If conservatism is staked on appeals to order or tradition, its political history has generally been one of schism, revolutionary rupture or military defeat. Few conservative parties on the European continent or in East Asia have a continuous organizational existence going back more than seventy years. Those in the Western hemisphere are little older; it was not until well into the 20th century that the gop emerged as a force to the right of the Democrats. Across Latin America military juntas have regularly made up for conservatism’s lack of popular support, with Colombia’s Partido Conservador the notable exception.
Spared the tests of revolution and invasion, the English Tory Party can boast an unbroken lineage of at least two centuries, with its grip on office progressively strengthening up to the end of the Cold War. As key to this longevity, Tory historians like to point to the political flexibility that has allowed the Party to represent itself as the best protector of one rising class after another. The landowning faction of Pitt and his successors that dominated the turbulent decades of the Industrial Revolution returned under Peel in the 1830s, with a new name derived from the French conservateurs, to declare that ‘the interests of the agricultural classes and the manufacturing classes were the same’. With the widening electorate of the 1867 Reform Act, the Conservatives established constituency associations, launched from a meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern, London, to drum up lower-middle-class support. Female suffrage, which they opposed, produced a bedrock of Tory women voters. Labour’s introduction of the postwar welfare state was followed by three successive Conservative victories. After the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s, Thatcher consolidated a further bloc of aspirational working-class Tories to carry out a restructuring of Britain’s economic and cultural landscape almost as dramatic as that of the early 19th century. Even after her ejection, the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority of 64 under John Major—before suddenly succumbing to internecine warfare and an unprecedented string of defeats.
The collapse of the party’s political will and electoral support since the mid-1990s is all the more striking given the success of conservatives elsewhere; parties of the Right currently enjoy office in twenty-five oecd countries. In the past three parliaments, Tory mps have constituted barely a third of the House of Commons. By the time of the next election, the Conservatives will have been out of power for longer than at any time since the French Revolution. Whether or not the choice of David Cameron as Conservative leader in December 2005 signals a revival of the Tory capacity for self-reinvention must depend on what the underlying causes of the debacle have been.
The conventional answer is that New Labour has stolen the Tories’ clothes, and that Cameron’s task should now be to steal New Labour’s. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in his stimulating analysis of The Strange Death of Tory England, discounts this view. Programmatic plunder is only part of the explanation, he argues, and anyway no novelty. It was Disraeli in the 1840s who, evoking a pleasantly pastoral scene, suggested that Peel had come across the Whigs bathing and walked off with their clothes.
Wheatcroft has been a mainstay of the Spectator for over thirty years, and disarmingly attributes his own High Tory attachments to a boyhood of being dragged round Hampstead Garden Suburb Labour Party bazaars. He offers a longer-term explanation of the decline, potentially less comforting to Central Office, focused on the fortunes of what Harold Macmillan once called the ‘old governing class’. His book provides a pointed political history of Britain since 1963, full of striking characterizations of the protagonists. It gives a more bracing and determinate account of the present situation than disappointed Labour commentators tend to do; and if every Tory has a rabid streak, Wheatcroft’s is confined to Ulster Unionism. Orwell, Mount and Oakeshott are the presiding influences, though the first is mercifully restricted to a few nostalgic lapses. More characteristic is Wheatcroft’s treatment of the vexed question, for Tory historians, of the party’s origins. The term—from the Gaelic tóraighe, an Irish outlaw or bog-trotter, harrying or harried by Protestant settlers—was first attached to a faction of the governing aristocracy in the 1670s, when it was hurled as an abuse at the High Anglican supporters of Charles II’s brother, James, by those striving to exclude him from the succession after his conversion to Catholicism. (The excluders were in turn derided as uig, or whey, drinkers, after the Scottish Presbyterian insurgents of the previous generation.) The insults were domesticated as factional sobriquets after the bi-partisan settlement of 1688; but it was the agrarian-capitalist Whigs who enjoyed the favour of the Hanoverian court for much of the 18th century. Historians such as Keith Feiling and Robert Blake have described the emergence of a ‘Second Tory Party’ in the 1780s, quite distinct from that of the Cavaliers. Against this, Wheatcroft combines a romance of organic community—Burke read through Oakeshott’s spectacles—with a more sardonic-realist appreciation of what he calls ‘the invaluable concept of invented tradition’, to insist that there was not so much a rupture with this older Stuart heritage as a submergence of it, under the first three Georges: ‘Toryism remained the creed of thousands of albeit slow-witted country squires and albeit bigoted parsons’, and of the two universities. It re-emerged, reinvented, for the Age of Revolution.
Whig or Tory, the governing class continued to be drawn from the landed aristocracy, or from the sons of industrial or financial magnates who were being absorbed into it; sway over the political leadership was considered a hereditary right. The Tories were not completely closed to talents; Disraeli’s father was, in Wheatcroft’s description, ‘an amiable Jewish antiquarian living near Gray’s Inn’. But Disraeli’s successor, Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, was a reversion to form, and in 1902 Salisbury arranged for his own nephew, Arthur Balfour, to step into his shoes; hence, ‘Bob’s your uncle’. Even in the early 1920s when—faced with revolution on the Continent and the rise of Labour at home—Bonar Law, son of a Presbyterian minister, was considered a more acceptable Conservative prime minister than Lord Curzon, his Cabinet included seven peers, among them a duke and two marquesses. Ramsay MacDonald, quivering like a leaf in 1924 when, as Labour’s first prime minister, he prepared to sink to his knees before the King, only testified to their continuing power.
From the 19th century this elite had been buttressed by a new upper-middle class and the figure of ‘the English gentleman’. More numerous and better educated than the muddy-booted 18th-century local gentry, this layer also helped to provide a solid edifice for the ruling order: banking and financial institutions, public schools, a specialized civil service. Wheatcroft argues that the perpetuation of this regime into the mid-20th century owed much to the two World Wars. The class position of the gentleman was validated by his role as officer: first, in 1914–18, through his willingness to face death, along with his men; then, in 1939–45, through his leadership in what was almost universally understood as a legitimate national conflict. In the short term, the world wars thus redounded to the benefit of the traditional order, and so to the Conservatives. (Wheatcroft explains the Labour landslide of 1945 as a personal vote against Churchill, of whose ‘sham Augustan prose’—Waugh’s phrase—the population had tired.)