The Darth Vader Option

Colin Kidd

  • The Conservatives since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change by Tim Bale
    Oxford, 372 pp, £55.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 923437 0
  • The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron by Tim Bale
    Polity, 471 pp, £14.99, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 7456 4858 3
  • Reconstructing Conservatism?: The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997-2010 by Richard Hayton
    Manchester, 166 pp, £60.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 7190 8316 7

Reason revolts against the notion that cod anthropology might yield a more persuasive account of the Conservative Party’s inner workings than the current insights of political science and organisational behaviour. Yet when confronted with the culture of the Tories since 1945, the mind drifts off time and again to the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi in the Alban hills. In antiquity this idyllic setting was the scene of a ‘strange and recurring tragedy’ which provided the point of departure for James Frazer’s anthropological classic, The Golden Bough. The grove was guarded by a wary figure, a priest and a murderer, ever on his guard against an assailant who would try to murder him in order to take his place: ‘Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could succeed to office only by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.’

By the early 1950s the Tory Party seemed to require bloody renewal of this sort. Would Anthony Eden wield the knife against its leader, the elderly and infirm Winston Churchill? For Churchill, who was further debilitated by a stroke in 1953, was resolute on one subject: that he would not cede the premiership to Eden. At last, Eden became leader and prime minister in 1955, but was promptly finished off by the Suez fiasco of 1956. The next decade witnessed efforts to prevent Rab Butler – variously chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, foreign secretary, party chairman and deputy prime minister, but also a ‘man of Munich’, i.e. an appeaser, and, possibly worse, a non-Etonian intellectual – succeeding to the Tory leadership. In early 1957 Harold Macmillan grabbed the premiership from Butler, who had acted as caretaker while Eden, his nerves shattered by the Suez humiliation, convalesced in Jamaica. The diffident and humane Butler felt unable to assassinate the characters of his rivals or to seize the purple for himself, and, after Macmillan’s prostate troubles in late 1963, it went instead to another ‘man of Munich’, Alec Douglas-Home, the 14th Earl of Home, who didn’t even sit in the House of Commons, but was, reassuringly, an Old Etonian and supremely unintellectual.

If Butler lacked the ruthlessness required for personal advancement, his progressive allies in the party would have to act his part for him. Iain Macleod not only refused to serve in Home’s cabinet, but produced a devastating review of Randolph Churchill’s short book The Fight for the Tory Leadership (1964), which had whitewashed the machinations of Macmillan and others to prevent Butler’s succession. Macleod blamed a ‘magic circle’ of tribal elders in the higher echelons of the Tory Party for preventing the natural succession of the heir apparent. At this point formal procedures were introduced, and Douglas-Home allowed Humphry Berkeley – an idiosyncratic Conservative MP at the start of an odyssey which would take him, after he lost his seat in 1966, to Labour, the SDP and finally back to Labour – to devise a set of complicated rules for formal election to the Tory leadership.

Berkeley’s regulations did not extinguish the party’s deadly rites, however. Although his authority as leader had been weakened by three general election defeats out of four attempts, Ted Heath, party leader from 1965 to 1975, was still able to count on the loyalty of his most likely successor, Willie Whitelaw. While Whitelaw waited, Margaret Thatcher struck, and had built up considerable momentum by the time Whitelaw could bring himself to act. However, the successful assassin was herself to be toppled in the autumn of 1990 in a moment of group frenzy so bizarre that even Tory commentators felt the need for some quasi-anthropological explanation. Matthew Parris related the fall of Thatcher as a ‘tribal folk-mystery’, a variant of those described by Frazer: ‘The tribe mourned her departure. Not falsely or without feeling, they wept. Then, last night, the final twist occurred. The tribe fell upon her assailant, Michael Heseltine, and slew him, too.’

