Monday 10 October 2005

The Strange Death of Tory England

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Let an experienced journalist loose on a juicy topic and we’re bound to have fireworks. Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a seasoned all-round observer, and the Tory party’s current decline is a hot topic. Yet this book doesn’t fully live up to our expectations. It sparkles, but only intermittently. We have to ask of it the question the author asks of the Tories - what went wrong?

Wheatcroft puts us straightaway into the Conservative leadership contest of 1963, between the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home and moderniser Iain Macleod, which followed the resignation of Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister (Sir Alec won). He sees this contest as a clash between supporters of ‘the virtues of an hereditary governing class’ on the one hand and those who championed the idea of ‘worth proved by ability rather than rank or connection’ on the other. He then gives a brief history of the Tory party from the Restoration until 1963, showing how it had developed through three centuries and two world wars until that year. Next, he leads us through the Wilson and Heath years, the various economic crises that plagued Britain through the 1970s, the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the election of the Conservatives to power in 1979 under her leadership. So far, so familiar. But after the early, heady years, the party starts to fall apart. Why?

When discussing the reasons for the Conservative’s fall from office. Wheatcroft raises the usual ones given by virtually all commentators; Conservative internal differences on Europe, sleaze, and a desire for change within the electorate after the party’s reign of 18 years.

But are these reasons really good enough? Voters who felt passionately for or against Europe may have voted according to their views on this issue. But the other two seem unlikely. Sleaze is liked by politicians and electors alike (it makes the former seem more human, and the latter feel less guilty about their own shortcomings where honesty - especially in financial and sexual matters - is concerned). And few voters change governments for the sake of it: unless a government screws-up big-time, most people prefer to stick with the devil they know.

Wheatcroft comes close to another, more likely reason when he notes that, under Thatcher, rising house prices became a dangerous motor of inflation. But, like a careless prospector, he lets this nugget fall from his grasp. He doesn’t stop to think that this inflationary rise symbolised something that made the Tories unpopular because voters expect politicians to provide - or, at least, not to inhibit - quality of life for the electorate.

In 1979, electors arguably ousted Labour not only because of its economic mismanagement but also because it could not control trade union militancy which brought in its wake winters of discontent, set-piece set-tos with the police and a general feeling of social dislocation. In 1997, electors arguably voted to remove the Tories because they felt that Conservative policies had resulted in hospital queues, privatised public services which didn’t work, and a long-hours work culture where you had to run even harder to keep on the spot and pay the bills. The electors wanted ease and security, not the brave new worlds of Scargill-style socialism or gung-ho monetarism. Indeed, Wheatcroft unconsciously makes this point when he suggests that, given the state of the Tories, John Smith - had he lived - could have taken the Labour party to victory in 1997.

What else did for the Tories? Wheatcroft comments on Tony Blair’s ‘brilliant cynical sincerity’, manifested at the time of the Diana sobfest. But he doesn’t seem to grasp what a major selling point this was for New Labour among sensitive voters who wanted the usufructs of monetarism without the guilt and stain of having Too Much Money. Blair, the Sir Galahad of Upper Street, made the right noises about issues that mattered to tender consciences (‘education education education’, crime and the causes of crime, social inclusion) without making undue demands on their owners’ pockets. Blair’s great skill was to coat monetarism’s bitter pill with a rich mixture of easy speeches and political correctness.

On a deeper level, lack of ideology also did the Tories no good. Wheatcroft quotes Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott as saying that English Toryism is ‘not a creed or a doctrine but a disposition’. But Wheatcroft could have made the point that Tories arguably over-relied on institutions like the Church of England, the universities and the law to promote this disposition. The time for this reliance was steadily going, if not gone altogether. Some institutions might have taken deference for granted and so lost the vital sense of purpose that would have come from constantly propagating their doctrines. And over the years, the Left - in various guises - had made its Long March through the institutions, and they could no longer be relied upon to support traditional teachings or serve traditional ends. Indeed, he comments on Thatcher’s disdain for such one-time venerable bodies, but should have raised the question about whether she disliked them per se or because they seemed to have lost touch with their core beliefs.

But all is not lost with Wheatcroft’s book. There is food for thought there that not all will find palatable. Today’s Tory party seems a colourless, rudderless crew, a sorry affair of opportunist modernisers (folks who live in Notting Hill but whose spiritual home is Islington), traditionalists, fearful fence-sitters and don’t knows. Wheatcroft suggests that Tories could learn from the moderate ‘Lion and Unicorn’ conservatism of Orwell, and he’s probably right. He provides a clear, concise history of the birth and development of the American Neocons. He points out that - unlike European countries - Britain currently seems to lack a mainstream right-wing party that puts the national interest first: instead, as with New Labour, the Tories make it subservient to that of the United States. And - by reminding us that Enoch Powell voted against capital punishment - he makes us wonder where the Tory mavericks (who might put some life and soul into the party) have gone. But he could have thought more outside the box about the Tory decline. Rather as the Tories themselves will have to do if they are to reverse their present ill-fortune and provide a credible, much-needed opposition to the present government. Still, the book makes us think, even if in ways not originally envisaged by its author.

Battle of Ideas
Shaping the future through debate
London, 29-30 October 2005


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