The right ending?

October 11, 1996

The Tories are set for electoral defeat, predicts historian John Charmley. And, he tells Simon Targett, Tony Blair is a very 'convincing Conservative prime minister' who could be Mrs T's true heir.

The Conservative party is teetering on the precipice of an almighty political abyss. It has been here before, of course: in 1846, when Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, contrary to the wishes of the Tory landed gentry; and once again before the Great War, when Joseph Chamberlain campaigned for Tariff Reform, so alienating traditional free traders. Yet somehow it always muddled through. That is why it is known as "the great survivor".

This time, however, it really does look as though Europe could irrevocably shatter the fragile truce between the liberal-left and radical-right factions, precipitating a political bloodbath and sacrificing the ministerial careers of a "lost generation" of young Conservatives. One political commentator this week talked of the Conservative party as a "coalition" that could break up into four pieces - Christian Democrats, Whig grandees, the pragmatic Right and English nationalists.

It is hardly surprising that newspaper columnists and ousted Cabinet ministers should be choosing this moment to rush into print on the ailing condition of modern Conservatism. But for a historian to be doing so - that is an altogether different proposition. Without the benefit of hindsight, history becomes a much riskier business. As Sir Walter Raleigh famously said, those who follow too closely upon the heel of history are apt to find themselves being kicked in the teeth.

Yet this is exactly the risk John Charmley has taken in his latest book, A History of Conservative Politics 1900-1996. It is doubly risky for him because, as he admits from his tiny study at the University of East Anglia, "I don't see myself as a contemporary historian." Indeed, Charmley - who, as a senior lecturer in English history, has built his scholarly reputation on some pioneering work about Churchill's wartime exploits, notably Churchill: the End of Glory - is so opposed to the idea of "contemporary history" that he even campaigned to stop UEA introducing a degree in the subject. He says: "One of the problems with post-second world war history is that our perspective on it is still, in many ways, too short."

Charmley realises the risks. His book is filled with a library of caveats. "The historical jury has hardly begun to sit", he says at one point, adding elsewhere that "it is too soon to reach anything like a considered verdict on Mrs Thatcher's long period in office". So if it is too soon, why do it?

"You'd have to be very odd - as a political historian - not to be interested in a party which has, over a period of enormous change, managed to spend 70 of the last 100 years in power," he responds. "That, it seemed to me, was an intellectual challenge worth taking on."

His answer sounds utterly convincing, and the book does primarily address the central paradox of modern Conservatism: that a party which exists to conserve, to preserve the status quo, has nevertheless to evolve, to change with the times.

Charmley's thesis centres on the contention that there is considerable continuity between the prewar and postwar Conservatives. It aims to counter the liberal conservative view, classically propounded in Lord Blake's The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, that the postwar era from Churchill to Edward Heath was a time when Conservatism blossomed after a dark period in the wilderness.

Rejecting this - what he elsewhere calls "the phoenix myth" - Charmley singles out Baldwin as the key unifying figure, whose "steady as she goes" philosophy was shared by postwar Conservative grandees who rose to prominence during his premiership, including Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler.

He attacks the liberal conservative view of sudden postwar success and the pre-eminence it gives to Eden et al, claiming that the Conservatives, for all their monopoly of office, did not dominate the political agenda. This, he maintains, occurred only with the rise of Margaret Thatcher. She made the difference - more by her personality than her ideology.

There is more than a heavy hint of Thatcher-as-saviour in his thesis, something that is accentuated by the withering criticisms of her hated predecessor Edward Heath, the "failed proto-Thatcher" whose inability to produce a piece justicative in the shape of memoirs is put down to the fact that "perhaps the task was just too difficult".

And this is the other thing about Charmley that complicates the simple art of writing dispassionate contemporary history. He is a self-confessed fan of "Mrs T", as he affectionately calls her. His book has been favourably reviewed by the MP for Thatcherism, John Redwood, and Mrs T's fanzine, The Spectator.

Yet he does not think his Thatcherism affects his interpretation of modern Conservatism. "I try to keep my politics out of my history," he says, with an honourable conscientiousness. He therefore takes comfort from the fact that Andrew Roberts, the high-profile Thatcherite historian, has criticised him in a private letter for being "soft on Major".