But the mere exclusion of Heseltine from the leadership seemed insufficient atonement for the unnatural enormity of matricide. Within the Tory tribe there was to be no healing, no reconciliation, no closure. This was a very different outcome from the slick changing of the priesthood at Nemi, though the outer reaches of early anthropology, where Freud had once dabbled, remained oddly suggestive. In trying to assuage an unassuageable guilt, were the Tories destined never to escape the matricidal trauma? An influential chorus of unreconstructed Tory journalists fingered John Major for ‘the ultimate crime of not being Margaret Thatcher’, and he became, in the words of the late Hugo Young, ‘a permanently contingent leader’. But he was not alone. Since Major no post-Thatcher Tory has been wholeheartedly accepted throughout the party as the legitimate leader of Conservatism.

The rejection of Thatcher by her purported followers marks a curious turning point in the fortunes of the Conservative Party. Up to this point the Tories were remarkable for their defiance of the laws of electoral gravity. Surely, it was assumed, the coming of mass democracy must mean the inevitable defeat of the haves by the more numerous have-nots? Twice this seemed to happen: with the progressive Liberal landslide of 1906, then with Attlee’s overwhelming victory in 1945. The achievement of the Conservative Party was, first of all, to survive, unlike the Liberals, as a competitive alternative to an emergent Labour movement, and then to do whatever was required to win elections and to flourish – against the expected run of play – for much of the 20th century as the dominant party of government. Yet after 1990 the Conservatives appeared to have a death wish, the compulsion to do the assumed bidding of their deposed earth mother easily outweighing, for at least a substantial element of the parliamentary party and for many of the rank-and-file in the constituency associations, the sentiments of the floating voter. An obsession with the European Union – a matter, to be fair, of genuine principle as well as spectral trauma – was the most obvious manifestation of this compulsion to honour a supposed Thatcherite tradition; but there were other ventures into raucous, saloon-bar extremism. Thatcher, after 1990 a political has-been without the need to court voters, encouraged the notion that her followers were doing what she herself would have done had she not been forced from the leadership.

However, this was to rewrite history. Although Thatcher had indeed been a highly controversial conviction politician who alienated large swathes of the electorate, she had – until the latter days of her leadership – usually managed to combine robust views with canniness and a willingness to embrace compromise when prudence dictated. Ironically, as it would turn out, her earliest campaigns had targeted Labour’s lengthening dole queues, and her invocation of St Francis on her entry to Downing Street was intended to signal emollience. This cautious approach extended beyond public relations to matters of substance. Indeed, the Labour chancellor Denis Healey described the quest to identify policy in Thatcher’s first election manifesto as like ‘looking for a black cat in a dark coal cellar’.

Not only did Thatcher become more narrowly ideological, but this intransigence constituted her bequest to the Tory Party. Perhaps the most attractive feature of pre-Thatcher Conservatism was its credible claim – however deceptive at bottom – to be non-ideological. In The Case for Conservatism (1947) Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, had contended that whereas socialism was an all-encompassing philosophy of change, Conservatism was a disposition of relative contentment, and one, moreover, that accorded a very circumscribed place to politics in the range of human activities. Conservatives, Hailsham argued, ‘do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life … The simplest among them prefer fox-hunting – the wisest, religion.’ Indeed, the difference between unideological, easygoing conservatives and the desire for ‘restless and reckless change’ was ‘as old as the Garden of Eden’, with Adam providing a model of conservative equanimity by contrast with a proto-socialist Eve, ‘over-eager for novelty and liable to be led away by seductive and dangerous slogans such as “Eat more Fruit” or “Free Fig Leaves for All”’.

Among the congeries of tribes which made up the Conservative Party of the 1950s none was more unideological than the Young Conservatives, described so poignantly by the organisation’s elegist, the anti-Thatcherite Tory ‘wet’ Julian Critchley, in his charming memoir A Bag of Boiled Sweets. The life of a Young Conservative was an endless whirl of Saturday night dances, whist drives and tennis parties. The only essential requirement for a member, it seems, was a lack of interest in politics. Not that the Young Conservatives were aimless sybarites. To the Tory journalist Frank Johnson they were just as zealous in their own way as Maoists – ‘a ruthless organisation dedicated to one fanatical aim: marriage’.

