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.

The Conservatives have been lucky in their opponents. In the period before the First World War, when they were faced with a formidable combination of the Liberal and Labour Parties, working together in a progressive alliance, the Conservatives looked frail for almost the only time in their history. Their unfamiliar, uncongenial experience of repeated defeat seared them and instilled a determination to do better. In particular, the Conservatives learnt from their entanglement with Tariff Reform that a party riven with ideological dispute and internecine factionalism faces electoral disadvantages. As John Barnes brings out in his urbane essay on ideology and factions, Conservative ideology has rested in part on a scepticism about the adequacy of ideology itself. In this sense, neither the fervent Tariff Reformers of the early part of the century, nor the rabid Thatcherites of the latter part, have really understood what the Conservative Party is for.

The pragmatism which Baldwin inherited from the great Lord Salisbury has proved a better guide for most of the ‘Conservative century’. Part of Baldwin’s achievement between the wars was surely to contain the ideologically-driven pressures of faction within his party while opportunistically waiting for the right circumstances in which to enforce traditional Conservative priorities. It was Baldwin who took advantage of divisions between Liberals and Labour to establish a broad-based Conservative party as the lodestone of British politics. He was aided by luck, of course, especially the good luck of being out of power when the world slump hit Britain in 1931. This permitted the Conservatives to slip back into office as the force behind a National Government which was able to take the credit for the economic recovery of the late Thirties.

It took the Second World War to turn the tables. While the Conservatives’ record was retrospectively discredited, Labour’s credibility was correspondingly enhanced, first by the fact that it had a good war, then by its achievement in constructing the post-war settlement. But once more the Conservative Party showed its immense resilience, and thus made itself the beneficiary of the sort of luck which came its way. This time it was the Korean War which came along, blighting Britain’s economic recovery and with it Labour’s chances of achieving a Scandinavian-style dominance in British politics. In 1951 as in 1931, the Conservatives were handed office at a moment when things could only get better: in each case a passport to more than a decade in power.

Much the same could be said of the Thatcher era. By taking office in 1979, the Conservatives got their hands on North Sea oil to back their great gamble in economic policy. They also had, of course, the bonus of a divided opposition, with both the Labour Party and the Liberal-SDP Alliance failing, in different ways, to provide an electable alternative. Hell-bent on its own ideological adventure, the Thatcherite Conservative Party can hardly be called pragmatic or consensual, but it retained a canny streak of opportunism which allowed it to take full advantage of the aces which it was dealt – most crucially, the Falklands card. Part of Margaret Thatcher’s luck in politics was the sort of luck which she made for herself, by snatching with both hands the opportunities which she was unexpectedly offered. At least in this respect, she proved herself a worthy heir to one of the finest traditions of her party, with an ability not exceeded by any of her predecessors for capitalising on immediate tactical advantages in order to seize a strategic advantage. The question remains: why do the Tories always have the luck?

Those in search of an answer will find plenty to chew on in the eight hundred pages of this volume. Its success is in large part due to the hard work of the editors, but since the volume itself is so large there is plenty of credit left to share among the other contributors. Stuart Ball, author of a fine book on Baldwin, has been particularly busy, with two complementary essays on party organisation: one of them a top-down account of the national and regional structure, the other a bottom-up survey of local Conservatism. He has also compiled a series of useful appendices, with a high standard of accuracy, listing officeholders and giving dates; and his crowning achievements is a magnificent annotated bibliography, running to 46 pages, which will be the starting-point for all further study in this field. His co-editor, Anthony Seldon, contributes a long overview which speaks with particular insight on the Fifties, about which he has written a standard book. Indeed, one of the strengths of the volume lies in its success in securing acknowledged authorities on specialist topics to write essays which provide a synthesis of their research.

