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.

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