It was the weirdest election of my lifetime. Theresa May, with the largest Conservative share of the national vote since Margaret Thatcher’s post-Falklands triumph in 1983, failed to secure a majority, while Jeremy Corbyn – reviled by most of his own MPs – made Labour competitive again, with a remarkable near 10 per cent swing in his favour. As a result, a minority Tory administration is propped up by the hardline evangelicals of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). And yet, the most bizarre feature of May’s unsuccessful dash to the polls remains the extraordinary Tory manifesto. Most commentators have focused on its controversial and quickly overturned provisions on social care, the so-called dementia tax. Yet this was merely one component in a drastic overhaul of modern Thatcherite Conservatism. The manifesto – co-authored by the then MP for Ipswich, Ben Gummer, and May’s then joint Downing Street chief of staff, the Brummie visionary Nick Timothy – was an unthrottled yell of dissent against Conservatism as we know it.
Echoing the Red Toryism recently espoused by Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, who proposed rebranding the Conservatives as the Workers’ Party, the manifesto loudly repudiated ‘untrammelled free markets’ and sent out a confident, demotic counter-echo to Thatcher’s notorious claim that there was no such thing as society. Alongside proposals for ‘fair corporate pay’ and the correction of corporate governance in the interests of ‘employees, suppliers and the wider community’, it specifically attacked both ‘the socialist left and the libertarian right’. The manifesto was not – as some of the crasser Conservatives in the media complained – a leftist hijack of the Conservative Party, but signalled its ultimate provenance in the philosophy of Edmund Burke: ‘We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.’ This election was perhaps Britain’s best chance of taming the turbo-capitalist Thatcherite beast. We were initially cheered by the result, but will the left come to regret the defeat of the statist vision Timothy was attempting to impose on a reluctant – but cowed and largely unconsulted – Conservative Party? After all, in the quest to capture the middle ground that wins elections in a first-past-the-post system, the party of the left inevitably finds itself in an unacknowledged relationship of co-dependence with the party of the right. So much the better, surely, if that enemy on the right is not messianically capitalist?
The leitmotif of the election, from the reckless manifesto to the shotgun marriage with the DUP, was popular conservatism. The term sounds like an oxymoron, but the rightist pitch to ordinary people holds a significant place in our political history, and not only in Northern Ireland. These days, it’s all too easy to assume that popular conservatism is a version of right-wing populism, but there are significant differences between the two. Populists – whether from the right or the left – are anti-elitist. The establishment gets the blame for everything, even for the constraints of the world as it is; populists glibly dismiss the brute facts of recalcitrant reality, portraying them as a smokescreen that so-called experts project in order to deflect the general public from its preferred reforms. Popular conservatives, on the other hand, tend – no matter how boorish and brassy their grandstanding – to defer to conservative parties and their leaders; they don’t reject the facts of life, but instead sanctify them as conservative common sense. Similarly, while for populists no virtue inheres in institutions, only in the will of ‘the people’, adherents of popular conservatism – however populist their tone – glory in institutions like the monarchy or the church.
The Conservative-DUP arrangement is a reminder that anti-Catholicism is one of the most powerful ideological forces in modern British history. Linda Colley, in Britons (1992), argues very persuasively that anti-Catholicism provided the very stuff of a new British identity in the century following the Union of 1707 and, embarrassingly, remained a presence in British politics, not only in Northern Ireland, until the recent past. In the mid-19th century, according to Jörg Neuheiser, anti-Catholicism was one of the vital ingredients in popular constitutionalism. His book Crown, Church and Constitution recovers ‘conservatism from below’. In the course of the 19th century England went from being an ancien régime – less than 3 per cent of the population was enfranchised in 1800 – to a ‘democratically governed industrial society’. Yet by the end of the century, even after a demographic and industrial revolution, a third or more of the newly enfranchised electorate was still voting for the Conservative Party. Neuheiser questions older assumptions that such class ‘deviance’ was a result of deference, whether instinctive, prudential or the result of beguilement from above. He argues that popular Conservatism was enthusiastic and proactive, rather than cynically contrived or sullenly subservient. Nor was it – contrary to another potent line of explanation – a laddish expression of beery hedonism, a relieved celebration of olde English ways under threat from Nonconformist Liberal priggery. Neuheiser insists that matters were more ambiguous than the enduring caricature – Liberal Puritanism v. Tory licence – suggests. ‘Respectability, morality and decency’ were integral to the rhetoric of mid-19th-century Conservative operative (workers’) associations. English plebeian Conservatives were, as May might have put it, proud citizens of somewhere.
