Rulers of a nation in decline

The Tories - An Appetite for Power
November 27, 1998

Vernon Bogdanor considers the paradoxical power of Toryism.

We are all socialists now," Sir William Harcourt, the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer declared in 1894. "We are all Conservatives now," Gordon Brown might, with equal justice, have said in 1998 - or perhaps even: "We are all Thatcherites now." In Britain, as on the Continent and in the United States, parties of the left seem to have been able to win power only after accepting the main nostrums of their opponents. In 20th-century Britain at least, it is Conservatives who have made the weather. It is for this reason that the 20th century has proved, in the title of a recent symposium, "The Conservative Century".

But there is a puzzle. For the central aim of Conservatives has been to maintain British power. When, in October 1940, Winston Churchill succeeded Chamberlain as Conservative leader, he asked himself: "Am I by temperament and conviction able sincerely to identify myself with the main historical conceptions of Toryism?" and he answered that he could because "at all times, I have faithfully served two public causes which I think stand supreme: the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain and her Empire and the historical continuity of her Island life." Conservatives have been more successful perhaps in serving the second cause than the first. For their hegemony has coincided with the liquidation of the empire and the end of Britain's role as a great power, as well as the collapse of Britain's economic strength.

Conservatism, Bagehot held, was a doctrine for "happy states" since "if you are always altering your house, it is a sign that you have a bad house - there is something wrong somewhere". Men are Conservatives, Emerson declared, "when they are most luxurious. They are Conservatives after dinner". For much of the 20th century, however, Britain has seemed a distinctly non-luxurious, indeed an unhappy nation; a nation, as Lord Hailsham put it in the 1960s, that has lost its way.

Conservatives and their allies, from Joseph Chamberlain to Margaret Thatcher, have been deeply affected by Britain's decline and have struggled to combat it. The British people, however, have listened politely to Tory sermons only to continue with their old ways. Perhaps decline was inevitable; or perhaps indeed it is the very "historical continuity of her Island life" that has been the main factor in undermining "the enduring greatness of Britain and her empire".

Both John Ramsden and Alan Clark take as their central theme this paradox of electoral success and national decline; and both find the explanation in the precedence Conservatives have given to the needs of the party over those of the nation. "The one thing on which the Salvation of the State depends," declared Sir James Graham in 1838, "is to keep the Party together." Those Conservatives who have put party first - Disraeli, Salisbury, Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan - have prospered. Graham did not put party first, for he became a Peelite in 1846. Those with wider perspectives - Peel, for example, and Edward Heath - found themselves repudiated by their party. Peel indeed confessed himself in "want of many essential qualifications which are requisite in party leaders; among the rest, personal gratification in the game of politics and patience to listen to the sentiments of individuals who it is equally imprudent to neglect and an intolerable bore to consult". Heath, Ian Gilmour has said, had a "fatal tendency - fatal for him - to act as a national statesman, subordinating the interests of his party to those of the country". When they chose Baldwin over Curzon in 1923, the Conservatives, Clark believes, displayed an "instinctive preference for their own cohesion over the political uncertainties attendant on a wider grasp of the national interest".

The requirements of party unity and party management, both Ramsden and Clark believe, made Conservatives forget the hard-headed realities of power. Instead, Conservative governments devoted themselves to the orderly management of decline. Livingston Merchant, a senior State Department official in the 1950s, noticed in Anthony Eden, "an underlying characteristic which I detected in every British statesman with whom I've had any dealings, with the sole exception of Winston Churchill. He (Eden) had that almost inbred, instinctive effort, in any conflict, in any collision, great or small, to find a compromise solution. The British, ever since that power quite patently was on the decline, from the battle of the Somme on, I suppose, have had the realisation that their role was not that of a determiner, not a dictator of events but a negotiator, a compromiser, a mediator".

Ramsden and Clark agree also that the Conservatives' appetite for power will ensure that 1997 does not mark the final demise of the party. Indeed, Ramsden believes that the defeat of 1997 was no different in kind from those of 1906 and 1945. The Conservatives need a 7 per cent swing to return to power, but that is just 2 per cent more than they achieved in 1970 and 1979, and smaller than the swing to Labour in 1997 after an election defeat that had led many commentators to suggest that the party would never win an election again.

