The Conservative Party and the Extreme Right, 1945-1975
Manchester: University Press 2011
Hardcover. viii + 243 p. ISBN 978-0719083631. £65.00
Reviewed by Richard Toye
University of Exeter
Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1964, told his party’s convention that year that ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’. Not many politicians before or since have been willing to mount such an overt defence of extremism, and doubtless for very good reasons. Goldwater was heavily defeated by Lyndon Johnson, and it is natural to attempt to avoid such a fate by presenting oneself as a moderate. Moreover, people who receive the ‘extremist’ label do not necessarily see themselves in that way at all. Members of today’s UK Independence Party, for example, see themselves not as obsessive ideologues but rather as apostles of common sense and traditional values in a world gone mad. At the same time, supposedly mainstream governments pursue policies like mass surveillance which could well be called extreme and yet which seem not to be perceived as such by the majority of people. Who or what is defined as ‘extreme’ depends very much on where you are standing.
Clearly, this poses some problems for the historian who, like Mark Pitchford in this interesting book, wishes to explore the relationship between a conventional party and the groups that lie on or beyond its ideological fringes. Pitchford solves the question pragmatically by focussing not ‘on what we consider extreme, but on what the Conservative Party thought was extreme’ . This is undoubtedly a justifiable decision. It should be noted, however, that his methodology does have some limitations. The Conservative Party Archive is his most important source and it is of course an invaluable one. But to a substantial extent this means that his field of enquiry is determined by what Conservative Central Office – not the party as a whole – thought was extreme. In other words, the story becomes to a large degree one of bureaucratic reactions to perceived extremist groupings, somewhat to the neglect of themes such as the ways in which party leaders used public language to define the parameters of the politically acceptable. Nevertheless, the book performs a valuable service in illuminating the activities of an array of right-wing groups, and the ways in which party officialdom dealt with them, for the most part containing them effectively. It is written in a clear and persuasive style and is balanced in its judgements.
Insofar as these groups ever posed a threat, it derived from the fact that they played up to a range of frustrations with the Tory leadership that were quite widely shared by the party’s grassroots. The late E.H.H. Green described how bodies such as the Middle Class Alliance (MCA) and the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom (PDLF) promoted a low-tax, anti-union agenda that helped pave the way for the Thatcherite rejection of so-called ‘consensus politics’. Pitchford brings into the mix other organisations such as the Fighting Fund for Freedom (FFF), the Halt Immigration Now Campaign (HINC), and the Racial Preservation Society (RPS). The adherents of these groups viewed Macmillanite or Heathite Conservatism as tantamount to Socialism. Central Office kept these organisations at arms’ length, but some of them did gain significant memberships and support from a few MPs, and officialdom generally moved cautiously. However it did have significant weapons at its disposal which it deployed when the extremists seemed to pose a reputational threat. Pitchford notes, for example, that the seemingly demented League of Empire Loyalists ‘declined from 1958 […] because the Conservative hierarchy had made it known that membership of the LEL “meant political death” to any Conservative with ambitions’ .
The problem presented to the leadership by extreme groups does seem to have gradually increased as time went on. The Monday Club, founded in 1961 in opposition to decolonisation, appears to have caused the greatest headaches, because it included a number of seemingly respectable party grandees. It is a shame that Pitchford ends his story in 1975, as the story of how the Thatcher era party dealt with the National Front’s surge would have made a natural continuation. He has, however, provided much valuable information on which future scholars of British right-wing politics will be able to draw.
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