Why Do the Tories Always Have the Luck?

Peter Clarke

  • Conservative Century: The Conservative Party since 1900 edited by Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball
    Oxford, 842 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 19 820238 5

The Left has often looked to history for reassurance. It has sought to buttress its implicit faith in progress, of which history supposedly offered some kind of guarantee through simple extrapolation of trends. Even when historical experience queried straightline theories of progress as naive blueprints of perfectibility, the sophisticated left-wing alternative was often a squiggly-line theory of progress. When Hegel talked about the cunning of reason, when Darwin dwelt on the countless false trails in the tortuous path of natural selection, they were unwittingly providing concepts so elastic that they could stretch to a thousand short-term excuses. Setbacks were thus reinterpreted as temporary aberrations or explained away in hindsight as necessary detours. The Left has thus been comforted through many a season of adversity by a perversely indomitable sense that, in the long run, history was on its side – and numbers too, as part of the same inexorable process. Shelley’s seminal contribution to political statistics – ‘Ye are many, they are few’ – was another heartening reassurance that the forces of reaction and privilege, though still going strong as late as the 19th century, were ultimately doomed.

Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In Britain a mass suffrage was first instituted in 1867. People at the time called it democracy, though to our eyes it had obvious deficiencies. It only applied in the boroughs, and it only applied to men; but it certainly gave the urban working-class electorate the chance to dispossess the bourgeois politicians who now had to seek its favour. Instead, within seven years of the Second Reform Act, the Conservatives under Disraeli achieved their first electoral majority in a generation. Moreover, when the county seats too were democratised by the Third Reform Act, amid widespread expectations that the reign of radicalism would thereby be instituted, a further upset lay in store. For the best part of twenty years, the Conservatives established a grip on power which was only broken in 1906. Radicals claimed that the electoral system was still hopelessly biased towards the propertied classes, and some historians have subsequently argued that such electoral checks impeded the otherwise natural evolution of the Labour Party. Actually, the achievement of full manhood suffrage in 1918 ushered in an era of even more persistent disappointment for the Left.

Is the 20th century likely to become known as the ‘Conservative century’? This is the claim which Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball advance in the wide-ranging and thought-provoking volume which they have edited. ‘Either standing alone or as the most powerful element in a coalition,’ they write, ‘the party will have held power for seventy of the hundred years since 1895.’ It’s hard to argue with that, and correspondingly difficult to find the excuses that would explain it away. Though many of the contributors are themselves Conservatives, and the research on which the essays are based has obviously benefited from archival access facilitated by Central Office, this is by no means a triumphalist volume in celebration of the Conservative Party. It may indeed be the Left which has most to learn from it.

The perspective it adopts is very much that of our own day, starting from the premise that the Tories have been in power for the last 16 years – and that this is broadly in keeping with their performance since the First World War. In a comparative survey of the Right in its international context, the Irish historian Brian Girvin shows that ‘the failure of the Left to benefit from universal suffrage’ after the First World War was hardly confined to Britain. Moreover, he suggests that this failure was, in an almost perverse sense, a product of conditions which were ostensibly favourable to the Left. ‘The Right recognised the disadvantage it was placed under with the onset of democracy,’ he argues. ‘In response to these new conditions, the Right, if it was to survive, had to respond organisationally, ideologically and in policy terms to meet the challenge.’ In countries where the right-wing parties failed this test, they behaved in a way that led to Fascism. The British Conservative Party, by contrast, proved outstandingly successful in turning a democratic electoral system to its own advantage.

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