A grand old party

8/22/13 12:32 PM

March 2012

A grand old party
by Kenneth Minogue

Political parties are strange, introverted organizations. Their business is to reflect the democratic
pulse of the people and advance good public policies. But politicians aren’t like the rest of us. Vanity, obsession, and, above all, the will to power have been honed to a fine point. Some even hold a belief in their own personal destiny to lead. The result is that a political party is rather like an underwater environment from which the most remarkable creatures at times emerge to rule us, blinking and tottering as they try to adjust to the scrutiny of ordinary people and to the realities of public life. Britain’s Conservative Party is an especially distinctive case. Western civilization is passionate about the change that nurtures the hope of better things, but here is an organization promising the people of Britain that it will try to keep things, in essence, the same. In democratic terms, it’s against nature! Political parties usually hoist attractive though illusory banners at the masthead —“democracy,” “liberty,” “justice,” and other motherhood abstractions. Conservatism as an aspiration doesn’t rate, and I can’t think of any other country where conservatism is much more than a term of abuse—except, perhaps, the United States under Reagan, and in that case the heroic martyrdom was done a generation before by Goldwater. The remarkable thing, then, is that the Conservative Party has dominated British politics for most of the last two centuries and has even been regarded as the natural party of government. Political parties are bureaucracies, and the only interesting thing about a bureaucracy is the personality of its leader. A history of parties must then focus on personality, as Robin Harris, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, has done in this revealing history. He certainly brings out the strange character of some of the remarkable people who have led the Party, according space in proportion to the influence he thinks these leaders have had. Few will take issue with the pantheon that results. Winston Churchill, for example, was clearly in the top rank; however, he was doubtfully a true Conservative at all. This is part of the reason why he was widely disliked and mistrusted by his colleagues. The key to success in politics is to live at a moment when your particular talents are


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A grand old party 8/22/13 12:32 PM needed. But Churchill’s merits earned him the top position only in the later stages of a long career. Nineteenth-century !politics was invariably an arena in which political actors had to back their hunches. coalitions of one kind or another. In 1867. This was the Tory workingman.cfm/A-grand-old-party-7316 Page 2 of 4 . is a bonus. partly because of their supposed hostility to the monarchy. as Churchill certainly was. that helped Conservatives (as the party of the landed gentry) adapt to the slowly emerging democratic features of mid-nineteenth-century Britain. and.” as his many enemies called him. he had “dished the Whigs” by adopting the Liberal Reform Bill of his opponents. and perhaps his very oddity. At the intellectual center of Harris’s account of the Conservative Party is the crucial and little-known http://www. a figure so contrary to conventional political wisdom that he was to cause great confusion for Marxist interpreters of modern British politics. He was sixty-five before he became prime minister. and are. including the emerging middle class in the suburbs—a class that was discovering the benefits of Conservatism. but must be. What were these strange people doing voting Tory. it was a damned near-run thing. of course. but Disraeli was returned to power in 1874. wondered a whole bemused class of political scientists. But he could charm opponents. Most political parties in real democracies are. today such verbosity would lose any leader an election. Like Churchill. Like Churchill. and many detested him. and Disraeli suddenly found himself popular again. and the Conservative Party has been no different. and he loved it. Gladstone and the Radicals in power.newcriterion. in the case of Disraeli particularly.com/articleprint. It was also during this time that another strange political creature began to surface in Britain. The immediate result was that the Conservatives suffered a heavy defeat in the 1868 election. Indeed. alienated much of their support. concealed. One of the formative personalities in Harris’s account of the Conservative Party is Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli came to power almost too late. and a man of the world—an “adventurer. political judgment is so fluid that even today some conservatives look back to the Liberal Gladstone as a leader the Conservative Party might have had. a Jewish Anglican. Disraeli was sensitive to new developments. so that government may be carried on. As an earlier Conservative once said of the battle of Waterloo. but in the wider politics of Britain. It allied diverse groups. and Disraeli’s cynical and often detached personality helped to supply it. Harris’s book is full of explorations of the eccentricities of political life. The Party needed an organization that could reach out to the newly enfranchised. Opinion polls were yet to come. just as he charmed the Queen. he was a maverick in Conservative terms. thus doubling the franchise. To be outstanding. One speech he gave in Manchester lasted three and a half hours. People cheered him. however. we understand how antipathies in politics are more intense than in most other social spheres. It was his brilliance and charm. when their business was to be struggling against bourgeois oppression? It is part of the fascination of political history that judgments never stay long in one place. from believers in free markets to “Tory Radicals” keen on implementing social legislation—and Disraeli did in fact pass a great deal of social regulation.

