Conservative Prime Ministers. From left to right starting top left: Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, Mar

A strange rebirth of Tory England?

Over the centuries, one party has adapted to survive like no other. But on the cusp, potentially, of its greatest modern triumph, is that all-important flexibility still there?
May 12, 2017

One of the curiosities of our political history is that both of the largest parties might well bear different names from their present ones. From time to time there has been talk of renaming Labour, most recently when Tony Blair’s cabal wondered if it could be improved on, although as someone noted at the time, “Centrica” had already been taken. That cabal was perhaps unaware that in the early 1920s, a previous leader had thought of re-branding Labour as the People’s Party: if they had heard of Arthur Henderson’s idea, it might have fitted in with their babble about “a people’s Wimbledon” and “the people’s princess.”

Although Winston Churchill was brought up as a Conservative, he was never much blessed with the quality Polish Communists used to call “partyness,” or any very lively sense of loyalty, as he demonstrated by deserting to the Liberals in 1904 shortly before that party won a landslide, and then awkwardly returning to the Tory fold 20 years later. He became prime minister in the supreme crisis of 1940, and five months later—when Neville Chamberlain was mortally ill—he became Tory leader as well, something he could never possibly have achieved except in that unique combination of circumstances. In 1951, Churchill returned to Downing Street for a rather eerie second innings, and it was at this time that he toyed with the idea of renaming the Conservatives the Union Party, whatever that may have meant.

Conservatives or Union Party or what you will, one name has persisted, and its story has no parallel in European political history. A party called Tory was born in the reign of King Charles II; three and a half centuries later in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II we are still governed by a party we call the Tories. Derived from a term for Irish marauders, Tory was originally an insult hurled by opponents, and for the left it remains a snappy term of abuse. But it has the convenience of brevity, and not a few have actually liked the word, certainly more than the official name, which was first used by Robert Peel. Chamberlain detested “Conservative,” which he thought a millstone round the party’s neck, and his biographer Iain Macleod always preferred Tory: his 1964 philippic denouncing the way Alec Douglas-Home had just been jobbed into the prime ministership is titled “The Tory Leadership,” and it uses the name “Conservative” only once but “Tory” 14 times.

It would take a great deal of ingenuity to discern any clear connection or succession between the first Tory Party, described in Keith Feiling’s book A History of the Tory Party 1640-1714, the old Cavaliers of the Restoration Parliament and the Anti-Exclusionists of 1679, and the present-day party we call the Tories, even if the one-time party of Church and King is now led by a vicar’s daughter who enjoys discussing church affairs with the Queen.

Even under the Stuarts, a degree of flexibility was in evidence. The Anti-Exclusionists were ardent monarchists who believed that the Duke of York should inherit the throne even though he was a Roman Catholic, and proclaimed the far-fetched doctrines of divine right and non-resistance until, after he succeeded as James II, he attacked the one institution dearer to them than the monarchy: the Church of England. At that point the Tories, apart from the purest doctrinaires, abandoned him: a portent of future willingness to change course.

From that time on, the Tories have survived by their adaptability. That great English Tory Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) defined “Tory” in his dictionary as “One that adheres to the ancient constitution of the state and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England,” but there were already problems with this even in Johnson’s Georgian times. As AJP Taylor said, “What sense had Church and King in an age of latitudinarian bishops and German princes?” Nowadays the link between the Tories and a Church of England, which was once called “the Tory Party at prayer,” has long gone: the C of E is more like the Liberal Democrats at prayer. And although as recently as the 1950s the Tories had a majority of parliamentary seats in Liverpool and almost did in Glasgow thanks to the Orange vote, sectarian politics have since vanished in Great Britain, in contrast to Northern Ireland, forcing the Tories to find one more reinvention.