The Tory embrace of mass democracy would have seemed unlikely during the party’s crisis years in the middle of the century. When Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, the party split. The free-trading Peelites became an independent force for the next decade and eventually merged with the Liberals. They left behind a stolid party of the landed elite, out of touch with and determined to thwart the needs of urban and industrial Britain. Yet within a few decades, at first under the inspiration of Benjamin Disraeli, this protectionist laager had been reoriented as a national, broad-based democratic party. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy Daniel Ziblatt conducts a comparative analysis of the European transition to democratic politics between roughly the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. He notices an unwelcome truth, that the successful and – perhaps more important – stable transition to democracy depended less on the strength of pro-democratic forces than on the character and strategies of their conservative opponents. Ziblatt identifies two distinctive pathways from hierarchical to mass democratic societies. Some countries, such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and pre-1880 France, went on a rollercoaster, with significant democratic breakthroughs ‘followed by complete democratic breakdowns or coups d’état’. Democratisation took a more sedate course in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where – despite some resistance and occasional hazards – there was steady incremental progress towards settled democracy. Old conservative elites, Ziblatt explains, confronted a fork in the road. Should they adapt to the rise of democracy by foul means or fair? Might they be best advised to develop techniques of electoral fraud, corruption, clientilism and intimidation, relying either on local power-brokers or perhaps a proactive ministry of the interior? Or should they take a huge risk and develop ‘mass competitive political parties’ able to ‘win “clean” elections’? In countries where conservative forces saw politics in pragmatic, transactional terms – ‘Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose’ – and invested heavily in constructing viable election-winning organisations run by professional party agents on behalf of their patrician masters, a ‘virtuous cycle’ ensued. Electoral success begat confidence in new constitutional arrangements. On the other hand, Ziblatt notes, if ‘old-regime elites do not buy in’ to competitive, unrigged elections, ‘a democratic political order is much harder to build and also much harder to sustain.’ When confidence in the ability of the right to succeed in fair electoral politics runs low, it’s all too easy to panic, to succumb to the temptations of the coup, the counter-revolution, the cancelled election.
There are some very significant refinements in Ziblatt’s thesis. Party structures are vitally important. It helps to have a dominant moderate party on the right, with a ‘firewall’ in its organisation insulating its leadership from right-wing extremists, the military, anti-Semitic pressure groups or simply ‘true-believing activists’. The stronger the conservative party, the more effective it is as an obstacle against extremism. Even settled democracies sometimes teetered on the abyss: in the UK between 1906 and 1914 the Conservative Party was traumatised, first, by the huge Liberal landslide of 1906, when the Conservatives and their allies were reduced from 402 to 157 seats, and then by the Parliament Act of 1911, which clipped the veto powers of the House of Lords. Between 1912 and 1914 Ulster Unionists and their fellow diehard anti-Home Rulers appeared to flirt with insurrection and civil war. The Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law, declared in a speech at Blenheim in 1912 that he could ‘imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them’. The Curragh Mutiny and Larne gun-running incident in the spring of 1914 showed the army and Ulster Unionists responding in kind. However, the Great War intervened and the UK’s counter-revolutionary moment passed. By the early 1920s the Conservatives had acquiesced in the rise of Labour as a party of government.
