Thin gruel of cliche will never win votes

March 12, 2004

In refashioning the Tory Party, Michael Howard should look to its most durable leader - the 14th earl of Derby, argues John Charmley.

The recent statement by Conservative leader Michael Howard of his credo puts one in mind of Winston Churchill's comment on one of Anthony Eden's speeches -"it contains every cliche in the English language except 'God is love' and 'kindly adjust your dress before leaving'".

By its nature, Conservatism prefers to adopt a sceptical tone towards the utopian visions of the left rather than to articulate its own, but the thin gruel of Howard's offering, coupled with this week's speech touting a return to Thatcherite principles on taxation, suggests that much work is still to be done in terms of articulating a philosophy fit for the 21st century.

The Conservative Party famously exists to exercise power, and so successful has the party been in pursuit of it that it has little experience of prolonged periods in opposition. With the exception of Austen Chamberlain, all its leaders before William Hague became prime minister. Now, with Howard bidding to be the third leader in a row to fail to reach No 10, perhaps an examination of the career of the party's most durable leader might yield some clues to the clueless.

Although few historians, let alone MPs, could give his name without considerable thought, Edward Geoffrey Stanley, 14th earl of Derby (1799-1869), led the Conservatives for more than 20 years and was the first Englishman in modern times to be prime minister three times. Next week, the University of East Anglia's School of History and the Conservative History Group are hosting a conference at the ancestral home of the earls of Derby, Knowsley Hall, which will shed light on the careers of the 14th earl and his son, Edward Henry (1823-1896), the 15th earl, who was twice Conservative foreign secretary (1866-1868, 1874-1878) before joining the Liberals in 1882. Between them, it will be argued, the Derbys represent a style of Conservatism that has been neglected in favour of paths leading to the apotheosis represented by Margaret Thatcher.

The 15th earl of Derby ended up as a Liberal Unionist, while his father began life as a Whig. So, there should be nothing surprising about the conclusion that their contribution to the Conservative Party was a liberal one - were it not for the fact that it has been overlooked entirely. Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli are usually cited as suitable ancestors for liberal conservatism, but the two earls of Derby have an equal claim.

The 14th earl of Derby holds the unique position of having been involved in both the great reform bills of the 19th century: he was a member of Earl Grey's administration in 1832 when the Great Reform Act was passed, and he presided over the Cabinet that passed the Reform Act of 1867. Stanley put forward his "Knowsley Creed" in an 1834 speech. It was, he asserted, impossible, whoever was head of state, to check the spirit of improvement, of inquiry and investigation that dominated the age: "The machine must move forward for good or evil - for it cannot be stopped; like the fire it may purify, if properly kindled by a skilful hand, but if it should be impetuously and recklessly accelerated, destruction and overwhelming wreck must be the inevitable consequences."

His intention was to establish himself as a rallying point for centrist opinion that found no home in either the radicalism of John Russell's liberalism or the reactionary Toryism of the duke of Wellington, but Stanley found it was more resilient than he had thought: the reassuringly conservative William Melbourne as Whig leader and the liberal Peel as Tory leader made the centre ground a crowded place in 1834. Peel, whom Stanley joined in 1837, tried to force the party too quickly down the path both had delineated, and Derby (as Stanley became in 1851) tried to pick up the pieces broken by Peel. His final triumph was to make the party fit once more for government by re-establishing its reform credentials in 1867.

Although most of the credit for this is usually given to Disraeli, he was the tactician, not the strategist.

The 15th earl's claims on our attention stem from not only his progressive liberal views on educational reform and social policy, but from his delineation of a conservative viewpoint on foreign affairs, which stood out against Disraeli's aggressive jingoism. Derby resisted Disraeli's attempts to drag Britain into a confrontation with the Russians over the eastern crisis in 1877 and 1878, arguing that his leader was being overinfluenced by considerations of prestige and electoral advantage; he resigned in March 1878 rather than be party to the acquisition of Cyprus. Conservatism had, he argued, traditionally stood out against the flashy bluff of Viscount Palmerston and the naive moralism of William Gladstone; empire and imperialism were, he feared, snares from which nothing good would come.

Britain should work with the Concert of Europe to solve diplomatic disputes rather than try to win short-term triumphs at the expense of others.

Disraeli "believes thoroughly in prestige - as all foreigners do, and would think it... in the interests of the country to spend 200 millions on a war if the result of it was to make foreign states think more highly of us as a military power"; these ideas were, he told Lord Salisbury, "intelligible, but they are not mine nor yours". They may have become the predominant strain in modern Toryism, but the Derbyite variation never quite vanished.

The Derbys belonged to a tradition of aristocratic reform that acknowledged its social responsibilities. Their management of their Lancashire estates was a microcosm of how they thought those born to privilege ought to justify their position. They also eschewed the rabble-rousing inherent in a jingoistic foreign policy. Foreign affairs, like domestic ones, required pragmatism linked to a sense of the national good that was not defined in terms of short-term considerations of prestige. This is something Thatcherite Tories may prefer to forget, but which Howard might well ponder as he attempts to refashion the Conservatives.

John Charmley is professor of modern history and dean of the School of History at the University of East Anglia. "The View from Knowsley" conference will be held on March 19-20; www.viewfromknowsley.com

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