Adrift in the blue yonder

October 4, 2002

Huw Richards asks if the Conservatives can find a way out of the wilderness and pick up voters on campuses.

For two-thirds of the 20th century Britain was led by Conservative, or Conservative-dominated, governments. It is only a decade since serious commentators were asking whether Britain was turning into Japan as the outcome of the 1992 election, a fourth consecutive Conservative win, suggested that rightwing predominance might become institutionalised. The balance of 20th-century British politics was implicit in Mark Abrams's question "Must Labour Lose?".

In the early 21st century, the balance is best summed up by asking, "Must the Tories lose?". In seeking answers, the academic historian has the advantage of longer perspective.

John Ramsden, professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London, recently described by political historian Kenneth Morgan as "for 20 years the laureate of British conservatism, indeed its outstanding active historian", has no doubt that the balance shifted in 1992 - not with John Major's unexpected election win in April, but with the crash of the pound and his government's ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September. He says: "Conservative support dropped to about 30 per cent then, and has stayed there - more or less - ever since. There has been nothing like it before in British political history, a party staying in almost exactly the same position - with a few short-lived exceptions like an increase around the time of the petrol protests in 2000 - for ten years."

Like Labour during its long years of opposition, the Conservatives attract grim prognostications about their future. In some ways, their position is worse than Labour's was. Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University, points out: "At least Labour, however unfashionable it became, could count on Wales, Scotland and north-eastern England. The Conservatives are under serious challenge everywhere, with their middle-class vote under threat from the Liberal Democrats, new Labour and ennui."

Ramsden argues that they can draw some encouragement from the stability of their support: "You can't actually say that they are in decline, as Labour was in the early 1980s when it came close to being overtaken in popular vote by the [SDP-Liberal] Alliance. There was a big bump in 1992, and then no change. Nor has there been any real threat of their being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats. There seems to be an irreducible minimum of about 30 per cent of the British electorate who are more loyal to the Conservatives than they perhaps deserve. And you have to remember that, given the age profile of Conservative support, a lot of the people who made up that 30 per cent a decade ago will have died. But they have been replaced."

The tough bit, of course, is building on that irreducible core to get electoral support back up above 40 per cent, the level at which modern elections are won. The likeliest source of political upheaval remains that inimitably outlined by Harold MacMillan: "Events, dear boy, events."

New Labour has made the job of Conservative revival very difficult. Ramsden says: "There is little to be frightened of, certainly nothing that worries the middle classes as a whole the way that some of the actions of the Attlee government did. People feel well off, and taxes have hardly visibly gone up."

He suggests that were the more evidently radical Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair, there might be a better chance of reviving old Tory feelings. But the extent of Conservative worries is underlined by the fact that Lincoln Allison, reader in politics at Warwick University, believes that a Brown succession would have exactly the opposite effect: "Most leaders go on too long - Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle all did - and Blair could make the same mistake. If he were to hand over to Gordon Brown, the opposition's job would become even more difficult."

One outcome of Thatcherism was that the Conservatives abandoned their historic role as the brake on the wheels of history. This was in some ways immensely liberating, giving Conservative governments the confidence to do things as well as to stop them. Ramsden says: "Once the momentum had run out, it was difficult to go back. Pandora's box had been opened."

That the Tories are drifting is clear to Allison: "The Conservative Party does not have a project. You ask party members why they joined and you get eight different, and probably contradictory, reasons."

Being in opposition is a shock to a party accustomed to government, but Black argues that it can still be effective. He cites shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin as someone who can have "an impact on public debate". Other talents include Damian Green, the shadow education secretary, and David Lidington, the shadow minister for agriculture, but, Black continues:

"There are others who make no impact and should go."

Several Conservative academics see social rather than economic issues as the most likely way forward. Martin Holmes, fellow in politics at St Hugh's College, Oxford, argues: "Tories need to come to terms with the social liberalisation of the 1960s just as New Labour came to terms with the economic liberalisation of the 1980s."

Nigel Saul, a self-described rightwinger and professor of medieval history at Royal Holloway, University of London, concurs: "We have to accept the plurality of lifestyles and the multiracialism of our society. Large parts of the Conservative Party look and sound intolerant and narrow. On a large scale, we see this on issues such as race, immigration and asylum. On a local level, this is typified in a village I know where a Conservative councillor has paid to have goalposts put up on the green. It provides something for young people to do, but some of the reactions to it make me despair."

Allison echoes this sentiment: "There are too many people who think homosexuals should be bashed. We need to get the state out of people's lives, just as we did out of the economy. Enough of silly rhetoric about 'wars on drugs'. We need to find a way of linking marijuana with fox hunting."

Their views could, of course, be seen as reflecting the liberalism of academic life. But some frontbenchers seem to be thinking along the same lines.

One recent lesson of history is that major political parties are resilient beasts - commentators who wrote off the Conservatives in the wake of defeats in 1945 and 1974 were proved as wrong as those who thought Labour must go on losing forever after 1992.

Another lesson, says Black, suggests that it is not only the Conservatives who would benefit from signs of a revival: "An effective opposition helps the government. It keeps them up to the mark."

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