There is an air of wistful regret to Ziblatt’s conclusion that ‘a viable and robust conservative political party’ with a ‘chance of winning elections at least some of the time’ is the price we pay for democratic stability. The alternatives, he contends, come at a much heavier price. Churchill once joked that ‘democracy was the worst form of government, apart from all the others’; but in Ziblatt’s bleak refinement of that insight, we wouldn’t have a functioning democracy at all without a viable Conservative option at the ballot box. This takes us far beyond the customary parlour games we play when we concede that May, however ghastly, is a more attractive option than flesh-creeping figures like Michael Gove or Liam Fox. Rather, Ziblatt prompts consideration of more fundamental options. Having the whole appalling crew in power from time to time has been the necessary cost of avoiding a fragile and fearful democracy that never knows when the next military junta is around the corner. We need to raise the stakes in our parlour games: Fox or Franco? Gove or Galtieri?
The Ulster Question had taken the UK to the brink, and it was the dread of Irish Home Rule which secured the longer-term fortunes of the right. Even though many Conservatives are disdainful of the hicks of the DUP with whom they find themselves entangled, the Irish Question and Ulster Unionism in particular have long been integral to the condition and character of mainland Conservatism. The century of Conservative dominance in British politics that runs from Lord Salisbury to the Thatcher/Major era was more precisely the Conservative and Unionist century. The Liberals split over Irish Home Rule in 1886, and the Liberal Unionists made a formal alliance with the Conservatives in 1895, amalgamating as the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 (tellingly, in Scotland the Conservatives were known simply as the Unionist Party between 1912 and 1965). The Liberal Unionists injected fresh life into the Conservative Party. The central figure in this refurbishment was Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham Radical who espoused land reform and municipal socialism. Chamberlain’s proper place in the Conservative pantheon has been a central preoccupation of Nick Timothy’s. In 2012 his pamphlet Our Joe: Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy was published by the Conservative History Group. Chamberlain’s bequest to the Conservative Party – shorn inevitably of his time-bound commitments to Empire and its protective external tariff wall – includes a robust statism and a commitment to the general welfare of the people. It lurks behind the curious manifesto of 2017.
This late 19th-century Unionist renovation of Conservatism is one of the principal subjects of Emily Jones’s surprising and persuasive study of the transformation of Burke, the late 18th-century Anglo-Irish pamphleteer, from a Whig who extolled the importance of party connection into a Tory, indeed into the defining philosopher of High Toryism. Notwithstanding Burke’s apostasy in the 1790s when he parted company with Francophile Whiggery, he was only intermittently invoked thereafter by Tories, and his reputation for much of the Victorian era was decidedly ‘confused’, as Jones puts it. She argues that the 19th-century focus on Burke was personal rather than ideological. What aroused admiration and controversy were his rhetorical powers, his towering passions, and the mysterious source of this hireling-writer’s wealth. Reappraisal, Jones demonstrates, occurred at first as part of an intra-Liberal debate, in which Whigs and future Liberal Unionists were more easily able to appropriate the whole of Burke than their progressive rivals within the broad church of Liberalism. Similarly, Conservatives, while content enough to cite Burke’s anathemas on the French Revolution and his panegyrics on the British constitution, were otherwise reticent. Even during the debates on Irish Home Rule in the mid-1880s it was largely Liberals – both future Unionists and, more selectively, Gladstonians – who invoked Burke. Yet after 1886, Jones notes, Burke – who emerges afresh here as the patron saint of Conservative-Liberal Unionist convergence – became ‘indirectly attached to the Conservative Party, as the Liberal Unionists gradually merged into close political habitation’. Tory canonisation, she argues, came late. In 1914 Geoffrey Butler – uncle of the future Tory grandee, Rab – published The Tory Tradition: Bolingbroke, Burke, Disraeli and Salisbury. Fears that New Liberals (unconstrained by Whiggish caution) and Irish Home Rulers were set on ‘Jacobinical destruction of the British constitution’ cemented Burke’s relevance for Conservatives.
