If historian John Ramsden is right, Euroscepticism will return the Tories to power, writes Brian Brivati. But, as David Baker observes, Europe is also the issue that has polarised the party.
They will be back. This is the simple message from the country's pre-eminent historian of the Conservative Party, John Ramsden of Queen Mary and Westfield College. The Conservative Party's worst defeat coincides with a boom in Conservative Party history, of which Professor Ramsden is the key architect. Author of three volumes in the Longman History of the Conservative Party, a single-volume history of the party from 1830, An Appetite for Power, and a history of the Conservative research department, Ramsden puts the boom down, in part, to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. "The Thatcher period was an unusually ideological time in Conservative politics, which focused all sorts of attention on other aspects of Conservative history that people had probably underestimated," he says.
For much of the past 50 years, more and better books have been written about the Labour Party than about the Conservatives. But in the 1990s, historical writing on the Conservatives has caught up in quality, if not yet in quantity. And what this new history shows is that the Conservative Party has an unquenchable appetite for power. After other election defeats, the Conservatives have come back fast and hard.
Ramsden refuses to make direct predictions on the next election: "If you had actually predicted in October 1946 who would win the next general election, you would correctly have said Labour. But you would not have backed the Conservative Party to win 100 Labour seats." And he argues the difficulty of prediction is compounded by the contemporary electorate: "You can say many things about the 1990s, but you cannot say the British electorate has been very stable," he says. "They gave John Major the largest number of votes ever and then gave Tony Blair the biggest majority ever. Presumably, well over a third of the electorate changed their vote between those two electionsI" The new Labour government is acutely aware of this, which, Ramsden argues, helps explain Labour's obsession with presentation: "After all, they have this massive majority with 44 per cent of the vote, a majority of home owners, a majority of middle-class voters, unprecedented numbers of people who, whatever else they are, are not traditional core Labour voters. They are incredibly aware, it seems to me, that their position is a lot more vulnerable than their parliamentary arithmetic may suggest."
To an extent, the Tories will be back because Labour will make mistakes, suffer setbacks beyond their control and "events" will intercede. But to have any chance of winning next time, Ramsden is sure the Conservatives will need both a push and a pull. Herein lies one of the Tories' problems. "I honestly think that the Conservative Party at the moment doesn't hate the Labour Party enough," he says. "Why would they? Labour is doing exactly what a Conservative government would have done." The only clear red water between the two parties concerns the constitution, Ramsden says. "If Blair does put any steam behind the reform, that would be something about which the Conservative Party would really feel that they have to get back into power to preserve something that matters." This would give them a strong motivation for winning power: keeping the other side out.
There is also Europe. If this becomes the defining political issue between the two parties, Ramsden believes the anti-European case could win - "it's a gut feeling and nothing else". The Conservatives could open up an ideological space by defining themselves as being a narrow English nationalist party. The question is whether they could really win from there. But this is uncharted political territory and the natural caution of the historian hedges Ramsden's view. "You could write it and say it is not impossible," he says. Not only would a vigorous anti-Europeanism, coupled with a staunch defence of the constitution galvanise the Conservative's natural supporters, the problem of division in the party would recede.
But what happens to the pro-Europeans if the party develops in this way? Ramsden's guess is that the Conservative Party is becoming steadily more Eurosceptic anyway. Big name Europhiles will become less prominent, while the shadow cabinet will have become better known.
Beyond the single currency, at the heart of a Conservative revival, will also be an issue of English nationalism, which Ramsden takes personally. "It would be intolerable if Scotland and Wales were allowed national parliaments and England was only allowed committees for Yorkshire, Lancashire and Tyneside and whatever," he says. "There is a latent English nationalism that the Conservative Party alone can articulate."
He is "incensed" that we have a Council of the Isles in which the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles get a seat and the English get represented by Westminster. He would like to see a federal system for the country.
So the route map for Conservative recovery drawn from its history seems clear. The Tories' defining characteristic is their desire for power, often to keep others out. To save the union and ensure that England is not forgotten in the new version of the British nation state, the Conservatives will have that desire rekindled. They will learn to fear and hate Labour again. Then they will tap into the support for anti-Europeanism in order to translate their narrow English nationalism into a force strong enough to capitalise on any unpopularity that develops as events blow the new Labour government off course, perhaps not at the next election, but at the one after. The problem with all this is that proportional representation may so change the playing field that the narrowing of the Conservatives perception of the nation may not stop at nationalism. Under PR the seat of the far right in British politics is vacant and something we have so far avoided, electorally significant racism, may be the logical destination of a Conservative Party evolving in the way Ramsden predicts.
Brian Brivati is reader in history at Kingston University.
John Ramsden's An Appetite for Power: A History of the Conservative Party since 1930 is published by HarperCollins.