‘Brave is the debut author who draws equally from the wisdom of Tertullian and Jade Goody,’ PAGE 21
The Conservatives: a history Robin Harris BANTAM PRESS, 640PP, £30
■ Tablet bookshop price £27 Tel 01420 592974
Robin Harris’ account of the Conservative Party has already found favour in certain (Conservative) quarters, largely, one suspects, because it has things to say about coalitions, particularly the current coalition. One of the more surprising reflections it provokes is just how often the Conservative Party has found itself in coalition in the last 150 years. It would have been interesting to have more analysis of why these coalitions were more durable than Lloyd George’s, but Harris, predictably, is more interested in the factors that bring coalitions down; his succinct insights into what lay behind the Carlton Club vote in 1922, in which MPs successfully demanded the Conservatives withdraw from coalition with the Liberals, should be compulsory reading for David Cameron.
As an account of the party’s history, this book can be very good, but – to adapt the old nursery rhyme – when it is bad, it is horrid. It would not be easy to better his account of Salisbury, for example, and, while he has little new to say about Disraeli, he brings out the quality of his leadership. He might have said more about the potency of the Disraelian myth in the party’s affairs: seemingly buried with Lord Randolph Churchill, it was revived by the Unionist Social Reform Committee and fully developed by the man who, surprisingly, turned out to be its most successful member, Stanley Baldwin. It remained effective well into the time of Baldwin’s young men, Anthony Eden and “Rab” Butler.
This highlights a major weakness in Harris’ book. It is, essentially, an account of the leadership of the Conservative Party. What he says about the organisation is sensible, if terse; of necessity, the relationship of the leadership with their backbench MPs forms a considerable part of his story. But the mass organisation of the party is dealt with mainly as a vehicle for those seeking to challenge the leadership: the electorate is taken for granted.
That goes some way to explain his surprisingly jaundiced appreciation of Baldwin. Arguably he, more than any other, was responsible for ensuring that the party was the significant other to Labour in the warring partnership that came to dominate British politics for the remainder of twentieth century. Harris notes that he was a formidable politician and party manager, but it never seems to occur to him to wonder how it was that, on three occasions, Baldwin attracted half or more of the working-class vote. It was in Baldwin’s time, too, that the greater part of the traditional Liberal Party transferred their allegiance, many of them describing themselves as National Liberals. Whether this was all down to shrewd calculation or pure luck would bear examination. Probably it was neither, but the product of an uncanny intuitive sense of what the non-unionised electorate was thinking – and the skill to put it into words – that won their vote. It was a considerable help that he was a master of the broadcast fireside chat.
Harris finds it surprising that the post1884 electorate returned Conservative Governments, but it was an even more remarkable phenomenon after 1918. A moment’s thought would have told him that the only explanation he offers is incommensurate with the scale of the phenomenon it has to explain. A third of the working class remained in the Conservative camp after 1945, answering to an appeal better articulated by Eden than by Churchill. That ensured there was still a Conservative Party left, to respond to Mrs Thatcher’s appeal to more robust Conservative values (although they were not that dissimilar from those which Baldwin had earlier articulated).
However, Harris is more interested in the uses to which power is put than in the winning of it. His judgements are often provocative, sometimes harsh and, on occasion, curiously hedged. He seems almost wilfully blind to the achievements of Lord Liverpool, arguably the architect of the nineteenth century, and he tends to discount those of Conservative
Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister John Major at Downing Street administrations where the legislative output is that of a leader’s lieutenants. It is evident that he prefers chieftains to chairmen, but the record does not always support his verdict. As an account of the achievements and failures of the party’s leaders, this is an excellent read, but for those looking for a one-volume history of the party, John Ramsden’s An Appetite for Power is still the better bet. John Barnes
The NEWMAN ASSOCIATION Seventieth Anniversary
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7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 19