2 August 2018
The Strange Demise of Tory England
The end of the line?
By J R Thomas
In 1935 George Dangerfield, a journalist and historian, wrote a book that instantly bombed (except among a small group of historians of modern history). Mr Dangerfield had to wait until 1961 for the world to notice his book, and the satisfaction in old age of seeing it become a best seller. That book is “The Strange Death of Liberal England” and it examines why the Liberal Party, riding so high in the years up to and during the First World War, practically vanished, seemingly for ever, immediately afterwards.
Dangerfield said that in the dangerous years leading up to 1914 the Liberal Party was effectively a prisoner of a set of principles that did not adjust to the changing state of Britain. Votes for women, Irish Home Rule, the rise of trades unions, the restraint of powers of the House of Lords, all wrong footed the party’s leaders who were essentially Gladstonian liberals when their natural supporters had become radicals. After the war, the ignored voters had their revenge and migrated permanently, some to the Conservatives, many more to the new Labour Party. Only eighty years later, could the ravages of the European referendum be driving the Conservative Party to its own rapid exit through the downpipe of history? History would say “no”. The Conservatives, tracing their lineage at least to those Tories who were supporters of James II, have managed to adjust their principles and survive as a popular party at each swing of the political barometer since then. Robert Peel’s calamity over the Corn Laws, which split the party and kept them out of office for over twenty years, was perhaps the only failing of the party to adjust fast enough to the public fashion, an occurrence so painful it has never been forgotten. Until now, perchance. That Liberal collapse which Mr Dangerfield analysed so persuasively, laid the seeds of a problem which has increasingly tested the sustainability of the Conservative party model. The result of the 1920’s Liberal implosion, and the gradual absorption of parts of its philosophy and supporters, caused the Conservatives to become a subtle coalition between what might be characterised as conservative Conservatives and a sort of libertarian conservatism, the remnants of Gladstonian liberalism. The former were reluctant acceptors of change, somewhat paternalistic, keeping up conservative appearances even as what was under the skin evolved. The latter are old fashioned liberals wanting as little government as possible and hitching a lift on the Tory tortoise as the best natural support. Mrs Thatcher was arguably the most successful exponent of this – but also (genuinely) held personally dear many traditional values which made her acceptable to conservative Conservatives (winning lots of elections helped too).
That gave the libertarian types a boost which still holds much influence in the party today, and whilst it may be somewhat politically dangerous to profess admiration for the Iron Lady at the moment, there are plenty in high places in the party whose hearts still belong to Maggie. Probably foremost is Michael Gove, like his heroine a self-made type from humble origins, and also like her, able to trim temporarily to the times. (Not least, perhaps, because he is a great devotee of Dangerfield’s book).
Then into this arena of natural tension, along came Europe, or, at least, the European Union. Winston Churchill in a great speech in Zurich in 1946 called for a grouping of European nations, so that there might never be war again. It is not entirely clear what he had in mind, but it almost certainly did not include anything that looked like the EU – or, if it did, not with Britain in it. But he set an idea in Tory minds that a grouping of European states including Britain would be a good idea. And yet in many ways it was and is probably the most un-Conservative concept one could imagine. (We are not arguing the merits of the European Union or even European groupings, just that it is not a natural place for the Conservative Party to find itself.)
The Conservative Party is, or was, above all the party of patriotism, of Queen and country. Traditional conservatives might vaguely welcome something that might restrict the growth of socialism, that embeds a sort of quasi capitalist society in the constitution, but Tories tend to be – many of their voters certainly are – against foreign entanglements, and surrenders of sovereignty, and complex far away bureaucracies. And libertarians tend to be against anything which brings more government rather than less, against anything which imposes further impositions on life, trade, or anything. But being pro-European somehow became a Conservative Party core policy, in spite of many doubts, and rejections from across the English Channel, and indeed against the reservations of many party members in the country (often literally in the country; the London party was pretty firmly pro-Europe). After the 1975 Referendum (two thirds of voters voted to stay in) the argument seemed settled and the whole party set that way.
Mrs Thatcher had her doubts, about the way the European project was developing, about further integration, and federalisation (and cost). And the doubts of her party members grew with her, though for thirteen years of Blair/Brown government (my Corbynista colleague would not want me calling it a Labour government) the Euro controversy dozed, albeit fitfully. What did emerge was the growth of UKIP (remember UKIP?), pretty much a single issue party taking anti EU votes from all sides, but a particular threat to the Conservatives, simply because it focussed on those issues which most disturbed conservative instincts about how the EU was developing, that slow evolution into a federal state. Then in 2016 Mr Cameron, in a bit of a political fix, opened the cage door; so that now the fiery monster ravages the land.
Or it might be argued that Mr Cameron released two dragons, which have spent the last two years fighting each other. But will it be to the death? The viciousness of the struggle between the Tory Brexiters and Tory Remainers is startling, a fest of insults and bile which ranges across the media, Twitter, dinner parties and throughout the corridors of Westminster. Any pretence at unity or compromise is long gone; that proverbial visitor from outer space would believe this struggle to be to the death. Europe has brought out, as those involved in the vicious argument ends up invoking every past wrong and slight, those cracks in the party where occasional fresh wall papering has kept things hidden for nigh on a hundred years.
So is this the end? Whatever happens now, and it looks increasingly like a no-deal Brexit, the one thing both sides of the party agree on, is that it is all Theresa’s fault. Never has a Tory leader had so few apostles in their own party. There is little doubt that when we are set free, or return to the embraces of our loving European family, or whatever might lie between, Mrs May will be walked smartly along the plank and booted off the end. Then what? Could the party finally split? Libertarian types one way, old fashioned Tories another, a few centrists off to some new grouping led by Vincent Cable (just joking, Vince)? More likely, the party will heave a sigh of relief and unite, albeit in the usual slightly uneasy way, around a new leader, who will rapidly adjust philosophy and policy to whatever the amended reality might be. That seems the public view; the Conservatives remain surprisingly strong in the opinion polls level pegging or ahead of Labour, and in spite of the re-rise of UKIP. (Mrs May is in a very different position, with startling low ratings, but her party will be further comforted by that evidence of expendability.)
So Mrs May can go off walking, her ministers can go off plotting, and her back-benchers can be off to be barbecued by their constituents. And when they and us, and you, dear readers, are all back in September it will all carry on. Like the man said: “It ain’t over yet”.