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About this book

The second edition of this successful text has been thoroughly updated to take into account recent research, and now begins at 1830. Charmley examines the history of the party and takes the story through the recent 'wilderness years' following the 1997 election fiasco, right up to David Cameron's leadership.

Table of Contents

1. The Conservative Tradition

Abstract
The Conservative Party exists to conserve; it is the party of the status quo. Unfortunately for it and its adherents all things change — ‘the flower withereth and the grass fadeth’. In another world perhaps these things are restored and made new, but in this world the process of change poses a fundamental challenge to Conservatism as a political force. Many of those who vote Conservative do so because of an instinctive distaste for the consequences of change, but for a Conservative Party some accommodation with this process is inevitable — if only to ensure political survival. There is, then, a tension between instinctive Conservatism and expediency. Because of this, all Conservative leaders have faced charges of opportunism and betrayal; but historians have generally judged them by their success in adapting to change. Since the Conservative Party has existed for nearly 200 years, during which time Britain has changed beyond recognition, historians are agreed that the Party has been a great success; visceral Conservatives are less easily convinced. Even in 2005, after three successive election defeats, there were those in the Party who argued that its sufferings were due to its failure to abide by traditional values. This ‘Tory Taliban’ tendency, as one wag called it, has existed in every age, and its song has ever been the same: it harkens back to some bygone golden age, and calls its party to repentance and reformation of life.
John Charmley

2. Stanley and the Protectionists

Abstract
The success of the free trade lobby was twofold: in 1846 it persuaded Peel and a political majority that its case was unanswerable; ever since, it has persuaded most historians and commentators of the same thing; this had had two effects: in 1846 it broke the Conservative Party; and ever since it has ‘produced a widely-held view of the protectionists as mere révanchistes and political untouchables’.1 That both their contemporary opponents, and Peel, took such a view of them, and that one of their own leaders, Disraeli, was sometimes scarcely more flattering, and tried to drop their cause as soon as possible, has served to reinforce such a view of the Protectionists. That there is such an orthodoxy is evidence not of its truth, but of that ‘absence of historical sympathy’ which usually accompanies studies of the political right. The fact is that there was a very good case in favour of agricultural protection in the 1840s — and there continued to be one for a good deal of time after that. If these things are not appreciated it becomes difficult to understand why the party split in 1846, and why Protection continued to be a popular Conservative cause until the 1850s.
John Charmley

3. Derby’s Conservatives

Abstract
Recent scholarship, in particular Angus Hawkins’ magisterial study of Derby, and Geoff Hicks’ revisionist account of Conservative thinking on foreign policy in the 1850s, helps pave the way to a more balanced view of the Conservative Party during its wilderness years; this, of necessity, involves a recalibration of the role played by Disraeli.1 Interesting as he is, and fascinating as he remains, and significant as his leadership was, Disraeli does not take centre stage before the 1860s, and to write as though his (sometimes rather odd) views were Conservative policy before that date betrays the paucity of historical accounts that would enable him to be placed into his proper context.
John Charmley

4. Disraeli on Top

Abstract
In rectifying the balance in the existing historiography of the Conservative Party by restoring the ‘view from Knowsley’, it has been necessary to revise the Disraelian mythology which has distorted our view of Derby’s leadership; due credit has been given to Disraeli for the part he actually played — that of Derby’s (sometimes) loyal lieutenant; but from February 1868, Disraeli must take centre stage.
John Charmley

5. Balfour in Trouble

Abstract
Lloyd George said of Balfour that he was ‘not a man but a mannerism’. Other contemporaries, like F. E. Smith and Winston Churchill, said of him that his was the finest intellect which had devoted itself to politics in their time; for this there is much evidence. The comparative failure of his leadership perhaps serves to show the limited uses which politics finds for ratiocination. It was once said that Franklin D. Roosevelt possessed a ‘second-class intellect with a first-class temperament’; Balfour’s first-class intellect was accompanied by a political temperament which perhaps failed to match it. It is usual, when considering his career, to contrast the initial verdicts that he was a lightweight figure — known to some as ‘Pretty Fanny’ — with the sternness he showed as Secretary for Ireland, where he earned the sobriquet ‘Bloody Balfour’; but taking his career as a whole, it is by no means clear that the first opinions were wholly wrong. There is, about it, a curious inconsequence. What Balfour demonstrated in Ireland was not a sternness of resolve, but rather the absence of any human sympathy, a trait which he extended to the rest of his relations with mankind; it was easy to mistake indifference for firmness. But those who trusted Balfour, from Lord Randolph Churchill to Lord Curzon, always found that he let them down; he did so with exquisite politeness, but he did so just the same. It took another exceptionally vain Scotsman, Ramsay MacDonald, to get Balfour right: ‘He saw much of life — from afar.’
John Charmley

6. The Unknown Bonar Law

Abstract
It quickly becomes tiresome for the reader to be presented continually with the statement that ‘of all leaders of the Conservative Party, Box-Bender was the most surprising’; one might almost come to the conclusion that all leaders of the Conservative Party are surprising — which is certainly not the case. Bonar Law possessed many qualities, but an ability to surprise was hardly one of them. Still, a greater contrast to Balfour could not have been found. If Balfour almost fitted the description of the heir in Kipling’s The ‘Mary Gloster’, whose rooms at Cambridge were ‘beastly — more like whore’s than a man’s’, then Andrew Bonar Law, who was a friend of the poet’s, nearly matched that of Sir Antony Gloster himself: ‘I didn’t begin with askings. I took my job and I stuck: I took the chances they wouldn’t, an’ now they’re calling it luck.’ There was certainly a large element of that in Law’s rise to the leadership.
John Charmley

7. Scalped by Baldwin

Abstract
It was ironic that having waited so long for the Premiership, Bonar Law should have occupied the office for less time than any other twentieth-century Prime Minister; such a fate almost justified, retrospectively, his dour pessimism. The same ironic fatalism also ensured that a man who had put most of his energies into keeping the party united should have attained the highest office only as the result of a party split. Law remains, however, the only Conservative to have returned to the party leadership having once relinquished it.
John Charmley

8. Chamberlain in Charge

Abstract
The original National Government was ‘a collection of people collected together to save the situation’, and no one expected it to last; but having failed to ‘save the situation’, its members proved more adept at saving themselves.1 The decision by the mass of the Labour Party to oppose the government’s economic programme, and its promises to restore the cuts and soak the rich, had helped ensure that August’s expedient became November’s permanency. The task which had fallen to the Conservatives — of acting as the bulwark against Socialism and fostering moderate Labour — had now fallen to the ‘National’ government which incorporated what was left of that last ravaged entity. This, along with the economic crisis and the rhetoric upon which the election had been fought, would have precluded any crude schemes to drop MacDonald and company, even had Baldwin not felt in honour bound to the former Labour leader.2 But the Conservative dominance does not mean that we can accept Labour’s claims that ‘National’ was a label signifying the same as Conservative.
John Charmley

9. Churchill’s Consensus

Abstract
Writing to President Roosevelt in 1942, Beaverbrook commented that where the old Liberal Party had been the main casualty of the last war, this time it was the Conservatives who were the victims.1 At the same time, one of the leading Conservative backbenchers, Lord William Scott, was writing that the party had ‘ceased to exist’ as an ‘effective body either in the House or in the country’.2 Nor can such opinions be dismissed as unduly pessimistic. The Conservatives did consistently badly in contested by-elections from 1942 to 1945, and in the election they went down to a defeat which was more shattering than anything since 1905–6; and all of this despite being led by the man who had become the national hero — Winston Churchill. Unsurprisingly the event had a traumatic effect on those members of the party who experienced it, and it had an effect upon the direction in which they pushed it after the war. Two questions arise, one obvious, the other not so frequently asked: what had gone wrong?; and was the disaster quite as total as has been claimed?
John Charmley

