Why One-Nation Tories can no longer make an impression on the political establishment

Ross McKibbin

  • Whatever Happened to the Tories: The Conservatives since 1945 by Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett
    Fourth Estate, 448 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 1 85702 475 3

Ian Gilmour is one of the most leftwing figures in British politics: a feat he has achieved by not moving. He remains upright amid the ruins of a Keynesian political economy while the two major parties quarrel over possession of the new orthodoxy. He has also written one of the best things on Thatcherism: Dancing with Dogma (1992), a book which will demonstrate to a later generation that not all Conservative politicians took leave of their senses in the Eighties. He must therefore contemplate the last election result with mixed feelings. Since he has always argued that it would end that way – and that the Conservatives deserved it – he must have a certain satisfaction. On the other hand, as a Conservative MP and minister for thirty years and, being of a forgiving nature, still a Tory, his satisfaction cannot be unalloyed. Whatever Happened to the Tories, a book he has written with Mark Garnett, is an account of how all this came about: how the party which recovered so quickly after the 1945 defeat almost disintegrated fifty years later.

Although it is subtitled The Conservatives since 1945, this is not a conventional history. It is not, for example, meant to compete with the standard work, John Ramsden’s volumes in the history of the Conservative Party, or with other histories which carry the story forward to the present day. It is rather an essay, or series of essays, on themes and issues with which Ian Gilmour was and is himself involved – which is why it doesn’t catch fire until it reaches the early Sixties, when he becomes an MP. The discussion of the Forties and Fifties is rather mechanical, even if Gilmour’s judgment of certain individuals and events is not. Nor does the book pretend to a serene impartiality. It is a kind of running commentary, vigorously written and always perceptive, by an unrepentant One-Nation Tory from an unrepentant One-Nation point of view. Although he admits that One-Nation Toryism is not a creed carved in stone, he does assume that it is a coherent political and historical phenomenon. The ideal One-Nation Tory would have recognised Britain’s weakness after 1945, abandoned the pretensions of great power, thrown in its lot with Europe as a founding member of the Common Market (and thus avoided becoming a satellite of the United States), accepted something like full employment as the (or a) main goal of social policy, mitigated the worst forms of inequality and certainly not created new ones, not taken the South-East of England to represent the whole nation as the Thatcherites allegedly did, recognised a plural and democratic state structure, and not pandered to the atavistic impulses of the Party Conferences.

Some of the book’s content is in this sense predictable: much of it isn’t. Gilmour takes the view that Churchill was by a big margin the best postwar prime minister, with Attlee a distant second and Macmillan an even more distant third. Given his premises, this makes sense; but it is not a judgment one frequently hears. He is very ambivalent about Macmillan, whom he obviously cannot forgive for conjuring Lord Home out of a hat in 1963. Also striking is his dislike of Harold Wilson, who is, broadly speaking, depicted as having debauched British politics by an almost singular lack of principle. Indeed, in his account, not the least benign consequence of a Tory victory in 1964 is that the British people would have been spared Harold Wilson’s governments. Lord Gilmour wields a very sharp pen. Of the ageing character of the Conservative Party’s membership he writes: ‘The Conservative Party was dying on its feet, or in its wheelchairs.’ He notes that for much of the time nationalisation was deeply unpopular, giving the Conservative Party an unmissable target: but it was not ‘until the orgy of privatisation in the Eighties and Nineties had again made state ownership popular and acceptable that Labour abandoned it’. Nor is the Lady allowed to escape. He quotes her, when a shadow minister of power in the Sixties, giving very cogent reasons why the great utilities, with the possible exception of coal, should remain publicly owned monopolies – as against those in her Party who would have liked to privatise them. Of Norman Lamont, he says: ‘Chief Secretary to the Treasury should have been his ceiling.’ Nor is he much less crushing about those others who led the Conservative Party after 1979.

