The bright blues

August 4, 1995

Are the Tories, after decades of proudly sporting their moniker as 'the stupid party', becoming intellectual? Huw Richards looks at the evidence.

A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks - mostly just sits". Although originating from the United States where, outside New York, conservatives are a tendency rather than a party, that folksily pejorative description also sums up a traditional British view.

Like the Tories and Whigs of the 18th century, traditional Conservatives took an insult - the jibe that they were the "stupid party" - and turned it into a badge of identity. It was used to imply a contrast between pragmatic commonsense realism and the crazed ideologism of the intellectual left. Kingsley Amis, moving rightwards in the late 1960s, praised the Tories as "the party of non-politics, of resistance to politics".

"Conservative intellectual" was never quite the oxymoron traditional views implied. But there is little doubt that the influence of intellectuals - in particular the long-run impact of the Institute of Economic Affairs - became much greater under Margaret Thatcher. Coverage of John Redwood's leadership bid might have led the unwary to conclude that a Redwood premiership would have seen the country run by historians John Charmley and Andrew Roberts.

The intellectuals were certainly there: "It was a campaign buzzing with ideas. John Redwood is a genuine intellectual, is concerned with ideas and was determined to campaign at that level rather than on personalities," says Martin Holmes, lecturer in politics at St Hugh's College, Oxford, and co-chairman of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group.

It can be argued that this was more apparent on the inside than to the outside world, where the Redwood candidacy is most likely to be remembered for its spirited defence of the royal yacht Britannia. Holmes suggests that both his own role and that of others may have been exaggerated. "Andrew Roberts was at the campaign headquarters every day but others like myself, Cambridge historian Jonathan Clark and John Charmley were there more intermittently. My main contribution was talking to MPs about European issues over the telephone," he said.

Yet the perception of the present generation of Conservative intellectuals as people of influence as well as of ideas is aided by the talent many show for self-publicity. This is a gift both Roberts, a freelance historian, and Charmley, senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia, accentuate by their choice of Churchill as the highest-profile historical target available as well as by views that give them ready access to the right-of-centre media, in particular the Spectator.

But is anyone who really matters listening? Influence is an elusive concept. The policy adviser with a direct line to a minister and the writer of newspaper articles read by MPs or by large number of voters undoubtedly have potential influence, but in very different ways. And the fact of being read or summoned to a meeting by no means ensures anyone takes any notice - elections expert David Butler was summoned as a young man to meet Churchill on the strength of a pioneering article on voting patterns, only to discover that nobody had explained this to the great man. "He hadn't the slightest idea who I was or why I was there."

John Ramsden, lecturer in history at Queen Mary and Westfield College and author of several works on the history of the Conservative Party, sums up changing attitudes with two quotations. "When Lord Salisbury said Iain Macleod was 'too clever by half' it was intended to be wounding, and it haunted Macleod for the rest of his career. But Mrs Thatcher's description of John Redwood as 'highly intellectual' was seen as high praise."

This is, he suggests, a logical outcome of party evolution with the hereditary-MP-knight-of-the-shire with no ambitions beyond backbench service replaced by educated meritocrats. "Where the classic education for a Tory MP was Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, the expansion in higher education means that a far wider range of schools and of universities - places like St Andrew's and the London School of Economics - have contributed."

This has produced a party with a very different outlook. "The Conservative Party was concerned with damage limitation and managing national decline," argues Holmes. "The left set the agenda and arguably still did so after 1979 as the first task of Margaret Thatcher's governments was to undo the Labour legacy." This has had consequences within the Conservative ranks. Holmes says that the party's intellectuals are almost exclusively on the right. "There are almost no centre-left intellectuals. Major is certainly nobody's fool, but he is no intellectual and makes no claim to be. His concerns are those of the traditional party manager -staying in power and managing decline. You can't really debate with him because he doesn't operate in terms of ideas. By contrast Macleod and MacMillan had coherent ideologies."