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Quite how this evolution of the Tory species has taken place is one question. Another is what the future holds for the Conservatives. Having well-nigh sworn on the Bible and her reverend father’s grave that she wouldn’t hold an early election, Theresa May did so after all. Until the grossly unconstitutional Fixed Term Parliaments Act, prime ministers had always enjoyed the advantage of timing elections. As it turns out, the Act wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and May’s promises weren’t worth much either, casually ditched without any cogent justification. Cynics pointed out that a dissolution meant that MPs from the last parliament could no longer be disqualified for undeclared electoral expenses, as had looked to be a possibility for a number of Tories, although after the election was called, the Crown Prosecution Service announced none would be charged. She may also delude herself that a large majority will be some help once the gruesome realities of Brexit unfold. The real game, however, was always simpler. She transparently wants to take advantage of the hopeless disarray of Labour.

Even in these strange times, when little in politics can be taken for granted, the Tories seem almost certain to win on 8th June, very likely by a large majority. The council elections in May pointed that way, with the Tories on the march from Monmouthshire in Wales to Lincolnshire in the east of England, and, still more remarkably, in Scotland. Hard as it is now to believe, as recently as the 1955 general election the Tories won a majority not only of seats but of the popular vote in Scotland.

By 1997 they were obliterated north of the border, to much Labour gloating. The smile was wiped off Labour faces two years ago when it was they who were massacred in what they had complacently thought of as their big Scottish rotten borough, which had been protected, so they believed, by devolution. And now, after decades in which the “Conservative and Unionist” party had begun to look almost purely English, the Tories are once again the principal party of the Union north of the border.

A huge win in June might once again give the Tories the appearance of the natural party of government, a role the Liberals haven’t been able to play for a hundred years, and which Labour never quite managed to assume, for all Attlee’s New Jerusalem and Blair’s illusory triumph 20 years ago. The Tories remain as they always have been, or always reverted to being, the party that wants to win, that can regroup and rebuild even after what seemed like possibly terminal routs, in 1906, 1945 or 1997, with breathtaking success.

What’s so striking in retrospect is not those triumphs (or false dawns) for their progressive opponents, but the Tories’ astonishing dominance. More remarkable still is their chameleon knack of adopting different guises in different times and circumstances, to a degree which raises the question of what if anything they now stand for, as opposed to the electoral success their adaptability—or lack of principle—has afforded them.

Starting from Disraeli’s decisive victory in 1874, seven years after his opportunistic Second Reform Bill had widened the franchise, the Tories held office for 17 out of the last 25 years of the 19th century, 33 out of 50 years in the first half of the 20th century, and 35 out of 50 in the second half, or 85 years out of the 126 years between Dizzy’s victory and 2000. In the early years of this century it seemed that New Labour might have broken that old dominance, but now it looks as though the Tories will have been in power for most of the first 25 years of the 21st century as well. Sometimes they were in office with other parties, although they had a cannibalistic tendency to absorb those, from Liberal Unionists to National Liberals; often they have governed alone.

This success brought with it expectation and also apprehension, because it wasn’t meant to happen. Two hundred years ago, government was a patrician oligarchy supported by a corrupt House of Commons, for which barely one adult man in 20 could vote, and even those only in England. At the end of the 18th century, the 45 members Scotland had sent to Westminster since the Union of 1707 were chosen by a total electorate of little more than 3,000, and since Ireland joined with the second Union of 1801, its Westminster MPs were elected on a scarcely more popular basis (and they couldn’t be Roman Catholics, which three-quarters of the Irish inconveniently happened to be).

Beginning with Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Great Reform Bill three years later, it took a hundred years for the country to become a full democracy, with every man and woman over 21 able to vote, a secret ballot and quinquennial elections. As that process took place, it was hoped or feared that its consequence would be permanent Liberal, radical or socialist government. That was why Lord Salisbury, the brilliant Tory reactionary who was Queen Victoria’s last prime minister, was horrified by advancing democracy, while the desiccated Fabian statistician Sidney Webb claimed that the triumph of socialism by electoral means was a mathematical certainty that he could precisely calculate.

Why were Salisbury and Webb both so wrong? Why have the Tories proved so much more robust than their rivals? Why have they seen off the Whigs and the Liberals, with Labour possibly the next to be despatched for good? One explanation, popular in places like the Guardian, is that there has always been a natural “progressive majority” opposed to the Tories, and that this majority was artificially and tragically disrupted by unnatural scissions, from the Edwardian rift between Liberals and Labour to the 1980s split between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and later the Liberal Democrats.