He believed in experts and consensual policies. arrogant. Shy. another sequence of accidents was needed to install Margaret Thatcher.cfm/A-grand-old-party-7316 Page 3 of 4 . he observes. Thatcher. he said he did not understand what people meant by the “burden of responsibility. In addition to her own merits. the first feeling of all Englishmen was for England. she was a close ally of Sir Keith Joseph. He was “probably the most recognizably and intelligently conservative leader the party has ever had. thought in terms of contingency—the world is so complicated that uncontrollable responses begin to multiply from the moment of action. Salisbury. wanted to restore the balance of virtues in Britain http://www. but with Edward Heath. But it soon became clear that in an aggressively democratic atmosphere. and broadly religious in his view of life. however. but Thatcher became the standard bearer of this new line of thought after Joseph ruled himself out of contention with an incautious speech laced with eugenic overtones. spent the rest of his life sulking at the outcome. Heath moved to the Whips office from the moment he was elected and quickly learned the art of keeping MPs in line. Even so. “and not in the least upon the magnitude of the results which may follow. One element of his fame results from a remark reported by his wife when. Harold Macmillan was ill and had to resign. was that becoming involved with the European Union was the way to solve all Britain’s problems. Salisbury’s grasp of the essence of politics is so solid that one of Harris’s chapters on him is a brilliant essay on political wisdom. in a brilliant attempt to understand the principle of Thatcher’s rule.newcriterion. We live with that mistake to this day. His one immutable belief. Letwin argued. and the critic Shirley Robin Letwin. Thatcher may not have been a real Tory. Now. who goes on to make the point that its leaders are by no means always philosophical conservatives.A grand old party 8/22/13 12:32 PM figure of the Marquess of Salisbury. and made leader of the Party. He enjoyed life and was amused by it. and who could have been a more striking contrast than the graceless “low born” (as Harris puts it) grammar school boy. casually coming into the family drawing room after a morning at his desk. while no more a real Conservative than Disraeli or Churchill. Writing his last journalistic article in 1883. we were in a different world. however. With the results I have nothing to do. who was in fact the fourteenth Earl of Home. prime minister from 1970 to 1974. he said. but his control of the Party was sufficient to get Sir Alec Douglas-Home. and after failing to win the vote.” But what is one to make of more recent leaders? Churchill and Salisbury came from central casting as leaders of Britain’s Conservatives. but she was certainly made of the right stuff. and charmless. as leader. a couple of good speeches at the right time gave him a place in the public eye. certainly judged her to be properly conservative. he was hardly a political operator.com/articleprint. Salisbury’s pessimism was essentially philosophical rather than temperamental. Douglas-Home could not last. Heath? Of such strange combinations of events is the world of politics made. Some of Salisbury’s remarks still resonate strongly today.” The point being that those who fret about the burden of decisions think that the outcome has been directly caused by what they have chosen to do.” remarks Harris. Sharing a staunch belief in the power of the free market. Heath seemed a safe pair of hands and. Poor vain Heath did not think Thatcher was a serious threat to his leadership. moved from the Lords to the Commons.” One makes one’s decision in terms of the materials available. the grocer’s daughter from Grantham. “Half a century ago. whatever the cost. the sympathies of a powerful party are instinctively given to whatever is against England. Salisbury was deeply pessimistic about the future of Britain.

characteristics which Thatcher herself showed in abundance when dealing first with her own colleagues. Volume 30 March 2012. MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR This article originally appeared in The New Criterion.com http://www.newcriterion. Kenneth Minogue was Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. on page 73 Copyright ï¿! 2013 The New Criterion | www.cfm/A-grand-old-party-7316 http://www. into her battle with the Union of Mineworkers.com/articleprint.newcriterion. but also liberal democracies all over the world.com/articles.newcriterion. and beyond.A grand old party 8/22/13 12:32 PM away from current sentimentalities such as compassion and towards the “vigorous virtues” of courage and enterprise. and then in responding to the Argentine take-over of the Falklands. Here then is a witty and concise account of the figureheads of perhaps the most influential political tradition in the modern world—a tradition that has generated not only the American Constitution.cfm/A-grand-old-party-7316 Page 4 of 4 .

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