The election machine

How Tory Governments Fall - A History of Conservative Politics 1900-1996
February 28, 1997

There is something to be said, though not very much, for losing an election rather than winning it. One parliamentarian who has managed to spot the benefits in the past is Tony Benn, the indefatigable political diarist, whose entry for the day in 1979 when Labour lost office included the following: "This is probably the beginning of the most creative period of my life. I am one of the few ex-ministers who enjoys opposition and I intend to take full advantage of it."

Mr Benn may, by now, have had his fill of that particular kind of enjoyment, since the Labour party has not managed to this day to secure a return to power. Yet one can see what he might have had in mind. If a government has been in office for a long time, a breathing space may be needed. A spell on the opposition benches, though frustrating and sometimes humiliating, does provide an opportunity not only to lick the wounds but to rake over the cinders for clues to the causes of defeat. Some good may come from this. Freed from the constant need to toe the party line and defend government policies at all costs, even if they have clearly failed, there is a chance that some worthwhile, original ideas will seep to the surface. This will strengthen the hand of the more creative, less hidebound minds in the party, waiting for a chance to show their mettle. A new manifesto of genuine substance may be the result. The emergence of a reinvigorated Conservative party in the mid-1950s, for example, owed much to the trouncing that Clement Attlee and his colleagues gave the complacent Tory hierarchy in the 1945 general election.

Such persuasive reflections will not cut much ice with most MPs, however. As two interesting new books remind us, what matters in politics is power. Lose that and, however fine your principles and inspired your policies, you are condemned to seeing your opponents at the helm for the life of a parliament, or even, as Benn has discovered, a succession of parliaments. Victory is what most of the professionals at Westminster want, delivered as swiftly as possible and by as big a majority as the electorate can be persuaded to provide.

No party has a keener appetite for power than the Tories, or a greater dislike of being voted out of office prematurely (by which they mean at any time). Supported by what one distinguished commentator recently described as "the most formidable election-fighting machine in Europe", they have more often than not managed to get what they wanted. (Mind you, the veneration of Conservative Central Office can be overdone. When I worked there for a spell, I used to see little groups of people gazing at the building, no doubt trying to imagine what arcane political rites were taking place inside. Had they crossed the threshold with me, they would have discovered that, like the Wizard of Oz, the reality is far less fearsome than the popular belief. The best plotting is done elsewhere, in more congenial surroundings.)

With another general election looming, this is a timely moment for Anthony Seldon to mark the tenth year of the Institute of Contemporary British History, of which he is the founding director, by joining some of his fellow historians in taking stock of the Tories' past performance in office and at the polls and comparing it with current prospects. The virtue of topicality also applies to the other book under review, in which John Charmley, senior lecturer in English history at the University of East Anglia, puts 20th-century Conservatism under the microscope, or at least under a workmanlike magnifying glass.

How Tory Governments Fall, a collection of essays edited by Seldon, will probably serve as an eye-catching title on the booksellers' shelves, not least because the opinion polls are looking singularly ominous for the Conservatives just now. But on the basis of its contents, the book could no less aptly have been called "How Tory Governments Survive"; for in exploring the party's failings, its strengths also become apparent, One of the latter, generally acknowledged, is the ability to pick itself up from the canvas after a seemingly knockout blow and get back in action. Resilience is a valuable attribute. It was Harold Macmillan who, at a time when he was being given a particularly rough ride in the press, advised newspaper editors that as well as having the headline "Mac at bay" permanently set in type, they should also have available for instant follow-up: "Mac bounces back". To some extent that spirit infuses the Conservative party as a whole.

Both Seldon and Charmley make much not only of the Tories' addiction to power, but of their ability to adjust attitudes and actions to the prevailing political winds. (This is called trimming when indulged in by your opponents, but pragmatism when you practise it yourself.) "Adaptability, not ideology, is the defining characteristic of the Tory Party," writes Seldon, observing that in opposition it has "usually avoided recrimination, but quickly settled down purposefully to plotting strategy to regain office..." A matching sentiment comes from Charmley, who says that "in pursuit of its mission to stay in power, the Conservative party is the most resilient and adaptable of institutions".

Linking a specific year to the origins of the Conservative party is a hazardous undertaking (and nothing short of carbon-dating will satisfy everyone), and the author's choice of starting point for his survey, 1783, makes sense. For purposes of the research, he divided the subsequent years into ten periods of "Tory dominance" and assigned a team of fellow historians to report on these, one apiece. This admirably neat arrangement in due course produced ten essays assessing Tory performance over the years, which, together with Seldon's own introduction and conclusions, make up the contents of the book. The political cast list involved is of awesome distinction, ranging from William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel and Lord Liverpool (who gets the best character references) to Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and, in the closing chapter (which for the moment remains a cliff-hanger), John Major.

To judge from the findings in the essays, the party has encountered, off and on over the past two centuries, the same sort of criticisms with which it has to contend today: weak leadership (even the Duke of Wellington does not entirely escape on this score); poor economic management; unclear policy-making; defective presentation; internal disunity; media hostility; and a general lack of charisma. Plus ca change...

Although both books cover much the same subject, they differ fundamentally in their approach. Those who like their history salami-sliced will be attracted to the variety as well as the quality of the collection of essays, which draw on a wider range of expertise and opinions than any one author can provide.

Those who prefer to spend more time with a single, original and engaging writer will find Charmley's book particularly rewarding. Charmley deploys a dry wit which (despite an occasional tendency to produce a jibe where he intended an aphorism) enhances the text and deflates some of the more staid or pompous characters who cross the scene. (Curzon, for example, was "incomparably the most experienced and distinguished member of the cabinet - and not only knew it, but liked to make sure that everyone else did"; Baldwin "may well have had a 'first-class character,' but he probably flattered himself by claiming that his intellect was 'second-rate"'.)

Neither book is likely to be snapped up by harassed Tory agents, bracing themselves for the coming battle, since each offers the enjoyment of history for its own sake rather than fulfilling some specific political objective. But for those sufficiently distanced from the hustings to take a longer view, these will provide a welcome relief from the daily bombardment of sound-bites.

With so much importance being attached to the timing of the forthcoming general election, it is surprising that the authors do not make more of the misguided choice of date which is widely believed to have cost one Tory leader re-election: Ted Heath. Picking February 28 1974 meant that he almost certainly went to the country three vital weeks too late. Had he seized the moment of maximum opportunity, when public opinion was still broadly on his side and sympathy with the miners had not hardened, he would almost certainly have won. Even as it was, his party still managed to win more votes than Labour and came within a whisker of getting the number of seats needed to stay in power. Douglas Hurd, at that time his political secretary, is one of those who believes the date was critical. In his book, An End to Promises, he writes: "Though it cannot be proved, I believe we would have won an election on February 7."

It is tempting to speculate what would have happened if Hurd had got the date right. Where would Margaret Thatcher be now, one wonders?

Don Harker was director of publicity, Conservative Central Office, when Edward Heath was prime minister, and a director, Granada Television, 1974-92.

How Tory Governments Fall: The Tory Party in Power since 1783

Editor - Anthony Seldon
ISBN - 0 00 686366 3
Publisher - Fontana
Price - £7.99
Pages - 510

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