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?by Geoffrey Wheatcroft / May 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.