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.

We cannot yet write the history of post-Thatcherite Britain, but perhaps it is not too soon to start summarising the characteristics of its prehistory (roughly 55 BC to 1979). Lord Blake’s categories are a mainstream definition of the mainstream, thereby reminding us that the interest of a history lies not only in what it says but in when it was said. 1968 was the year in which it seemed necessary to warn Edward Heath against wandering too eagerly in the direction of Selsdon Park. Here is Blake on tariff reform:

It has seldom paid for the Conservative Party to come forward as the party of change. That is not why people vote for it. The Conservatives can accept change. They can even initiate it, once they are safely in office and as long as they do not make a song and dance about it. But experience suggests that they should be very chary about announcing major changes as the theme of an election programme. If the country is in the mood for radical change it will not vote Conservative.

On the Baldwin era:

Their greatest success was to convince a large section of the working class that the class struggle was irrelevant and that they were a safer bet than the Left.

On the Industrial Charter of 1948:

It was a successful attempt to counter the Labour argument that the Conservatives were the party of industrial laissez-faire and ‘devil take the hindmost.’

On Macmillan:

He was determined to find a way round what he regarded as the deflationary obstinacy of the Treasury.

On the nature of Conservatism, common to the eras of Peel and Churchill (and beyond):

There was a similar faith in the value of diversity, of independent institutions, of the rights of property; a similar distrust of centralising officialdom, of the efficacy of government (except in the preservation of order and national defence), of Utopian ideas and of ‘doctrinaire’ intellectuals; a similar dislike of abstract ideas, high philosophical principles and sweeping generalisations ...

  There was a similar reluctance to look too far ahead or worry too much about the future; a similar scepticism about human nature; a similar belief in original sin, and the limitations of political and social amelioration; a similar scepticism about the notion of equality.

Well, quite a lot of water has flowed under quite a few bridges since then. The Conservative Party has changed in social composition, policy and style. Julian Critchley puts it quite brutally: ‘As Mrs Thatcher has gone up in the world, so the party has come down.’ The Knights of the Shires have given way to the Knights of the Suburbs. That change is probably permanent. Only four of her cabinet ministers were educated at Eton, Harrow or Winchester, and three of them are on the way out. Of the 1983 intake of MPs fewer than half were educated at public schools (compared with 81 per cent in 1945), a mere 6 per cent at Eton (26 per cent in 1945), and fewer than half the graduates came from Oxbridge (80 per cent in 1945). Even if the policies of Pym and Gilmour were to return to favour, they are more likely to be implemented by a Walker or a Heseltine.

In style, the change is equally noticeable. For almost the first time in its history the Tory Party has taken a section of the intelligentsia seriously. Mrs Thatcher may not be a conceptual innovator or at home with abstractions, and she may not love the common rooms of Oxford and Cambridge, but she does not think of the intelligentsia as Baldwin did – as ‘an ugly name for an ugly thing’. Where would she be without Hayek and Friedman, Burns and Minford, the Institute of Economic Affairs or even the Conservative Philosophy Group? Ironically, the zealots of the Conservative Party (or arditi, as Critchley calls them, which is more than Neil Kinnock would dare to do) closely resemble those of the Labour Party in social and educational origin. Critchley speaks for all those who remain unreconciled to this hijack by the arrivistes:

  Her opponents ... shrink from her passion and mistrust her simplicity. They see her as a Lincolnshire edition of Reagan, a radical populist whose objectives fall way outside those held by the more traditional, moderate or paternalistic Tories who dislike her implacable zeal, a quality which remains profoundly untypical and antipathetic to mainstream Conservatism ... [They] hold in distaste much of what she says, and, just as much, the tone of voice in which she says it ...

  She does not cease to alarm me. Her attempt to tie the Conservative Party rigidly to the success of the free market, rather than being pragmatic and flexible, threatens to cut the party off from its past. Her thirst for conflict (‘the enemy within’) is socially divisive and politically unwise. The Tories are not the natural champions of the ‘minimal state’, and fulsome support for a market economy has never been, until recently, a dominant feature of Conservative politics.