Tim Bale’s latest book, The Conservatives since 1945, examines the motors of change within the party at every level from the high politics of leadership and factional dominance to the minutiae of party organisation, such as attempts to boost the membership of the Young Conservatives or wastefully expensive plans in the 1980s to substitute a ‘freer-flowing’ Torch of Freedom for the existing and all too similar Conservative logo, which the party chairman derided as ‘a small squashed ice-cream cone’. The book is rich in surprises, some of which remind us – despite the primary institutional thrust of Bale’s argument – that agile and reflective politicians can be as adaptable as their parties. Who do we find at the Conservative Party Conference at Llandudno in 1949 questioning the rationale of the new welfare state and raising the inevitability of future benefit cuts? None other than the most drippingly ‘wet’ of the dissidents in Thatcher’s first cabinet, Norman St John-Stevas. And which Tory journalist then working at the Conservative Research Department issued a warning in the aftermath of the 1964 defeat that the party was seen to represent ‘what might be termed the capital gains classes’? Why, Nigel Lawson, who twenty years later seemed pretty much at ease with loadsamoney, capital gains conservatism when at the helm of the exchequer. Lawson, it transpires, was something of a slow developer as a Thatcherite, and as late as 1974 favoured an electoral pact with the Liberals.

Today’s coalition might seem unfamiliar to an electorate used to one-party governments and unconvincingly dishonest after the various Lib-Lab flirtations of recent decades, but the relationship between the Conservative and Liberal traditions has been long and involved. The 20th-century Conservative Party was a fusion of Tories and Liberal Unionists, who had left the Liberals over Irish Home Rule; and the Conservatives – significantly not always known as such – owed something of their success, not least on Britain’s radical fringes, to Liberal Unionist populism. Bale notes too that the postwar Conservatives effectively absorbed the remaining National Liberals by way of the Woolton-Teviot agreement of 1947. At this stage the economic visions of the Conservatives and Liberals were decidedly muddy. Which body more clearly articulated the lessons of laissez-faire? Harold Macmillan complained of an excessive emphasis on free enterprise in an early iteration of the Conservative pamphlet The Right Road for Britain (1949). It was, Macmillan bemoaned, ‘far too Manchester School’. Yet the published pamphlet was tepidly accommodationist, making it clear that the Conservatives would not dismantle Attlee’s welfare state. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, had its Unservile State Group, which pioneered anti-collectivist policies in the classical Liberal tradition. When the market-based think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs was set up in the mid-1950s, its co-directors were a Conservative, Ralph Harris, and a Liberal, Arthur Seldon, who preached their gospel to both parties, indeed to anybody who would listen. The Orange Book liberalism of Clegg and Laws, which came as such a surprise to so many Liberal Democrat voters, but not until after they had cast their ballots at the general election of 2010, was no aberration, but a continuous – though more recently submerged – element in the Liberal tradition alongside a more interventionist social liberalism. As late as the 1980s the Liberals’ former leader Jo Grimond expressed disquiet about the easy and unthinking alignment of classical Liberalism with the alien creed of the Liberals’ allies in the Social Democratic Party. Not that such incompatibilities were confined to the Liberal-SDP Alliance. The Tories long harboured Keynesians, pragmatists, corporatists and old-fashioned paternalists in their ranks, even throughout the Thatcher years. Indeed, Thatcher herself never mistook her own grumbled prejudices for practical policy prescriptions: as Bale reminds us, ‘the middle-class welfare state was always safe in her hands.’

