The Conservatives Since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change

January 10, 2013

While the Conservatives held office between 1979 and 1997, the Labour Party monopolised scholarly attention. Since Tony Blair's first landslide victory, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way. In recent years the Conservatives have been the subject of several incisive studies by young British academics, among whom Tim Bale is deservedly prominent.

Bale's previous volume, The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron (2010), was an enlightening account, based on interviews and secondary sources, of the party's travails since 1990. In The Conservatives Since 1945 - a slight misnomer, since his inquiry ends in 1997 - Bale draws deeply on archival material. On this occasion his purpose is to use the post-war Conservative Party as a case study in order to judge the validity of theories concerning changes within political parties. In short, this is an exercise that crosses disciplinary boundaries - testing the findings of political science against rigorous historical investigation.

Recent work by political scientists suggests three main drivers of change within parties: the shock of electoral defeat, a change of leader and the replacement of one "dominant faction" by another. In Bale's view, the post-war Conservative Party presents a much more complex picture. Significant changes often followed electoral victories, and sometimes defeats made little difference. Some new leaders inspired major changes; others left things relatively undisturbed. Finally, although Bale does identify groups that could be described as "dominant factions", overall change in this period was due mainly to individuals who were actively competing against like-minded colleagues rather than consciously cooperating with them.

Those who are sceptical about the findings of political science will be unsurprised by these conclusions. Doubting that a detailed study of any significant party could ever verify a generalised model, they may even feel that an institution as successful and idiosyncratic as the Conservative Party is an unfair case study. Bale is fully aware of this objection. Judiciously characterising politics as an "interplay of ideas, interests, institutions, and individuals", he implies that cross-fertilisation between the academic disciplines of history and political science is possible but only so long as practitioners in both camps keep an open mind.

Bale's analytical framework prevents his book from being a complete history of the post-war party. Even so, his survey of the first 20 years after the crushing defeat of 1945 is remarkably comprehensive and persuasive. Sometimes he claims major revisions of previous academic verdicts when the difference of interpretation is not very significant. However, he has the unusual gift of presenting a forensic analysis in compelling prose. Invariably this quality will induce other scholars to revisit, and sometimes rethink, their previous views on key aspects of the party's history in the 1945-65 period.

Unfortunately, though, the tone of the book changes in the latter stages. In his account of Edward Heath's ill-starred premiership (1970-74), Bale recounts every significant misdeed or mishap, portraying Heath himself as an unfeeling monster. By jarring contrast, the treatment of the Thatcher governments reverts to the previous format, where developments are mentioned only when they illustrate the main themes of the study. This approach allows Bale to skate over the period in Thatcher's first term when she plumbed unprecedented depths in the opinion polls; even when recognising her political limitations, he emphasises Thatcher's warm human characteristics. In the context of Bale's self-appointed task it was essential at least to give the impression of even-handedness on a subject that makes partisans of so many writers. The failure of objectivity on this question gives rise to methodological lapses that undermine what is otherwise a very welcome contribution to Conservative historiography.

The Conservatives Since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change

By Tim Bale
Oxford University Press
384pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780199234370. Published 20 September 2012

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