The period between the first Irish Home Rule bill of 1886 and the third Home Rule bill of 1914 decisively reinvigorated British Conservatism, bringing infusions of popular Chamberlainite Radicalism and Burkean traditionalism as well as exciting counter-revolutionary panic. Ireland, as we have learned again in 2017, was far from peripheral: the Irish Question – as much as industrial relations or the threat of socialism – shaped the character of 20th-century British Conservatism. This summer’s Conservative-DUP accord is unlikely to be transformative. Unionism has become the redundant appendix in modern Conservatism. After all, Tory Brexiteers – little English nationalists in all but name – blithely championed departure from the EU without considering the problem of the Northern Irish border or the equally precarious status of the Anglo-Scottish Union. A confused DUP – instinctively hostile to what many regard as a papist Continent, but fretful about the consequences of a hard border with the Republic – isn’t likely to inspire another Conservative refurbishment. Yet, perhaps there’s something for Tory strategists in the DUP’s wooing of Ulster’s Protestant working class. Its co-founders, the Reverend Ian Paisley and Desmond Boal, conceived the DUP in 1971 as a counterweight to what they saw as the suspiciously ecumenical tendencies of the Ulster Unionist elite, who came from ‘big house’ and business backgrounds. Thus it poses, as Jonathan Tonge and his colleagues argued in The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (2014), as an ‘ethnic tribune party’, staunchly right-wing in its British loyalism, but alert to the economic needs of ordinary people. Notoriously, Paisley was implicated in the successful Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974, and was prominent in its abortive follow-up in 1977. On the other hand, as Tonge notes, the left-of-centre, working-class dimension of the DUP has, in practice, rarely loomed as large as its aggressive sectarianism.
While the DUP’s brand of demotic right-wingery is tolerated in the cause of shameless opportunism, other forms of popular conservatism fare less well. Tory Brexiters observe with trembling suspicion the unvenerated elders of their own tribe: Michael Heseltine, John Major and Ken Clarke. The recent past of the Conservative Party has become a foreign country, treacherously so. The paperback edition of Clarke’s memoirs includes as an appendix his speech in the House of Commons during the Brexit debate on 31 January this year: ‘I am merely propounding the official policy of the Conservative Party for fifty years until 23 June 2016.’ Clarke identifies with the bluff common sense of the ex-military types he encountered when he entered Parliament in 1970. He recalls with affection a retired rear-admiral calming a flap at the 1922 Committee with a six-word speech: ‘Pro bono publico, no bloody panico.’ Clarke’s own origins weren’t county. He was born in a Nottinghamshire pit village where his father was an electrician at the colliery, though he also had a job as the manager of a cinema in a nearby town, and later acquired a watchmaker and jeweller’s shop. Clarke proclaims a one-nation Conservatism – free markets checked by an ostensible concern for fairness – which, somewhat untypically in the Conservative Party, is rooted in lived experience rather than a guilty and remote paternalism. Clarke is best remembered – by fan and Thatcherite foe alike – for telling Thatcher straight, with brutal bluntness, that it was time for her to resign after her indecisive first-round victory in the Tory leadership election of 1990. But he wasn’t always as voter-friendly as the media pretends, not least as a combative health secretary in the late 1980s.
Clarke emerges from his memoirs, which are something of a disappointment, in a far from endearing light. He was and is right about everything, regrets rien and seems robotically oblivious of the dark, tragic choices which inevitably accompany policymaking, however well intentioned. The winning and companionable blokeishness seen on Newsnight during his middle-aged pomp has hardened into an imperceptive, know-it-all old-codgerdom. Nevertheless, Clarke’s career – his unusual combination of porcupine-quill resilience, abrasiveness and middle-of-the-road politics – is suggestive. Those of us who pragmatically and eirenically favour compromise – a mixed economy, parliamentary (not plebiscitary) democracy and, above all, continued EU membership tempered by grumbles about obvious defects in the Euro project – are usually patsies. Our views tend to be steamrollered by uncompromising true believers, whether on the hard right or hard left, and by cynical media moguls and their viziers. In a world of Goves and Corbyns, Murdochs and Dacres, there is something to be said for Clarke’s bruisingly militant moderation.