Admittedly, and by contrast with 1906 and 1945, the left won in 1997, not because voters sought new policies, but because they sought a new team to continue with the old ones. 1997 constituted an endorsement of Conservative policies but a repudiation of Conservative leaders. How, then, can the Conservatives oppose a supposedly centre-left government pursuing policies of which, with the exception of constitutional reform, they largely approve? The last time the party faced this dilemma was during the age of Palmerston. To regain power, it had to wait for Palmerston's death. Palmerston, however, was 74 at the beginning of his final ministry, while Tony Blair was just 44 at the beginning of his first. The Conservatives, therefore, may have a long wait ahead, unless they can appeal to that factor highlighted by Clark: "Intervention by those very household gods of the Conservative Party that so often, so unpredictably, and, most usually at times of crisis, so undeservedly attended on its fortunes."

Although Ramsden and Clark agree on their diagnosis, their books could not be more different. Ramsden is a professional historian, well-known as a chronicler of the Conservatives, and he has written the three 20th-century volumes in the Longman history of the party. This one-volume account is, however, a disappointment. Ramsden claims that it is "the fruit of nearly 30 years of research", but there is not much sign of it here. Indeed, An Appetite for Power could have been written at any time in the past 50 years and probably has been. It is a pedestrian work that adds hardly anything new to what is already available in, for example, the work of Robert Blake, and it does not succeed in giving the breath of life to the dry bones of party history.

Clark is a publicist not a historian. By contrast with Ramsden, he chooses to dispense with analysis entirely. His book is more enjoyable to read than Ramsden's, but also more misleading. Clark's approach to history is that of the political intriguer who sees conspiracy at every street corner. He is the Nigel Dempster of modern historiography, and much of The Tories reads like clubland gossip that has somehow found its way into hard covers. Unfortunately, much of the gossip is inaccurate as Edward Heath has pointed out in a recent letter to The Times. Clark's book will annoy more than it will enlighten. Perhaps that was his intention.

The Tories is an episodic work, although many of the episodes - the Dakar expedition, the decision to aid Greece and the collapse in Singapore - seem to have little to do with the history of the Conservative Party. Indeed, the book seems to be constructed on the bran-tub principle. Macmillan's conversion to planning in the 1960s and the various Conservative reorganisations of local government in the 1970s and 1980s are not mentioned at all, while the Hoare-Laval pact rates just one paragraph.

Like John Charmley and other revisionists, Clark thinks that Britain made a grievous mistake in not grasping at Hess's peace offer in 1941, for that would have enabled her to avoid falling into the American orbit. Better, he thinks, to have become a Nazi satellite, dependent on Hitler's goodwill, a commodity in notoriously short supply, than an ally of the United States.

Both of these books are staggeringly old-fashioned in their almost exclusive concentration on high politics. Namier might never have existed for all the attention that Ramsden and Clark pay to his methods. Indeed, neither of them tell us who voted for the Conservatives and why. Ramsden ignores the researches of John Vincent who, over 30 years ago, put a bomb under class explanations of electoral behaviour in the 19th century, showing, for example, that the proportion of Tories was higher among labourers than among gentlemen, and that, while butchers tended to vote Tory, grocers were mainly Liberals.

Nor do Ramsden and Clark pay much attention to the findings of modern psephology or the research that it has spawned on the history of 20th-century electoral behaviour. Much of this research has emphasised the importance of regional and cultural differences in voting behaviour, and also the role of women. Indeed, had women not been given the vote in 1918 and 1928, the Conservatives would have been in power far less frequently than they have been. Yet the inquirer seeking to understand the electoral basis of Tory strength will not find much help in either of these books.

An Appetite for Power is a solid work, but without sparkle and unduly reliant on published sources. The Tories is entertainingly written and might help while away a free evening. But it has no value as a work ofhistory.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-97

Author - Alan Clark
ISBN - 0 297 81849 X
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 480

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