This is completely false. Leave aside the fact that, at the last election, the combined Tory and Ukip share was almost exactly 50 per cent, there was nothing unnatural about those scissions among those imagined to be “progressives” of different stripes. The Labour Party was born or at any rate christened after the 1906 election, at which 27 Labour MPs had been returned. And as their leader Keir Hardie said, “We are not a Tory Party, a Liberal Party, or a Socialist Party, we are a Labour Party.” They were a pressure group, and as much a single-interest party as the larger Irish Party. The Irish weren’t an ideological party corresponding to either Left or Right: their one demand was for Home Rule. And Labour was what its name said—the voice of the labouring class; it existed to protect their interests and the interest of their unions. Before the Great War, the Irish and Labour supported the Liberals from outside the government. In return the Irish got the 1912 Home Rule Bill and Labour got pensions and the suppression of sweat shops.

The two rabble-rousers in the Liberal government were David Lloyd George, with his derision of the House of Lords (“several hundred men chosen at random from the ranks of the unemployed”) and Churchill, who said that he was much less frightened of the Independent Labour Party than of the Independent Capitalist Party. And yet even before the war, the radical Lloyd George was already talking of a grand coalition of Liberal and Tory, which he optimistically believed could resolve all the bitter questions dividing the country. In the event, he did find himself leading such a coalition, in war and then peace, as the Liberals fractured.

But then all changed on the left. The October Revolution caused a spasm of horror among Liberals as well as Tories, and in 1918 Labour became what it had not been before, an ideological socialist party with its new constitution, Webb’s Clause IV and all. While Lloyd George now led an overwhelmingly Tory government, both he and Churchill were keener than ever to see a re-alignment in which the Tories and most of the Liberals would form a new centre-right party opposed to socialism in all its forms, democratic or Leninist, at home or abroad.

What’s more, their animosity was reciprocated, with Beatrice Webb saying, “For us as Socialists, the real enemy are the Liberals.” That hoped-for realignment never quite came about: the fractured and declining Liberals were too weak to merge on equal terms with a Tory Party that overwhelmingly absorbed the anti-Labour vote. And yet, the politics of interwar England were, as Ross McKibbin showed in his excellent Parties and People: England 1914-1951, largely defined by two salient facts, which Lloyd George and Churchill would have understood: the Tories clearly commanded the electoral support of a large part of the working class; and Liberal voters, when forced to choose, preferred Tory to Labour.

In 1945, to be sure, there was “the socialist moment,” but momentary is exactly what it proved, before the Tories returned to office and their dominance in the second half of the century. So it seems true to say there has been not a natural progressive majority, but a natural anti-socialist one. And the Tories have been remarkably agile in mopping enough of that up to win.

At the root of this agility, which has seen the Conservatives absorb all sorts of outsiders from Whigs to the former Ukip-voters who are likely to boost May’s majority this year, is the astonishing Tory readiness to jettison any tedious baggage in the form of ideology or beliefs, and an equal readiness for bitterly fighting the changes brought about by their opponents, and then quietly accepting them. They were the old party of agricultural protection, then the party of Peelite free trade, and then—at length—the party of protection again. They were a party of war in 1914, but a party of peace in 1938.

They professed the virtues of individual freedom and small government, but after 1951 not only did they continue with the welfare state Labour had created in the previous six years, they had in truth already in the interwar years laid much of its foundations, most notably through Chamberlain’s work on housing and contributory pensions. Once they were the party of empire, and then in the 1950s and 1960s the party which withdrew from most of the colonial outposts in Africa and south-east Asia. More recently, they were the party of Thatcherite laissez-faire in the domestic economy, but since their unexpected outright win in 2015, the Tories have tried to sweeten cuts in public spending by raising the minimum wage, and now under May talked about putting workers on company boards, and even pinched Ed Miliband’s plan to cap energy bills by diktat.
"The Tories have shown an astonishing readiness to jettison ideology and beliefs"
Most startlingly of all, the Tories were not so long ago the European party. It was a Tory government under Edward Heath which took us “into Europe” in 1973, it was Tories who, with less division and fewer qualifications than Labour, campaigned to remain at the time of the 1975 referendum, not least their new leader Margaret Thatcher, who wore a fetching jumper patterned with all the flags of what was then the European Economic Community.