Holmes's view is supported by John Barnes, lecturer in government at the LSE. "The centre isn't particularly ideological and tends to follow the leadership, while the main definer of the left is a dislike of the ideological right - rather like a mirror image of the Labour Party."

Holmes argues that the right is not homogenous. He has little sympathy with the more traditionalist, hierachical right and believes that the influence of the magazine, the Salisbury Review, is waning. He disagrees with Charmley's views on the alliance with the United States. "I am very much in favour of a close relationship with the Americans as I think we share many more values with them than we do with continental Europe." He rejects those who believe a period in opposition would be therapeutic. "Opposition means impotence, and there's no guarantee of coming back next time."

That, it might be argued, is the fate facing the intellectual right after the defeat of Redwood and the comparative marginalisation of Michael Portillo, switched from the abolished employment department to defence. Holmes sees no point in denying the defeat, but argues that a group which witheld from a sitting premier the support of a third of the parliamentary party and which has a binding theme in Euroscepticism still has a considerable future.

But for the moment ministerial ears may not be that receptive. There is a considerable history of individual academics who appeared to have access to ministries- Richard Lamb's biography of Macmillan notes his reliance on economist Roy Harrod while Barnes quotes Keith Middlemass as an important influence on Jim Prior and both Norman Stone and Roger Scruton as members of the small but significant group to whom Thatcher would listen. Barnes believes there are two points at which the academic expert can exert real influence. "One is when you are in opposition, seeking new ideas and do not have the Civil Service to lean on. The other is when a minister is uncertain of the information they are getting from the civil service - Mrs Thatcher was very given to checking out the Foreign Office's view of what was going on in Russia with the leading sovietologists."

Barnes has been drafted on to Conservative policy and manifesto planning groups, but finds assessing influence difficult. "In the end the minister goes away and makes up his own mind. I suspect I had far more real influence as chair of education on Kent County Council than I ever had as a member of national policy groups."

Influence can come from being read as well as listened to. Ramsden points to a difference in reading habits between Labour and Conservative MPs. "The couple of surveys done on the subject show that while Labour MPs go for political theory, the Conservatives are a biography-reading party." Barnes points to Kenneth Clarke as an enthusiastic consumer of history and biography. This suggests that Charmley - whose controversial work on Churchill follows an earlier book on Duff Cooper - has a fair chance of being noticed. Andrew Roberts' Eminent Churchillians followed an earlier study of Lord Halifax, while it is a reasonable bet that John Campbell's biography of Edward Heath and Robert Shepherd's of Iain Macleod have had a decent parliamentary readership.

Getting noticed through the press is a matter of picking the right newspaper and Barnes questions whether the obvious answers are the correct ones. "I don't think I've ever seen a cabinet minister with a copy of the Spectator and not many Conservative MPs seem to read the Mail. The Telegraph has had something of a party house-journal role and there are always a fair number of Times readers, but the one paper all MPs read is the Evening Standard."

There are media dons to be found in those papers, but, says Barnes, "I suspect most influence has been wielded by people you might call quasi-intellectuals - people like Charles Moore, Simon Heffer and in the past T. E. Utley or Russell Lewis - publicists as well as thinkers. And for year-in, year-out influence I doubt there's anyone to top Sam Brittan of the Financial Times - Peter Lilley in particular has taken him very seriously."

So if he cannot get the ear of a minister, qualify for a policy group, write a powerful biography or get his think pieces into the Evening Standard, is the Conservative intellectual doomed to being ignored? Not necessarily. The political-social scene may not quite be what it was in the days of Chips Channon, but the political host may still have a role. Barnes says: "I suspect William and Shirley Letwin had a considerable influence, not just because of the quality of their ideas but because of the role they played as hosts."

The once-popular concept of Conservatives as "the stupid party" is dead beyond resuscitation. Whether that is good for the party is another matter. The ideologised party may have been winning elections in recent years, but it has a long way to go to match its previous dimmer incarnation - consistently electorally formidable for a century and more.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments