Truly blue Tories

Whatever happened to the 'natural party of government'?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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It seems as if the Labour Party is walking virtually unopposed into the 2005 general election, with the Tories looking like a pale imitation of a political party.

The Conservative Party doesn’t seem to know what it is anymore. It tries to leap on every passing bandwagon, hoping to go somewhere. Rather than defining a political agenda of its own, it merely responds to other ideas, any ideas.

The Tories imitate New Labour by treading the same ground on health and education, and suggesting tweaks within established policy frameworks. When the Tories strike radical poses and claim to be offering something new, they are generally safely within Labour’s bounds – the recent promises to cut public spending, for example, were partly based on Labour’s planned efficiency savings, and only returned spending to the levels it was at a year ago. Even Tory soundbites are New Labour: ‘the choice is clear’, the phrase that recent Tory press releases parrot, was used ad infinitum by Labour in the 2001 general election.

Then the Tories try to cash in on anybody who is anti-Labour, be they anti-war protestors or foxhunting supporters. Anything from the tsunami to the right to shoot burglars is jumped on for potential political kudos. No passing bandwagon is let go – shadow higher education minister Chris Grayling recently accompanied Cherie Blair’s former lifestyle guru Carole Caplin to deliver a petition about EU restrictions on vitamin sales. A Conservative Central Office press release tried to get worked up about the issue, complaining that ‘consumers will be denied the right to look after their own health as products are swept away’.

Every now and then, the Tories make desperate appeals to their core vote – as with party leader Michael Howard’s full-page advert in last week’s Sunday Telegraph to trumpet plans for limits on asylum and immigration (1). But this just makes them look like an imitation of the party of the 1980s. Even as they strike the old poses, the Tories are aware that they cannot really carry this one off any more. Howard’s campaign was prefaced by assurances that this wasn’t racism really; and he reportedly plans to get in tune with our therapeutic times by appearing on Talk Sport radio on Holocaust Day to talk ‘openly’ about his Jewish grandmother’s experiences.

Now there is defeatist talk about the Tories only seriously contesting certain seats – or even of treating this election as a training run and fixing their sights on the election after next. A recent poll of marginal constituencies found that the Conservative Party could be heading for its worst defeat in over 100 years, losing seats both to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney made the harsh-but-fair accusation that the Tories were on their way to becoming a ‘right-wing rump organisation’ (2).

This is a previously unthinkable predicament for the grand old institution of British politics. ‘What…ails this Great Party of ours?’, asked bemused columnist Gerald Warner in the Scotland on Sunday (3). The Conservative Party was known as ‘the natural party of government’, envied across the Western world for its ability to dominate the political agenda. It was in government, either alone or in coalition, for around 70 years out of the twentieth century, casting all other parties in its shadow.

So what happened? Every Tory has his own view on the party’s problems, and a string of remedial solutions. Some say the party should swing back to basics. Gerald Warner argues that the party has been too willing to follow New Labour on public services, when, ‘instead, from day one, they should have shouted from the rooftops the clamant need for the most radical reform’. The Scotsman‘s Fraser Nelson agrees, saying that the party has been blighted by its ‘softly-softly approach’ and the fact that it no longer believes in Conservatism (4). But others say the party should move with the times, courting women, ethnic minorities and gay people to show that it is in touch. ‘We still don’t look and sound like modern Britain’, one Tory aide admitted to the Daily Telegraph.

Some blame Michael Howard’s lack of vision. One senior party figure reportedly accused Howard of being ‘in a fog of confusion about what the Conservatives should stand for’. But others blame the blue-rinse membership, what one party member described as a ‘bunch of weirdos mourning the passing of Thatcher’. And then there are those who just think it is a matter of image, a question of talking in the right way or wearing the right clothes. One Tory wife blamed the fact that ‘a lot of [Tory ministers] cannot keep their flies zipped up’; another noted Blair’s assets, ‘the guitar, the jeans, they make him an all-rounder. That is what we lack’ (5).

But these are all superficial diagnoses. The problem isn’t just about dreaming up new ideas, or learning to play the guitar. The strength of the old Tory Party in the past came from its deep roots as a social institution. Success wasn’t down to some magical combination of individuals and ideas, but from the party’s intimate connections with the interests of the Establishment. It is these connections that the party has lost, and which leave it directionless. The party is left adrift, without an anchor, battered by every passing wave.

The Tory Party’s adherents were at the head of business, the civil service, academia and the press, so even when it was out of office it wasn’t really out of power. It also had a solid base in the British public – it was the first party to form a network of associations in the nineteenth century, and it expanded this over the twentieth century, reaching a membership of 2.1million in 1964.

While the Tory Party has been stuck behind the times before, its strong institutional ties enabled it to adapt, to develop new policies and bring new social groups into its orbit. In marked contrast to today, a period in the political cold in the past proved to be an invigorating experience that forced the party to make necessary changes. After the Labour landslide of 1945, for example, the party was at sea in the new consensus around the welfare state. But under Harold MacMillan’s brand of ‘one nation Conservatism’ between 1957 and 1963, it was able to compete with Labour in its claims to be the party of the National Health Service. It also incorporated the lower middle-class into its roots and branches. By the 1970s, over half of Tory MPs were in business, and there were more MPs from grammar schools than Eton.

Today, the old social conflicts that provided the ground upon which the Tory Party built itself no longer exist. The class struggle has been suspended, leaving a political situation in which there is no left and right, and the parties have nothing solid on which to stand. Paradoxically, it was the high tide of Thatcherism that marked the beginning of the modern Tory Party’s decline. Thatcher’s aggressive reforms of institutions such as the civil service and professions cut away the party’s branches of support. Her attacks on the unions accelerated the destruction of the organised working class; and with the Establishment’s enemy gone, the malaise of the Right was revealed for all to see.

We can see the Tory Party’s institutional structures unravelling by the day. Eighty constituency seats have still not been able to nominate a candidate, some four months before the election – and bitter battles between potential candidates have spilled out into the national press, with female and gay candidates reporting ‘bullying’ by association die-hards. Meanwhile, the leadership has been beset for years by all-too-public bickering and backstabbing. And Howard was recently hit by the orchestrated defection of MP Robert Jackson to Labour, and the confessions of Tory MPs and advisers that they don’t think that they stand a chance.

The decline of the Tory Party, the political machine of the ruling class, would be a good thing if some political alternative had developed. But as it is, the upshot has only been the death of the opposition and the further decline of politics.

The Tories’ problems are echoed in parties of all political stripes. No party seems to know what it stands for today – New Labour is just as vague and opportunistic as Howard, as it reels from one policy initiative to another, and tries to score political points off everything from Princess Diana’s death to the attacks of 9/11 to the tsunami. And all parties have dwindling memberships, and problems containing the bickering among those who remain – with the ongoing war between prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown setting a leading example.

The parlous state of the Tory Party is likely to increase voter cynicism about politics further. A parliament without a decent opposition isn’t a healthy forum of political debate. The lack of an opposition allows a decaying New Labour to coast along untried and untested, with its weaknesses exposed but not challenged. So while the Tories’ problems might be good to laugh at, the situation is really not that funny. There would be no regrets about the death of Tory England – had it not taken politics with it.

(1) Sunday Telegraph advert (.pdf 71.9 KB), on the Conservative Party website

(2) The Tories ‘will be reduced to a rump’, Toby Helm, Daily Telegraph, 22 January 2005

(3) Moribund Conservatives have forgotten how they can be winners , Gerald Warner, Scotland on Sunday, 23 January 2005

(4) Howard’s big mistake: softly-softly Toryism, Fraser Nelson, Scotsman, 19 January 2005

(5) ‘Desperate Tory wives who can no longer stand by their men’, Stefanie Marsh, The Times, 22 January 2005

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Topics Politics


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