10. The New Model Tory Party?

Abstract
On the morrow of defeat when, like all good wives, Mrs Churchill tried to cheer up her downcast husband, she remarked that ‘Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise’, to which she received the reply: ‘At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.’ But there was something in her comment, all the same.
John Charmley

11. A Conservative Consensus?

Abstract
Despite Labour’s propaganda — and the disappointment of later Conservatives — the Churchill years marked no great change in, but rather a reinforcement of, the prevailing consensus. Butler’s strategy in opposition had been aimed at trying to convince the electorate that the Conservatives could preside over a Welfare State with high public spending, and that there would be no return to the austerity of the 1930s. The Conservatives had fought a campaign which emphasised this theme; as Churchill put it: the nation needed a rest ‘if only to allow for Socialist legislation to reach its full fruition’.1 Nor did the election result suggest that the nation was anxious for any change. More votes had been cast for Labour than for the Conservatives (13,948,605 as opposed to 13,717,538),2 and the Conservatives had a slender majority of 17 seats. If the campaign and the result suggested that a period of consolidation was in order, Churchill was only too happy to oblige.
John Charmley

12. Decline and Fall

Abstract
To use the sort of vernacular phrase of which Macmillan was fond, his premiership was ‘a game of two halves’. His Chief Whip, Martin Redmayne, thought that the turning point came in the autumn of 1960; before that little went wrong, after that almost everything that could go wrong did so.1 To some extent this was the result of complacency. With three election victories in a row and Labour thoroughly trounced, Rab Butler thought it quite in order to tell the new Tory MPs that ‘if the Party played its cards well, we would be in power for the next twenty-five years’.2 The economics of the consensus, with their Keynesian demand management and government intervention to ensure high employment, had delivered affluence, and even some Labour theorists were beginning to argue that the old ‘class-based’ politics had had their day; the problems of the future, Anthony Crosland claimed, would be about how to distribute affluence more evenly, not about how to make enough money. With a Prime Minister whose pose as a world statesman helped obscure some of the uncomfortable reality of Britain’s decline, and a united party behind him at home, it did indeed seem that only some bad handling of the cards could bring the Conservatives down; but as a lover of classical literature, Macmillan might have remembered the fate that the gods have in store for those who suffer from such hubris.
John Charmley

13. From Heath to Thatcher

Abstract
Contemplating the rise of Thatcherism in the late 1970s Heath’s former chief speech writer, Michael Wolff, commented with evident disgust: they ‘want to wipe out the past’.1 The Thatcherite response would have been that this was a worthwhile enterprise. The warning given earlier about the use to which historically minded Conservatives put their party’s history is more necessary than ever when contemplating the decade after the departure of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The period was even more traumatic than the party’s previous prolonged period in the ‘wilderness’. Although in electoral terms the Conservatives did better than in the years 1906 to 1915 in so far as they actually managed to win an election, the experience of government between 1970 and 1974 was to prove a shattering one for most Conservatives and, by 1975, with a record of having lost four out of the last five elections, the party seemed bereft of direction. For the Thatcherites the story of the early 1970s is less important than what came next, whilst the liberal Conservative grandees who dominated the party then have their own reasons for glossing over the period. It is a shame that this should be so, since a look at the policy developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s shows how much Thatcherism owes to what preceded the arrival of the woman herself; but naturally neither she, nor her later opponents, would care to dwell on this phenomenon: it makes her look less unique and it makes Edward Heath seem something of a failed proto-Thatcher.
John Charmley

14. The Iron Lady

Abstract
A distinction should be drawn between the philosophical and political roots of what became known as Thatcherism. Mrs Thatcher is the only British politician of the twentieth century to have had her name enshrined in an ideology, and because of this and her combative character it was easy for her critics to call her an ideologue; this is to miss the main point of naming a creed after the woman — which was that it was closely bound up with her personality. Hayek, Friedman and the Institute of Economic Affairs simply gave ‘substance and intellectual respectability to her beliefs and instincts, but most of these derive from her own experience and her idea of what is commonsense.’1 When she told the Party Conference in 1975 that ‘the economy had gone wrong because something had gone wrong spiritually and philosophically’, she was expressing her deepest feelings and those of millions who could identify with what she was saying; if Sir Keith told her that monetarism could help deal with this situation, all well and good. The personal nature of Thatcherism helps explain some of its contradictions. She passionately believed in getting the state off peoples’ backs, just as she disdained statist solutions to political problems — she loathed the ‘nanny state’, yet she was one of nature’s ‘nannies’, passionately believing that she knew how to save the country she loved; not surprisingly this created tension between instinct and action.
John Charmley