Philip Norton (who made his name writing about dissident Conservative MPs long before nature imitated art and this became such a fashionable activity) proves a lucid and well-informed guide to the workings of the Parliamentary party. Richard Kelly usefully distils his work on the party conference and James Kellas is able to deploy his wide knowledge of Scottish politics to chart the Conservatives’ failure north of the border. Richard Cockett draws on his earlier research on the party and the media in one essay, and on his recent book on right-wing think-tanks to buttress another essay, on policy-making (this in collaboration with John Barnes). Kevin Theakston and Geoffrey Fry, in another collaborative survey, bring their expertise on the Civil Service to bear, notably on the way in which Whitehall was ‘de-privileged’ under Thatcher. Keith Middlemas, an authority on the corporate institutions with which the 20th-century state has become imbricated, writes lucidly on the party’s relations with industry and the City, making the valid point that these have often been more problematic than is usually assumed.

Virtually every essay in the book earns its keep as an accessible introduction to its assigned topic; and some go further in staking out challenging interpretations. Vernon Bogdanor, in a combative survey of the selection of the party leader, argues that the Conservatives have always been shrewder in their methods than critics have allowed. In the days when the leader simply ‘emerged’, this reflected a search for consensus in a gentlemen’s party; since the institution after 1965 of formal electoral procedures, which may seem cumbersome but are likewise designed to exert checks and balances, the same aim has been pursued by different methods. Peter Catterall offers a nicely-judged account of the influence of religion, suggesting that the breakdown in the Conservatives’ traditionally cosy relationship with the Church of England has been exaggerated. Indeed, in his revisionist conclusion, he admonishes Europeans not to be deluded ‘into thinking that the party is less religious than its Christian Democrat counterparts’.

Ken Young uses his unrivalled knowledge of municipal politics, especially in London, to expose some of the imperatives which have driven policy in this important field of democratic self-government. He shows how, before the Second World War, it was the Conservatives who first championed the idea of a Greater London Council. They did so for the obvious reason that it would mobilise the suburban electorate in such a way as to wrest power away from Herbert Morrison’s London County Council. Hence Labour’s natural coolness about the proposal. But when a Conservative Government got around to legislating the GLC into existence in the early Sixties, the fringe suburbs were excluded, thus allowing Labour to win control of the new authority after all. The reason here was the anti-London localism of the Conservative commuters, who refused to be conscripted as electoral fodder into a strategic battle for London. But the long-term result, of course, was to make the Labour-controlled GLC a prime target for abolition in the Thatcher era.

Furthermore, when Peter Walker was busily reforming the county councils in the early Seventies, he too disregarded Conservative electoral interests, notably in allowing the traditional over-representation of rural areas to be abolished. ‘I said very sharply that there would be no party gerrymandering of any description’ was Walker’s boast. The effect of this highminded stand, however, was to undermine the Conservatives’ position in many county councils, which was both cause and result of their waning interest in the whole business. When Young says that this ‘marked the atrophy of the commitment to local government which had characterised the early post-war years’, he means, of course, a commitment to Conservative local government. This illuminates a crucial step toward the present position, where, in a mutually reinforcing way, Conservatives are hostile to local government as such and incapable any longer of winning a share of council seats which matches their national vote.

Three essays provide insights into the changing social basis of Conservative support. Robert Waller’s position as research director for the Harris opinion poll has given him access to the surveys undertaken for the Conservative Party over the last thirty years. Here, simultaneously, is evidence of who voted Conservative and of the perceptions with which Conservative Central Office was fed at the time. It seems that as early as 1963 skilled working-class voters were already identified as C2s – identified also as a problem, since their support for the Tories was ebbing fast at the time. ‘The non-Conservative voter dislikes the party’s association with big business,’ ran the pollsters’ report, thirty years ago. ‘He thinks that the Labour Party have a better leader and better understand the needs of ordinary people.’

On the more recent and better-publicised behaviour of the C2s, however, Waller offers a note of scepticism. He acknowledges that this was the group which swung most heavily against Thatcher at the height of the poll-tax episode, converting a Conservative lead of 7 per cent in the 1987 General Election to a Labour lead that reached 45 per cent in March 1990. But he argues that electoral support shifted to and fro during the Eighties in all social classes – though surely not to this extent? – and that the C2s would probably have swung back into line. Waller also makes the point that C2s do not, in fact, dominate marginal seats, being concentrated in constituencies which are incorrigibly Labour.