However, Conservatism after 1997 was different. In opposition the shrunken and defeated party became less indulgent of heterodoxy. It was strikingly obvious to outsiders that Kenneth Clarke, an experienced former cabinet minister with an instinctive and easy blokeishness, would be a formidable force as leader of the opposition. Yet the Conservative Party declined to elect him on account of his Europhile perversities. And – worse almost – had Clarke been sufficiently robust in his loyalty to Thatcher in her embattled final days in office? Or had he – as was widely believed – been prepared to tell her straight that she was finished politically? To win a general election in a first-past-the-post system, a party has to present itself as the embodiment of the nation, and to paint its opponents as a front for merely sectional interests. During the 1990s many unreconstructed Thatcherites reprised their heroine’s obsession with the enemy within: no longer the obvious targets, such as miners and other trade unionists, but now a category which stretched capaciously to encompass even Conservative ministers in John Major’s government, most obviously Europhiles and those tainted with the original sin of 1990. Tristan Garel-Jones was known to Eurosceptics as ‘the Member for Madrid Central’ and the defeat of Chris Patten, the Conservative chairman, at Bath in 1992 was greeted at an election night gathering of Thatcher loyalists as a ‘Tory gain’. The voters came to recognise a party that – for all its pronounced English nationalism – seemed ill at ease not only with the nation as it was, but also with some of the longstanding varieties of Tory belief hitherto found within the Conservative Party itself. Yet despite the scale of the Blair victory in 1997, the incorrigibly Old Believing strain in the Tory Party persisted, and seems almost ineradicable.

Bale’s previous book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, like Richard Hayton’s Reconstructing Conservatism?, attempted to explain how the party lost its way for so long, and then, eventually, found a path back into office, though not to single-party government. As late as the Tory semi-recovery of 2005, Bale notes, the party won fewer seats than Labour at its low ebb in 1983 under Michael Foot. Why, Hayton asks, did a party which had governed – either independently or in coalition – for three-quarters of the period between 1886 and 1997, prove ‘so slow to adapt, reposition itself and rebuild its support’? Why were the free-market champions of unremitting competition so unfitted themselves for the Darwinian challenges facing their party? For all their failings in the role of leader, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith did try at first to court the elusive middle ground in British politics; but the far from fanciful fear of electoral oblivion prompted a hurried succession of leaders, including Michael Howard, who was less temperamentally inclined to the politics of outreach, to resort to a core vote strategy which would prevent yet further erosion of the party’s electoral base. The props for shoring up the core vote were fears about immigration and obsessive hostility towards Europe, which only reinforced the wider electorate’s allergy to what Theresa May described, when she was party chairman, as the – perceived – ‘nasty party’. But did any leader or electoral strategist really have much room for manoeuvre? Bale is acutely sensitive to the ways in which previous choices and established institutional processes – what he terms ‘path dependency’ – narrow the range of options actually available to politicians.

The Tories briefly lost the ‘nasty party’ tag during Cameron’s flirtation with progressive opinion, on environmentalism, for example, and on the need to take a less judgmental approach to the victims of social dysfunction and family breakdown. But once in office, Cameron’s Tories reverted to Thatcherite political economy; in practice, it transpired, the Big Society meant little more than the small state. Hoodies, unlike right-wing media moguls and their lieutenants, remain unhugged. The problems of delinquent youth, quite reasonably, provoke a mixture of policy responses, and the primary tasks of any government must include the maintenance of public order. But why behave so harshly towards those struggling with illness or disability? The decision to close down many of the factories of Remploy, the government-backed organisation committed to the employment of disabled people, looked particularly crass at a time of rising unemployment. By the same token, the pressure seemingly put on Atos Healthcare by the Department for Work and Pensions to force the sick and, in some cases, the dying, off benefits and back into work, seems far removed from the slogans of compassionate Conservatism. Some of the government’s ostensibly cheeseparing schemes are as likely to wreck the public finances as to stabilise them. Curiously, the aspect of free market economics that Conservatives – even supposedly bright ones like David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts – stubbornly fail to absorb is that unintended consequences apply just as much to market-oriented panaceas as to statist policies. Cameron’s political achievement may have been to decontaminate and then quickly recontaminate the Tory brand.