It is true that Charmley is remarkably generous towards the ordinary man Lord Hanson once likened to "someone on the 7.15 to Waterloo", even noting, with a false air of historical distance, that "all in all, Mr Major did everything anyone, save the 'true believers', could have wished". In conversation, he underscores this view, taking a line that would attract howls of derision from hardened anti-European Thatcherites, by observing that "Major's 'go slowly' is right. Why go to the stake now when, by the time the tumbrel arrives, the stake might no longer be there?".

But if this sop to balanced history can be attributed to his personal battle to put history before politics, it can be equally attributed to his extraordinary iconoclasm that has its roots in the anti-establishment brand of Conserv- atism once popular in Merseyside.

Charmley was born 41 years ago in Birkenhead, home of that earlier Tory maverick F. E. Smith. Working class, his father a docker, his mother a barmaid, he was raised in a Labour-unions household, but his politics were formed around the vocal anti-temperance cry. "Temperance and sobriety," he says, "may seem typically Conservative things, but in a Merseyside working-class environment they were things which Labour and the Liberals represented." F. E. Smith was later famous for his drinking exploits as Lord Birkenhead, and although Charmley would not pretend to be in the same league, he likes the odd jar or three. Over lunch in UEA's Sir Norman Foster art gallery, his chosen beverage to accompany chicken was not a chilled white wine but a pint of warm Southwold ale.

This Birkenhead background lends his Conservatism a deeply unconventional streak, something his colleagues at UEA - who include the staunchly leftwing peer-historian Baroness Hollis of Heigham - have not left unnoticed. "Some of them," he chuckles, "question whether I am a 'small c' conservative." This is not to say that Charmley does not display a modicum of conformity, of flamboyant ordinariness. His sartorial sense is distinguished, if that is the right word, by a dashing blue bow tie; his voice no longer betrays his Scouser beginnings; and his diction is dotted with quaint archaisms such as "benison", "on the morrow of", and even on one occasion "doth".

But, in the last resort, Charmley - a chubby chap - is something of a round peg in a square hole, and his Conservatism is hallmarked by the unorthodox. It is this that attracts him to Mrs T. "The central thrust of Thatcherism," he suggests, is "its deeply anti-Establishment streak."

He recognises the irony of the eponymous leader herself: "She loathed the 'nanny state' yet she was one of nature's 'nannies'." But he admires her as an outsider, for the fact that she was not part of "the magic circle".

It is his own remoteness that makes him different from the "true believers" like Andrew Roberts. It is this which primarily explains why he is ready to write nice things about John Major. It also explains why, for all his good intentions, The History of Conservative Politics is ultimately a hard-edged political, and almost electioneering, volume.

He may be a "Thatcherite historian" - as he says, "the label has been firmly attached to my coat-tails and there is no point protesting about it". He may also be "a Redwood person", defending Redwood's outspokenness on Europe - "there has got to be some advantage to sitting on the back benches" - even though it has this week led to doubts about the former Welsh Secretary's allegiance to the Tory party. Yet he does not see much point "dying in the last ditch" by waging an internecine war over Conservative dogma. This is why, towards the end of the book, he switches the heat from the Heathites to Blair and New Labour. Blair, he thinks, is "a very convincing Conservative prime minister" who could swiftly become Mrs T's true heir "if he jumped ship and joined the Tories". And "new", he believes, is a deeply unreliable adjective. He even digs out the comment from some little-known American to support the view that the word is "mere smoke and mirrors calculated to obscure the fact that there is nothing 'new' about what is being described".

This is also why he counsels against the idea, gaining currency in some quarters of the Conservative party, that a period of regenerative opposition - as in 1945 - is just what the doctor ordered. Whether his advice will work is anybody's guess. Last time, his boundless optimism was well rewarded. "I went to an election eve party with some academics who were hoping the Conservatives were going to lose," he remembers fondly. "I was prepared to be ribbed if I was wrong, but come 2am, I was the only one drinking champagne, and since no one else seemed to be drinking, there was a lot of it about."

This time, though, Charmley is less sure. His hunch, not revealed in the book, is that the Conservative party will narrowly lose the election, ditch Major and enter a period of "bloodletting": "and unless Labour really screw it up, the Conservatives will be out of office for a bit".

Coming from someone renowned for his sunny outlook - his next book will contest the gloomy but widely accepted view that Britain declined in the years between Bismarck and Thatcher - this is a grim scenario. Conservatives gathered in Bournemouth for the annual conference this week must be hoping he is seriously wrong. And, of course, he could be. As he admits, "historians make poor politicians".

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