Rather than targeting one sectional group of voters, defined on socio-economic or occupational criteria, Labour might do better, therefore, to sustain a more broadly-based effort at persuasion within an electorate where the traditional stereotypes of electoral behaviour have been subverted. It is a remarkable fact, in our supposedly class-bound electorate, that at the 1987 General Election support for the Conservatives among AB voters (54 per cent) was only 12 per cent higher than among C2 voters (42 per cent). It is common knowledge that, while C2s are Sun-readers, ABs are, to a man and woman, LRB-readers: the convergence in their respective political leanings remains a striking testimony to the impact of Thatcher. What has often been masked during the recent era of Conservative electoral success has been the decline of Conservative support among the professional classes. The fact that workers by hand and by brain have become much more amenable to the same kind of arguments – on unions, taxes, home ownership – worked in the Conservatives’ favour in the Eighties. But it need not do so.

Waller cites private polls to show that in 1983 support for allegedly anti-union legislation was just as strong among trade-unionists as among the electorate as a whole. Indeed, while 75 per cent of all respondents supported strike ballots, no fewer than 77 per cent of trade-unionists did so. On this reading, the problem for Labour was not that the working class was shrinking, or the number of trade-unionists declining, but that official Labour policy had simply lost touch with its own natural constituency. Relations between the Conservatives and the unions are extensively surveyed in an essay by Andrew Taylor, who substantiates the point that trade unions made themselves vulnerable to legislation when their public standing plummeted, notably in the Winter of Discontent. In 1979 one in three trade-unionists voted Conservative, and the figure remained around 30 per cent in the next three elections, despite the rise of the Alliance and the subsequent recovery of Labour. Again this was a reinforcement of a longstanding trend rather than a sudden aberration, since the Conservatives had long made a pitch for the votes of the skilled workers.

Finally, Joni Lovenduski, Pippa Norris and Catriona Burgess collaborate to produce an intriguing account of the party and women. Paradoxically, it was under a woman that the Conservative Party relinquished a sixty-year electoral advantage among women. Survey evidence from 1945 onward proved – what was long suspected – that women were more likely than men to vote Conservative. Thus in 1955, while only 47 per cent of men voted Conservative, 55 per cent of women did so. The gender gap can thus plausibly be considered the reason for the Conservative electoral ascendancy in the Fifties; but not for that in the Eighties. In Thatcher’s great electoral triumphs of 1983 and 1987, women were, for the first time, no more likely to vote Conservative than men.

The closing of the gender gap in Britain – in marked contrast to the USA – can, of course, be read in many different ways. It can be seen as one sign of the increased emancipation of an electorate now liberated from many of the structural rigidities which have so long characterised British society and British politics. This means, of course, that an increasing proportion of the electorate is now open to persuasion. The fact that the Conservatives have proved more adept at taking advantage of this trend is partly because they have tried harder, often under the prompting of wholesome fears about their own vulnerability and their own potential obsolescence. If this has been the Conservative century, it is because the Conservatives have made it by exploiting opportunities which were, and are, equally open to the Left. If the Conservative century is nearly over, the 21st century is up for grabs.

It is not just that the Tories have won four General Elections running: they have hardly needed to run. Tony Blair has shown that he is alert to the implication that Labour needs to be imaginative, flexible and responsive if it is to be confident of victory next time. The alternative strategy, of course, seen in the defenders of Clause Four, is to wait with Undiminished confidence for the tide to turn, whereupon socialist fidelity and patience will receive their repeatedly postponed but ultimately inevitable vindication. This is bad politics, feeding on bad history. The need for adroitness in catching the tide is one message which the new Labour Party ought to learn from this valuable study of its tough, wily, resilient, shrewd, adaptable – and often remarkably lucky – opponents. Who knows? – under Blair Labour might get lucky too.