Given the second-rateness of its opponents, why did One-Nation Toryism perish? This is not an easy question to answer: for we must also ask why more or less extreme forms of free-marketism flourished in the rest of the English-speaking world – in New Zealand even more spectacularly than in Britain – and to an extent everywhere else. And it isn’t made any easier by the fact that we are dealing with a religious faith – rather as free trade was in the 19th century. As Lord Gilmour has emphasised on a number of occasions, the ‘figures’ simply do not support the claims made by the free-market utopians. But they are impervious to the figures and regard each disaster or ‘wrong outcome’ as the consequence of an insufficiently rigorous application of the market. With a few exceptions, virtually all this country’s political and financial élite now adhere to marketry and its legitimating managerialist vocabulary. This represents a profound intellectual and cultural change, which cannot be contested by ‘facts’. An answer to the question is perhaps provided by the book’s narrative, which suggests that One-Nation Toryism died as a result of a number of avoidable errors of policy and tactics within the Conservative Party. The first was the election of Home rather than Hailsham or Butler to the leadership in 1963: Home’s succession ‘dealt a near-fatal blow to One-Nation Toryism’. It did so because either Hailsham or Butler would have been more likely to defeat Wilson in 1964; a fourth consecutive election defeat would have split the Labour Party; the modernisation in the Nineties would thus have taken place in the Sixties; Labour would ‘not have subsequently moved to the left, nor the Conservatives to the right, and British politics would not have taken the direction which Harold Macmillan later deplored’.

The second mistake was that the Conservative Opposition between 1964 and 1970 failed to support the industrial relations legislation proposed by the Wilson Government in In Place of Strife; and the third was their failure in the same period to devise an effective anti-inflationary policy – which left the Heath Government terribly exposed. Gilmour concedes that it made mistakes (a number of its policies were inherently inflationary and it tried to do too much), but argues that its most serious was excessive statesmanship. Heath, whom Gilmour likens to Peel, was ‘undone by an overdose of integrity’. Heath did, however, make one bad mistake (the fourth): he failed to resign the leadership after the defeat in October 1974. Had he done so, he would almost certainly have been succeeded by William Whitelaw and not You Know Who. A combination of Mrs Thatcher, seemingly untrammelled trade-unionism and the débâcle of the 1974-79 Labour Government more or less finished off One-Nation Toryism – though its death was lingering rather than sudden.

The notion of the avoidable mistakes is difficult to assess. The first, the election of Lord Home, entails so many counterfactuals and unprovable assumptions that it is very tricky to argue. Not that it is necessarily wrong: there is just no way of showing that it could be right. As to In Place of Strife, it seems to me that it would have been a dead duck even had the Conservatives supported it: the opposition to it within the unions and the Labour Party was simply too strong. The question of the Conservatives and an anti-inflation policy is interesting. Plainly the Heath Government had no such policy and I think Gilmour underplays the effects of Anthony Barber’s Chancellorship. In any case, had such a policy been devised, it surely would not have looked very different from the ‘monetarism’ which Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph adopted. From the Conservative point of view, after all, that was the only alternative, as conservatives around the world were concluding. I am sure that One-Nation Tories (rightly) prefer to live with highish inflation and lowish unemployment, but if you fear inflation more than unemployment – as many on the right always have – then what passes for monetarism is the obvious way out, as long as you do not do what Mrs Thatcher contrived to do: have high inflation and high unemployment simultaneously. And that makes me wonder how much difference William Whitelaw would have made. Gilmour’s speculation is certainly a very fair one: had Heath stood down, Whitelaw would probably have been elected, and during the worst moments of Thatcherism many must have thought wistfully of the genial Willie. But he would have been under many of the same pressures as Mrs Thatcher, as were governments everywhere. And although he would probably have avoided many of Thatcherism’s more rebarbative policies, his might well have been broadly similar. And he did serve as her loyal deputy, just as Lord Hailsham served as her loyal and deeply conservative Lord Chancellor.