In some respects she is certainly un-Conservative. There is little of the faith in independent institutions or distrust of centralising officialdom that Lord Blake regards as quint-essentially Conservative. ‘She cannot,’ as Mr Critchley observes, ‘see an institution without hitting it with her handbag.’ True, she has privatised. But in every other respect she is, as any radical reformer is bound to be, a centraliser. How else can people be made to conform? The result is that any institution even remotely within her patronage is filled, as far as possible, with ‘one of us’. Since 1979, we have moved steadily to a Napoleonic system of education, local government and police. Indeed, she is in many ways an exact replica of the Old Tory’s caricature of his opponent. Here is the portrait of the trendy neologue from that neglected classic, Lord Hailsham’s The Case for Conservatism of 1948:

Faced with the obvious absurdity of their own belief, they justify themselves to their critics by a challenge which does not strike them as ridiculous, ‘What is your policy? What would you do? What do you say then?’ – oblivious of the fact that to any honest man even scepticism is preferable to error.

There is something else that our authors might have mentioned. One of the main differences between the Left and Right, according to Lord Hailsham, was that the Right believed that fun should come before politics: ‘The man who puts politics first is not fit to be called a civilised being, let alone a Christian.’ That has changed. Not that the Left has been converted. As the Labour Party is increasingly subjected to the dictatorship of the delegatocracy, relentless activism and Robespierrean zeal have suffused it more than ever. The professional narodniks do not see politics as a giggle but as a penance, a burden and a holy mission. It is the Tories who have changed. Increasingly Mr Critchley emerges as the last surviving Hailshamite whom his party, with what is now uncharacteristic tolerance, continues to put up with. But then, his constituency party seems to be rather special: ‘No one in Aldershot has ever heard of intellectuals like Sir Alfred Sherman.’ Now, now.

He enjoys observing the zoo, he enjoys above all his own snobbery. There is the whiff of a long-lost douceur de la vie about a man for whom deuxième cru is a term of denigration. He suffers fools and knaves solely so that he can knock them. His thumb-nail sketches exhibit a vast gamut of enviable gifts. There is breathless admiration: ‘I have never met anyone quite as ambitious’ (of Michael Heseltine). There is respectful deference: he claims to have heard a speech by Ian Gow ‘of dizzying eloquence’. And there are the wilder Freudian fantasies, not untinged with fetishistic obsessions, as of Sir Keith Joseph at an Annual Conference, ‘wearing one black and one brown shoe’.

How many of the Thatcherite changes are permanent, how many ephemeral? There is some precedent in Conservative history for almost every aspect of today‘s party. Patriotism (or nationalism) has been there from the beginning. Populism goes back for at least a century, as does the bid for the suburban vote (‘villa Toryism’, as Lord Randolph Churchill called it). Nor should one romanticise Tory paternalism. Their record on social legislation is no worse, but no better, than that of other parties, and they have never pretended that they think the poor the equals of the rich. The pink-faced men who have done well out of the recession have an ancient lineage. What is unusual, especially to anyone whose experience of modern Conservatism is dominated by recollections of Butler, Macmillan and Macleod, is that the capitalist-nationalist-populist wing should be so completely in command.

In policy terms, that may change again, and with it may go what Mr Critchley has called ‘the forefinger school of oratory’. But we are hardly likely to see the grandees back. In that respect the peasants’ revolt which elevated her to power is irreversible. One of the reasons Mrs Thatcher has succeeded to the extent that she has is that social trends are on her side. The country is becoming relentlessly more middle-class. By the time of the next election there will be more owner-occupiers than ever before in British history, and fewer trade-unionists than there have been for a long time. This is a trend which Mrs Thatcher has encouraged, accelerated and intensified, but she is not its originator. It is doubtful whether we shall ever see a public sector as large or a welfare state as extensive as ten, twenty or thirty years ago. One has only to monitor the steps by which the SDP and even the Labour Front Bench have modified their agendas in response to the challenge of Thatcherism.

The more puzzling question is what will happen to Thatcherism when she herself has compromised, or been deposed or been defeated. No doubt some of her devotees will turn out to be Vicars of Bray. But there are also true believers, for whom the faith is more important than the priest: those who knew why they voted for her to be leader, as opposed to those for whom she was merely not Edward Heath. They are already impatient with her backsliding. The Times complained on the sixth anniversary of her premiership that she had changed little except attitudes. ‘It is quite hard, even after six years, to point to any other palpable achievements ... Thatcherism is only skin deep.’ The Wall Street Journal refers to ‘Mrs Thatcher’s socialist government’.

The raising of exaggerated expectations and the fury of the ideologue at discovering that reality fails to match up to Utopia used to be hallmarks of the Left. It will be fascinating to watch what the Right makes of this unusual experience. As for Mrs Thatcher herself, she might ponder Lord Blake’s verdict on Macmillan: he ‘was neither the first nor the last prime minister to neglect the management of the House of Commons for the lure of orbiting the globe as a world statesman’.