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The Strange Death of the Tory Party – Part 1

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

by Stoker

Pick up a serious newspaper in the UK today, or a political weekly magazine, and look for commentary on the Conservative Party. If you happen to be a Conservative party supporter, a Tory*, things are not looking good.

In the opinion polls those who say that they would vote Conservative, should there be an election tomorrow, is down to somewhere between 30% and 35% of the electorate. That is about as low as the Conservatives have ever polled since, well, ever. It may well represent the true hard core of Tory voters; those who would vote for the party no matter what, no matter who was leader, no matter how bad things were. Occasionally scandal or disaster has briefly brought the party this low before, especially during the John Major years - 1992 to 1997 - but at general election times such protests fizzled out and some of the grumbling Tories returned to the fold, holding their noses whilst placing their mark on the ballot.

The Conservatives are, of course, a party with a strong principle. That is that the Conservative Party is the only party fit to govern Britain. For most of the last hundred years the electorate has tended to agree; Conservative governance has been the norm, and only scandal or the occasional overwhelming urge for change has brought the other lot – Labour – into power. 1945 and 1997 were about desire for change; and 1964 was caused mainly by scandal (though it was a very close result).

Cynics will say that that is indeed the Conservative Party’s only principle. If the times are for free markets, Tories will be free traders; if red socialism is in fashion, the Conservatives will give you a nice pink version; and when pink socialism is attracting the voters, the Conservatives will have something that looks remarkably similar, only with a different label. Tories were appeasers of the Nazis before 1939 and non-appeasers thereafter; in favour of invading Egypt to secure control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and then, when that adventure went wrong, against it. They were the party of empire, and the party that dismantled it (not always that willingly, but they did it).

That is indeed really what ‘conservative’ means. It is to be against change, although, as change can be inevitable – the gradual growth of democracy from the 16th century, the growth of economic liberalism from the 18th century, the growth of overseas empire from the 16th century, and its dismantling in the latter half of the 20th century – it often effectively means “doing things more slowly”. It is also the opposite of ‘change’ and in western democracies political systems usually have a change coalition and a conservative coalition. Power tends to alternate between the two depending on the public mood and as the public often dislike too much change, politics tends to see occasional change and then a long period of resistance to change. So the Conservative Party in the UK has tended to be conservative, simply going along with the trend.

Not always though; in the 1920’s Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Tories and briefly Prime Minister, was an economic liberal and a moderate social reformer and the Conservative Party stole their policies from the Liberal Party. That caused the rapid decay of the Liberal Party and laid the foundations of the present two groupings, Conservative and Labour. It did something else though; it created a fundamental split in the Tory Party, between those who were, it might be said, old-fashioned conservative Conservatives; and those who were in truth, heirs of liberal Liberalism.

By and large, that mattered little for many years; if there were differences they were more to do with foreign policy and social matters, not generally seen as enough to split the party (except for appeasement which solved itself, and Suez, which was overcome by the defenestration of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden). In 1970 though, the unexpected election victory of Ted Heath, whose economics ministers were liberal, suddenly created a Conservative Party with principles. Low intervention, low taxes, the freeing up of enterprise, denationalisation, a sort of desocialisation of a partly socialised economy. That did not last long; but in 1979 the agenda was back again with the election of Mrs Thatcher, and this time there was no turning, as Mrs T noted. Many Western democracies followed. And so did even many moderate left parties; in the UK Tony Blair came to power in 1997 as leader of a Labour government – but one which seemed almost a natural heir to Thatcherite Toryism.

In fact, it seemed to be the Conservative Party that had lost the Thatcherite sense of purpose. Not surprisingly perhaps; the Conservatives simply reverted to conservatism. The fire of liberal principles almost died out; the party elected a series of weak and often incompetent leaders and although it was re-elected to power in 2010, it was just as a steady pair of hands in tricky times. That has always been the other unique selling point of the Tories; that they may not have principles but they are at least competent. And that has tended to be true; the Conservatives at least appeared competent at running the UK, and often were. Labour on the other hand tended to run onto the rocks of their various internal groupings and their differing principles and fall apart, giving the impression as a government that they were incompetent, often correctly.

But since 2010 there has been little sign of competence anywhere in national British politics. Not in Labour, not in Conservatives, not even in the Scottish National Party or their Welsh brethren. The Liberal Democrats have, alas or not, almost vanished from any serious role in national politics.

And the Tories, although doing their best as always to have few or no core beliefs, got into a corner where they had to believe in one thing or another. That was whether Britain should be a continuing member of the European Union. As a sweeping generalisation, those in the party who were heirs to Thatcherism and economic liberalism were against what they saw as an increasingly protectionist and centrist bloc, and formed a strange coalition with some old-fashioned nationalists – never a major force in the Tory Party but always a noisy one. Those in the party who were more ‘conservative’ and pragmatic thought the EU a conservative force, a bulwark against socialism and a counterweight to other large power blocs. This division had been growing for a long time but had been kept at bay by avoiding taking a decision on the matter. Until David Cameron, to win the 2015 election, fell into a trap of his own making and let the referendum monster out of the box.

We won’t go through the details of what then transpired, except to say that the party fought a major internal battle that not only did not resolve the division (even though the party won much new electoral support because it was seen as the patriotic and populist party), but it also opened up many other fissures. All those arguments about regulation and centralisation and devolution, and many other more minor things, became impossible to resolve. When friends fall out, when colleagues come to hate each other, when unity fails, every difference becomes impossible to resolve.

Out went Boris Johnson, one of the party’s most popular leaders, if one of the least competent and least honest. In came Liz Truss, the heir to Thatcherism but unpolished, over-eager, not sensitive to the delicacy of the balance. Out she went. In came Rishi Sunak, and to some surprise, four months later he is still there. What he believes in is not very clear. He describes himself as a Thatcherite; a sensible label as many party members in the country are best described that way. He is undoubtedly a conciliator, creating a coalition of ministers from the warring factions of his party. He is a competent administrator; yet he seems to have few ideas and little imagination

The Conservatives have a major problem. Their reputation for competence is wrecked. They are impossibly divided. It is very difficult to say what their core beliefs are. They are being rapidly outflanked by a Labour Party under Keir Starmer which has junked most it its principles but replaced them with pragmatic populism.

What is the Conservative Party actually for? Nobody seems to be able to answer that question. Should it even exist? Should it be replaced by a modernising liberal party, liberal in economics and social matters? Is that about to happen?

With the Editor's permission, we will next month let you know the answer!

(Permission granted – Ed).

*For the benefit of non-British readers the nickname for a Conservative is a “Tory”, a name probably derived from the Irish Gaelic word “tóraidhe” - outlaw – and applied to 17th century cattle-rustlers in Ireland. How it then came to be applied to British Conservatives is a long and convoluted story.



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