From Winston Churchill to David Cameron
London: Bloomsbury, 2014
Paperback. viii+201p. ISBN 978-1780930404. £18.99
Reviewed by Chris Wrigley
The Conservative Party likes to compliment itself by stating that it is the most successful British political party. This was so in the twentieth century, but not the nineteenth century. It was in office on its own or in coalition for two-thirds of the twentieth century. In the period 1900-45 the Conservatives were in coalition governments 27 years, yet from 1945-97 they were repeatedly in office on their own. Timothy Heppell’s history of the party provides a lucid and incisive study of its years of great success (1951-64 and 1979-97) as well as its dismal performance during most of 1997-2010 and its lacklustre return to coalition politics from 2010.
Dr Heppell’s account of the Conservative Party since 1945 offers ‘a way of interpreting the historical development … which focuses on… processes of adaptation’ The key features of this ‘statecraft model’ (which he draws on from the work of the late Jim Bulpitt) are ‘successful party management, a winning electoral strategy, political argument hegemony and governing competence’ . Heppell makes much of this in his introduction and in his conclusion, and draws on this model for much of his analysis in the main chapters. It provides him with a social science framework for his book—but, as he emphasises, he does discuss wider matters.
Nevertheless, the statecraft approach has a tendency to focus mostly on elites, to be something of a variant on the High Politics approach associated with historians at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. As a study of the leaders and major issues it is very effective, drawing on a full knowledge of the secondary literature.
However, his approach gives relatively little attention to the Conservative Party reacting to the Labour Party. Historically, the Conservative Party has done very well out of frightening voters about the risks of not voting Conservative. The focus of much Conservative propaganda in the period 1886 to 1894 was the alleged recklessness of William Ewart Gladstone, the Liberal leader, over Home Rule for Ireland. Throughout the twentieth century much was made of the dangers of socialism and, after 1917, of Bolshevism and Communism. Such arguments were accompanied by demonising Labour’s leaders, including the mild Arthur Henderson (a former Liberal councillor and full time agent), Clement Attlee in 1945 and the Labour right-winger Tony Blair (given demon eyes in one set of Conservative posters). In contrast to Labour, the Conservatives tried to position themselves as the patriotic party, with election meetings at least as late as 1970 being marked by the Union Jack flag draped across the table at the front. However, this use of the national flag by the Conservatives diminished when the Union Jack was aggressively adopted by the National Front and later by UKIP.
The focus on statecraft also tends to understate dimensions of politics from the bottom up. When the Conservative Party has had electoral setbacks, it has often been at its grass roots that revival has first been evident. Across Britain, especially in small towns and the countryside, the Conservative Party has drawn succour from non-political bodies such as Rotary, Lions Clubs, the British Legion, the National Farmers’ Union, Women’s Institutes, golf clubs and many more, whose memberships overlap heavily with local Conservative Associations. The Conservative rank-and-file membership has often pressed hard to change policy, with parts of it eagerly promoting policies advocated by Enoch Powell, Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher often after these policies declined in appeal at Westminster. Alongside the importance of the grass roots membership in assessing Conservative Party history, there have been regional and national variations. There is the contrast between Conservative hegemony in the English Home counties and the near wipe-out of representation in some Midland and Northern cities, such as Leicester and Liverpool, and in Scotland and Wales.
The focus on statecraft does not ignore, but does not sufficiently emphasise, the enormous benefit to the post-1945 Conservative Party of the near overwhelming support it receives from national and local newspapers. Rarely have Conservative leaders been subjected to the abuse that Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband regularly received. When the Conservative Party has been recovering from electoral setbacks, it has often been the Conservative-supporting press which has led the fight-back.
Many histories of the Conservative Party have been written by Conservative MPs or by supporters. Heppell tries hard to be impartial and mostly succeeds but, where his book is not, it seems to me it favours the Conservatives. In writing of the very recent period, the major area of the author’s expertise, he reflects on the divisive issue of Britain’s relations with Europe, doubts the effect on curtailing UKIP of offering after the next election a referendum on renegotiated terms, and offers advice in the form of the question ‘Would not an in/out referendum before the next general election be a more sensible move?’.
The Tories is a skilful and well-informed study which will appeal to those studying Politics. It is well-written and deserves a wide readership.
Cercles © 2015
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