But – to borrow Bale’s idiom of path dependency – were there paths not taken? Why did the cynical and reactionary side of Conservatism triumph over its better nature? Although Nye Bevan described the Tories as ‘lower than vermin’, a view almost certainly shared – though not in the same words – by some LRB readers, we cannot, however exasperated we might feel at times, demonise the 30 to 40 per cent of the electorate who vote Tory. The legitimacy of democratic politics requires the alternation of parties in government and the presentation of distinct options to voters at elections, but also a consensual recognition of good will, however misguided, on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet since the ascent of Thatcher a sizeable proportion of the electorate has acquired a visceral dislike of the ‘nasty party’ which goes well beyond a reluctance to vote for it. Why have the Tories since the 1980s been unable to present themselves (even opportunistically) as champions of both prosperity and generosity? In 2009 Cameron’s Tories left the European People’s Party, the right of centre Christian Democrat grouping, in the European Parliament. This was a ploy to appease the Tories’ Eurosceptic wing, but it also symbolised a path not taken. Why did the Tories – with their historic commitments to the Church of England – never become a British variant of moderate Continental Christian Democracy? Chris Patten, most obviously, seemed more comfortable with Christian Democracy than with Thatcherite Conservatism. Why – indeed – did the Conservatives never become a party of ‘conservation’, a right of centre party, to be sure, but with a greenish, communitarian tinge?

The possibility was there. William Waldegrave’s The Binding of Leviathan (1978) is one of the neglected classics of Conservative political thought. Waldegrave later served as a minister in both the Thatcher and Major governments, but in the 1970s he recognised – as humanity as a whole will soon enough – the limits to growth and a future of scarcity. While Waldegrave defended private property, ‘as the best source of independent strength against the over-expansion of the state, and the surest source of stability in a community’, he opted for co-operation over competition, and argued that ‘financial gain is the sole motivator of few in a sound society.’ Conservatives, he argued, should evaluate policy by a far from Thatcherite criterion: ‘Does this policy tend to advance the chance of the citizen to live, work and play in the kind of communities which are necessary to civilised life?’ Unlike proponents of the turbo-capitalist perversion of Conservatism, Waldegrave displayed an acute psychological understanding of the basic loyalties necessary for social cohesion. Whereas ‘comprehensible community’ requires predictability, stability and familiar landmarks, disorientating change – variously, by way of insensitive government reform, such as the abolition of historic county boundaries, or rapid inflation or ‘soulless strip developments’ – undermines social bonds.

Waldegrave wasn’t alone in his attractive prescription for what Conservatism might be. In 1985 the Centre for Policy Studies, a Tory think tank, published Andrew Sullivan’s pamphlet Greening the Tories. Sullivan contended that environmentalism – ‘our national “green” sensibility’ – was hardwired into English culture, and especially into the Conservative tradition. The environment was – or should be – the Conservative Party’s ‘natural territory’. He also rebutted the charge that conservation is inimical to economic growth; quite the reverse, Sullivan claimed, for ‘jobs come to pleasant surroundings’ – places like York, Cambridge, Chester and Edinburgh. Environmental conservation was a way of attracting customers and inward investors, and the ‘prerequisite for securely based advance’.

These sentiments now seem almost utopian, certainly very remote from the Darth Vader Conservatism of Thatcherite economics, Little English bigotries and empathy-free scapegoating of the underclass. The taffeta dresses and the whist drives might never come back into vogue, but an opening remains for a less ideological Conservatism of the sort that the apolitical Young Conservatives once represented. Yet, however deserved the Conservatives’ reputation for adaptability, it still seems hard to envisage the party striking out in such adventurous directions until the passing of generations expunges the dark stain of matricide.