Yet Gilmour is right to observe that most of the Party’s leadership in 1979 was in some sense ‘One-Nation’ or, at least, not ‘Two-Nation’. What he does not tell us is why they were so easily shouldered aside. If we forget for a moment the argument – which I believe to be a strong one – that they were simply on the wrong side of history, there are, I think, three possible explanations. The first is that Gilmour exaggerates the unity and strength of One-Nation Toryism. His politics are very much on the left of the Conservative Party – indeed he probably is the left of the Conservative Party – and the majority of his Party have never held his views with the same force and consistency as he does. In all political parties at all times most people are accidentalists: they fall in with whatever is the predominant ideological mode. More people were probably ready to adjust to Thatcherism than Gilmour is prepared to admit. The second possible explanation is that they lost a battle of tactics and will: that Mrs Thatcher and her supporters were more determined, tougher and (much) luckier than they were.

The third explanation follows in some way from the second. Whatever Happened to the Tories and, even more, Julian Critchley’s Collapse of Stout Party (also written from the left of the Conservative Party)[*] cause one to reflect on the attitudes of the Party’s leadership to its rank and file. Most party leaders are, as Gilmour argues, nervous of their membership. Members feel more strongly about things than the rest of the electorate – which is why they are members – and so are often unrepresentative. But it is one thing to be nervous of them, quite another to be hostile – and it is this which gives an edge to both sets of memoirs. Gilmour’s views are milder than Critchley’s, but nonetheless hostile. For a One-Nation Tory government, he writes, ‘the party activists are little more than a useful ammunition train. The government has to see that the train does not blow itself or the government up, but the government, not the train, decides how the ammunition is used.’ This, of course, is frequently the reality, but the activists are surely something more than that. The Conservative activists, like it or not, are the democratic element of the Party, and it is paradoxical, perhaps disastrous, that those in the leadership with the broadest democratic sympathies (like Gilmour and Critchley) were least able to engage with the Conservative Party’s democracy. It is difficult for an outsider to know how the Conservative Party works at the level of personal relations, but to this outsider it looks as if the Party’s traditional élites practised a form of leadership which depended on an unquestioned social and political hierarchy – they led and others followed – that has lost its legitimacy. Much of the ‘traditional’ leadership found no alternative way of engaging with their rank and file, and an opening was created which the Thatcherites willingly filled. Never themselves having practised the art of persuasion, they left it to others to do the persuading. Lord Gilmour, who is well aware of this, makes the perfectly good point that as the membership of the Conservative Party declined it became ever more unrepresentative and ever more unreasonable. That was certainly an assumption made by a number of hopefuls in the last Government, but was it always justified? The fact is that (so far as one can judge from the polls) the majority of Conservative activists wanted Kenneth Clarke for the leadership and not his rightwing opponents, a couple of whom had sedulously cultivated their presumed prejudices. Nor, when pressed by pollsters, do they appear very different from the rest of the electorate: they are punitive in areas where much of the electorate is also punitive, xenophobic as much of the electorate is xenophobic, but broadly sympathetic to the Welfare State, as is most of the electorate. The activists are somewhat more punitive and xenophobic than the electorate as a whole, and that is what we would expect. Yet they are not unteachable: the trouble is they were taught by the wrong people. Would Lord Gilmour agree with this? It would be interesting to know.

Where does this leave the Conservative Party? The One-Nation Tories have little doubt that while it adheres to its present course it can only be marginalised. Much depends on what happens to the Blair Government. At the moment it is trapped in an iron cage of its own making, but that has not yet got it into real trouble. If it has good fortune it will escape; if it does not, it will lose much of its core constituency. In that case, the Conservative Party will again stage one of its famous recoveries irrespective of how many nations it represents. For mavericks like Ian Gilmour, or anyone else whose views coincide with those of the electorate, this is serious. The British political system – or rather the English political system – has become very insensitive. The political élites talk largely to each other, and largely agree with each other. The Labour Party, for example, has framed much of its programme on the assumption that the last election did not happen; with the result that most of the policies of the defeated party, and the political and economic culture which shaped them, have been further entrenched. Only a real catastrophe – something like the poll tax – will induce politicians to change their minds. That is why the loss of their political base within the Conservative Party has been so grievous to the One-Nation Tories and to the country: they now have no other way of modifying the behaviour of the élites.

[*] Reviewed by R.W. Johnson in the LRB of 22 January.