Even at the time of the referendum last summer, a substantial majority of Tory MPs were Remainers, including the Home Secretary at the time, not that you would have known it from Theresa May’s Trappist silence during the campaign, or the alacrity with which she later began yelling “Brexit means Brexit,” a phrase which itself patently doesn’t mean anything at all. Recently, with Philip Hammond’s sudden change of heart over National Insurance for the self-employed, we’ve seen that the Tories can still perform a shameless volte face on individual policies, and there may well be many more twists and turns on the road to Brexit, although the party is increasingly dominated by zealots quite lacking that traditional Tory flexibility.

For all her obsessive dislike of consensus, and her habit of flourishing tracts by Hayek and the like, even Thatcher was capable of caution and changes of step. It was after her fall, which itself poisoned her party, that the Tories lost their reserves of balance and prudence, driven slightly mad by Europe like the lady herself. Bear in mind that the Eurosceptic Tories have on occasion illustrated Arthur Koestler’s saying that you can’t help people being right for the wrong reason. They may have been narrow jingoists, but just as Thatcher was quite right on her very first day at Downing Street to question the practicality of a European monetary system if the different countries’ economies did not converge, so the Europhobic critics of the Maastricht Treaty were right to be sceptical about a single currency, as events have shown.

After the failure of angry Europhobia in electoral terms under William Hague and Michael Howard, and the calamity of Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron tried not entirely convincingly to remodel the Tories, with his greenery-yallery, huskies and hoodies, and telling his party not to “bang on about Europe.” Things went horribly awry when he provoked a section of it by making same-sex marriage a government measure. It was largely to appease those he had thereby angered that he promised a referendum on Europe, in whose wake this once pro-European party has now become ardently Brexiteering, albeit in a way that looks none too convincing given the apparent insincerity with which May has changed from Remainer to Brexiter.

Maybe that could be seen as another example of that very lack of ideology, which some Tories have always seen as a source of strength. That sparkling phrase-maker and political playboy Disraeli cheerfully said that “A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy,” words which have often rung true since, and never more than today. And when he said “Damn your principles, stick to your party,” he certainly acted by his own precept, as some of his successors have done. The same thought can even be dressed up in more exalted guise: as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, conservatism is not a doctrine but a disposition.

By disposition or doctrine, the Tories are once again in the ascendant as they have not been for decades, and as seemed most unlikely as recently as the first years of this century when Blair rode the crest of the wave. It’s quite possible that on 8th June they will match the 397 seats they won under Thatcher in 1983. But will May really be monarch of all she surveys?

Halfway through the last century there were two great parties with mass followings and a regularly shifting balance between them. Since then the crucial changes have been the eclipse of this two-party hegemony, the decline of party affiliation—not to say the habit of voting—and the internal decay of parties themselves.

At the 1951 election, Tories and Labour split almost 97 per cent of the total vote between them; by 2010, that had plummeted to 65 per cent. At the 1950 election, turnout was 84 per cent; in 2001, it fell to 59 per cent, having collapsed from 71 per cent four years before and 78 per cent in 1992, a collapse which was in some ways Blair’s greatest achievement. Turnout was 66 per cent in 2015, and could well be lower again this year. This must surely be in the longer-term interests of the Tories.

