The past often sheds light on the present, either by throwing up stark contrasts or by revealing eerie similarities. Stuart Ball’s book, Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945, which came out last year, provides plenty of both. But, ultimately, for anyone interested in understanding today’s Tory party, it is how things have changed, rather than how they have stayed the same, that is most striking.
Some things about the Conservative party in the interwar years do seem incredibly familiar. There is the generous funding and the often careless spending. There is the absolute determination of constituency associations to preserve their local autonomy. There is the fact that its grassroots grow strongest not in the marginals but in the safe suburban and rural seats where they are needed least. There is the sense of leaders trying simultaneously to balance the needs of a largely moderate electorate with the demands of a membership convinced that there is so much more that a Tory-led government should be doing to prevent the country going to rack and ruin. There is the disproportionate influence of the rightwing press. And there are the faultlines running right through the party over, first, Britain’s relationship with the rest of the word and, second, the pros and cons of coalition.
Yet it is by no means all a case of plus ça change – especially when it comes to the party at Westminster. Of course, even there, not everything is different. The front and backbenches are still dominated by thoroughly middle-class, white men. Most of them can rely on the support of their local associations as long as they live relatively conventional private lives and do not seriously threaten to bring down a Conservative government. And progress through the ranks still depends rather more on orthodoxy, reliability and perceived competence than it does on flights of oratory, flashes of intellectual brilliance, and fighting for one’s principles come what may.
What has changed, however, is the nature of what Ball calls the ‘mainstream’ or ‘undemonstrative majority’. This is the bulk of the party to whom few voters, journalists and even their own leaders could necessarily put a name, but who help determine who becomes the party’s leader and set the limits on what he or she can do. Of course, even in the 1920s and 1930s, Ball reminds us, this crucial part of the parliamentary Conservative party ‘was not a monolith but a mosaic’. Nevertheless, one or two things could be confidently said of most of its members. First, while ‘their time as an MP was a valued element in their life … it was not the essential part of their livelihood or sense of identity.’ Second, while ‘they had some sympathy with the [much smaller] wings on either side’ of them, they ‘regarded those on the left as naïve and inexperienced, and those on the right as sound in instinct but out of touch with reality’.
Nowadays, many Tory MPs continue to dabble in their previous profession or else keep their fingers in the various pies that constituted their business interests before entering the House. However, the majority at least begin believing they might make an essentially full-time career out of politics and that said career could (and, if there is any justice in the world, surely should) eventually see them sitting around the cabinet table. Yes, of course they also have what intellectual snobs like to call ‘a hinterland’. Whatever the public likes to think, they are, after all, human beings like the rest of us. But, by and large, they live, breathe, sleep and eat politics – a habit now fed further by a media, social and otherwise, that operates on the same 24/7 schedule.
As a result, the bulk of today’s Tory MPs – not just the zealous minority on their fringes – have more opinions on more questions than ever before. Moreover, unlike their relatively deferential interwar ancestors, they are also convinced that those opinions are no less valuable than those of their leaders. Gone is that golden age where honourable members assumed that their elders and betters were bound to know more about what was really going on than they did and should, therefore, be trusted for the most part to get on with it.
Mapping the distribution of those more frequently held and more frequently expressed opinions on the government benches, then, may be a fascinating and possibly worthwhile exercise. And political scientists will no doubt continue to do it, exploiting dissenting votes, speeches in the chamber, signatures on Early Day Motions and even Twitter to show the strength of a bewildering variety of sometimes cross-cutting, sometimes overlapping, strains. Hard Eurosceptics and soft Eurosceptics, social conservatives and social liberals and libertarians, modernisers and traditionalists, moderates and neoliberals, neocons and realists, hawks and doves – you pays your money, you takes your choice and you does your cluster analysis. In the end, however, the precise tendencies to which MPs are seen to belong may matter less than the fact that so many of them can now be meaningfully categorised as belonging to those tendencies rather than to some amorphous ‘solid centre’, as well as the fact that so many of them now believe their views ought to weigh heavily with their leader.
All this makes the present-day parliamentary party much harder to lead than it was before, particularly if the man or woman at the top has, first, fewer plum jobs (or even dumb jobs) to dole out and, second, is unable to persuade those who are left out that things will be better after the next election. But David Cameron’s task is made all the harder by the fact that today’s mainstream majority, inasmuch as it exists at all, is no longer that mainstream, at least relative to the electorate as a whole. True, when it comes to issues like law and order and immigration, they are pretty much on the money; but on the supposedly inherent superiority of all things private and unregulated many, many voters think very differently than they do.
In the mid-1970s, the solid centre chose Margaret Thatcher not so much because they agreed with her but because they admired her guts and could see no realistic alternative. Since then, a combination of generational replacement and an unprecedented premium on being ‘one of us’ has seen to it that most Tory MPs regard the tiny minority of their number who could be labelled as on the left of the party (more than 10 but fewer than 20 is a best guess) not just as ‘naïve and inexperienced’ but as barely Conservative. Those on the right, however, are still seen as ‘sound in instinct’ but (barring a few notorious exceptions) only rarely regarded as ‘out of touch with reality’. Indeed, the right – free-market, small-state, low-tax, tight-borders, tougher-sentences, eco- and Euro-sceptical – is where the solid centre of the party now comfortably resides.
Likewise their leader. The prime minister, after all, is no more a ‘compassionate conservative’ – if by that one means some sort of wishy-washy patrician and pragmatic centrist – than the average Conservative MP. That, to hear them talk sometimes, you would hardly know it arises from the fact that the average Tory MP today not only has ideas but (as his or her interwar counterparts would have seen it) has ideas above his or her station. Put that together with the panic over the United Kingdom Independence party, with a sense that the country’s dire financial situation offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shrink the state and that underlying attitudes on welfare, immigration and Europe are now far more favourable to the Tories than to Labour, and with the inevitable frustration caused by being forced to govern in coalition, and you have the extraordinary spectacle of one of the most rightwing Conservative governments this country has ever seen being continually criticised for not being radical enough from deep within its own ranks.
All this, however, provides little or no comfort for Labour. It may well be that Cameron just can’t win with his own party. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t win his party the next general election.
This article was originally posted at http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/02/03/inside-the-tory-mind-2/, where you can read more articles on the same and related themes.