time is a journal of the Portuguese Revolution which Pimlott kept on a visit to Lisbon in the autumn of 1975. It is a reminder of a time, only twenty years ago, when Marxism and socialism were still on the march in many parts of the world, with a camp following of media folk, political activists and revolutionary groupies. ‘Possibly,’ writes Pimlott, ‘I fell into all these categories.’ The journal itself, however, is chiefly notable for its beady-eyed observation of faction and manoeuvre, and the frailties of politicians. As such it is an excellent introduction to Pimlott’s level-headed commentaries on British politics.
Throughout the Eighties there were terrific arguments over the future of the Labour Party. In the Conservative press there were clever commentators who argued that Labour was finished and would never hold office again. There were clever people in the Labour Party who believed the same thing and broke away to form the SDP. Later on, there were clever people who argued that Labour should abandon socialism and respond to the findings of market research; not to speak of clever people who argued that Labour should make an electoral pact with the Liberals or devote itself to the objectives of Charter 88.
Pimlott was not clever. He maintained that whatever the weaknesses and flaws in the Labour Party, it was the only real alternative to the Tories. Labour had a historic identity and a bedrock of working-class support that would ensure its survival, and must not be put at risk by attempts to turn it into a vehicle of metropolitan radicalism. Nor should Labour become a kind of supermarket in which voters of many kinds could go shopping for policies. Labour must stand its ground and challenge the electorate to move in its direction. ‘Labour,’ he wrote in 1988, ‘is known to be against privilege, social hierarchy, capitalism, personal wealth, inequality, unregulated markets, the powerful, the Establishment, the upper classes, nationalistic fervour, military might; and in favour of civil rights, state intervention, democracy, the working class and internationalism.’
Pimlott was writing here of the emotions invested in Labour. His recommendations for reviving the Party’s fortunes were more pragmatic and involved the creation of a Popular Front of the Mind with the Alliance. As he recognised, a free exchange of ideas with parties of the centre was likely to moderate Labour’s thinking, and there are signs that his own ideas are changing. In November 1990 he wrote: ‘The idea of embracing capitalism while giving space to the needy and disadvantaged may seem quaint. It could be, however, that western socialism will have to take philosophical leaps of that kind if it is to avoid the fate of its eastern cousin.’
This is a sentence worth pondering. For generations Labour historians have taught, and socialists believed, that the adoption of Clause Four in 1918 marked a decisive break with a backward and redundant Liberalism. Only now has this great mental block been shifted aside, opening the way for Labour to rediscover its lost inheritance, the New Liberalism of 1905-14. Why has it taken so long?