15. High Tide and After

Abstract
The Conservative manifesto for the 1983 election has been described as ‘one of the thinnest on record’, and it soon became the received wisdom that the want of radical proposals meant that the first and second sessions of the new parliament were partially wasted;1 such verdicts reflect the expectation which Mrs Thatcher had created rather than an accurate verdict upon the government’s performance. The legislative achievement would have astonished earlier generations of Conservatives who had thought that their creed was more to do with not adding to the Statute book. But the majority of the measures passed were to do with dismantling the structures of the consensus; the same might be said of the major confrontation of this period, the facing down of the miners’ strike. Commentators who thought that the privatisation of British Telecom, British Gas, the British Airport Authorities, the Naval Dockyards and the Royal Ordnance Factories, plus the abolition of the Greater London and other Metropolitan Councils, along with legislation which made union ballots for leadership elections compulsory, were insufficiently radical, clearly harboured unrealistic expectations. Yet the disappointment does catch something of what may be the eventual verdict upon Mrs Thatcher’s second administration — that, for all its energy and activity, it seemed to lose its way. For this there were two main reasons: the nature of some of the legislation; and problems of a more human kind.
John Charmley

16. After the Ball was Over

Abstract
John Major’s premiership was marked by the two events that framed it: the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher at one end, and the greatest election defeat ever suffered by the Conservative at the other. The first of these mattered because it signalled the beginning of a pattern of disloyalty to the leader of the party which was still recognisable two decades later; the second mattered because it cast a retrospective pall over his whole premiership. But from the very start there were those who were ‘getting ready to be “disillusioned” and who duly arrived at that state’.1 Although such people tended to say that it was ‘not just that Major is not Mrs Thatcher’, at bottom that was exactly what it was. In style there was a return to the old days of pragmatism unseasoned by the rhetoric of the radical right, or even with the spice of ‘conviction politics’. It was true that Major relaxed public spending curbs in 1991, but with an election on the horizon a little pandering to the electorate was understandable. If the pace of reform slowed down, then it could be said that it had already been doing so in the last years of the Great Lady. Major successfully followed through on her policy in the Gulf War, although there were those who wondered if ‘She’ would have let President Bush stop short of Baghdad — whatever the UN resolutions said. Nor could he be faulted over the ‘poll tax’, coming up with a sensible compromise which, if it could hardly be expected to satisfy everyone, at least took the sting out of the problem. On Europe the ride was bumpier, but not as rough as it would get in the future. All in all, Major did everything which anyone save the ‘true believers’ could have wished.
John Charmley

17. No Direction Home?

Abstract
At London’s Royal Festival Hall, Tony Blair arrived from his Sedgefield Constituency to announce ‘a new day has dawned, has it not?’ All over Britain, Conservatives were not coming to terms with a massive electoral defeat. The result of the 1997 election had not been unexpected, but the sheer scale of the disaster was overwhelming; whatever the polls said, many Conservatives, activists and Members of Parliament had come to believe that they could not possibly be accurate. The pollsters’ errors in 1992 may have encouraged this attitude, but the reaction of those canvassed (when canvassing took place) seems to have added to this. Disillusioned Conservative Europhile, Julian Critchley, spoke of a wilful self-deception ‘passed up the line’.1 As it was, for many activists the tidal wave which had hit them was totally unexpected. MPs who had confidently been looking forward to participating in the leadership contest that was sure to follow the election found themselves needing to look for alternative employment, as seats that had been Conservative for as long as anyone could remember suddenly acquired Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs.
John Charmley
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