Still more remarkable has been the implosion of organised parties. At mid-century, Labour had nearly one million individual members, as well as the millions notionally affiliated through their unions. That steadily fell, rose again in the brief Blair millennium, and then dropped to 250,000 or less. After Labour lost the general election two years ago, Ed Miliband resigned, leaving behind a poison pill: anyone prepared to pay literally less than the price of pint of beer could enlist and immediately vote for a leader. Jeremy Corbyn stood without ever expecting to win, or so those who supported him at the time now piteously tell us. He was elected thanks to a kind of craze, with young people in particular (as I witnessed at close family quarters) joining up partly out of real enthusiasm, partly out of a revulsion from conventional politics which has more usually lead to abstention. The numbers of joiners did seem impressive. And much good may they do Corbyn on 8th June. More than a year ago someone wondered drily whether Labour might not end up one day with more members than voters. This sarcastic joke became reality at the Richmond Park by-election last December, when the 1,515 votes cast for the Labour candidate were fewer than the ostensible strength of the constituency party.
"The Tories enjoy their present success because there is no credible opposition and no one is offering an alternative"
And yet nothing that has happened to Labour is as dramatic as the collapse of the Tories as an institutional party. They returned to government at the 1951 election (which Attlee called unnecessarily and under royal pressure) with a parliamentary majority, although Labour had a larger popular vote, and then remained in office for 13 years. But that Tory recovery was not just a matter of electoral trickery, or the exhaustion and internal feuds of Labour government: at that time, the Tories were a formidable national party, thanks largely to an unsung hero. Lord Woolton was a businessman with no party affiliation who was brought into Churchill’s wartime coalition government as minister of food (very senior readers may remember, affectionately or otherwise, the “Woolton pie”). He slipped into the Conservative Party almost by accident, became its chairman, and transformed it. In 1945, its organisation was ramshackle and demoralised and party membership was about 250,000.

Within six years it was an astonishing 2.6m. There were a number of individual constituencies, like Barnet which the young Reginald Maudling won in 1950, whose Conservative Associations numbered more than 10,000 members. Churchill’s seat of Woodford had an electorate of 72,500, 12,989 of whom were Tory members. Even in the 1960s the party was still strong enough and numerous enough for the youthful Perry Anderson to write in the youthful New Left Review with some perplexity that the Tories clearly had a stronger popular base than Labour.

And now? Although the Tories are cagey about the figure, the Conservative Party probably has fewer than 150,000 members nationally. Let alone those 10,000-strong Associations 65 years back, there are today only three Conservative Associations with more than 1,000 members, and by one count there are 219 with fewer than 100. Among other things, this means that the present system for choosing leaders, with a final choice taken by a tiny, elderly and unrepresentative rump, is foolish in the extreme.

No doubt May, and the bulk of her parliamentary colleagues who crowned her uncontested, would agree. Having adroitly avoided an election when she assumed the party leadership, and lacking the base of support that mass party membership might once have provided, a victory in the general election is now meant to give her what is ridiculously and unhistorically called a personal “mandate.” She will soon find out how far it takes her, especially since those Conservatives elected for the first time this year are likely for the most part to be zealous Brexiteers, with their glazed eyes ready for any pragmatic backsliding on hard Brexit. The prime minister has already given a strong hint of what lies ahead with her hysterical accusation that evil conspirators in Brussels have tried to influence the election, as Moscow is supposed to have influenced the American one.

The truth is that the Tories enjoy their present success not because of their merits, or even their traditional ability to change course, but by default: there is no credible opposition, and no one is offering an alternative that appeals to a cynical, disillusioned electorate. It’s not so much that today’s Tories are an empty vessel into which anything can be poured—that was New Labour. They are themselves filling a vacuum.

But something has gone wrong, and something is still missing. If English Toryism, with its faults, had any redeeming virtues they were pragmatism, scepticism and common sense. Recent re-brands and re-inventions have come and gone without rediscovering those qualities. Even Thatcher, for all her supposedly iron character, was capable, at least until her disastrous last phase, of knowing the limitations of her authority. Those qualities have now deserted the Tory Party (not to speak of the right-wing press), as the circumstances of the referendum demonstrated, and May’s newly-zealous Europhobia now makes clear.

The prime minister might like to think that, in the best Tory tradition, she is a commonsensical woman who knows how the party can recover, as it did with remarkable speed after the internal bloodbath accompanying the referendum a year ago, and who also has the all-important gift of knowing when to stop.  Her problem is that, after 8th June, she may find that she’s unable to.


Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.