The Tories – From Winston Churchill to David Cameron by Timothy Heppell book review

LeftCentral Book Review 

It’s true; progressives should never judge a book by its cover because this is an outstanding in-depth analysis of the Tories by Timothy Heppell. Napoleon said luck was the attribute all Generals should have; a useful trait in politics too.  And for the majority of the time good luck is a strong feature of the post-war Tories. The transformed party took power with a slim majority in 1951; just as a world economic upturn was emerging, which helped reconcile the party in government to the Attlee Consensus.  The 1951 election providing another lucky break for the Tories in a bizarre anomaly, more votes were cast for the defeated Labour Party. 

The 1950s transformed into a decade of affluence with Macmillan issuing what Heppell describes as a warning to the `never had it so good` generation.  Macmillan in a valedictory statement near the end of his life viewed this famous speech differently. Macmillan instead highlighting the sound economic state when he left office i.e. a balanced budget and trade combined to low unemployment rates and with sterling in a good position.  This he argued allowed the UK to perform the role of banker to 50% of the world. He sadly recounted visiting Stockton-on-Tees sixty-three years after first representing the area only to discover that the unemployment rate was almost the same as the 1920s level.  Clearly the Tories of the 1950`s viewed unemployment as a scourge evident in this comment made by Butler, “those who talk about creating pools of unemployment should be thrown into them and made to swim.”

The reasons why the Tories were defeated in 1945 is outlined by Heppell, the Guilty Men thesis and the significance of the Beveridge Report provided Attlee with the policy traction to win.  The Tories linked to the policies of the 1930s, sat uneasily with an agenda formed during the war.  The Coalition committed to full employment “In line with Keynesian ideas, governments accepted the duty of managing demand as a means of producing full employment.” Labour had no trouble convincing the electorate however a credibility gap existed with the Tories. After the defeat in 1945 the party looked ruined. Chips Channon thought “the Tory party was dead.” But a Lazarus political renewal spearheaded by Butler saw the Tories back in power.

The 1945 election saw Churchill compare his former Coalition partners to the Gestapo. A crass statement, the Labour party dominated many of the key domestic portfolios in the war time Coalition which Churchill headed . In the wake of the 1945 defeat the Tories were forced to finesse policy and reconfigure their ideological outlook and structure.  Defeat granted the Tories time to reappraise policy. Churchill, as Heppell points out was not best placed to bring this internal transformation about more interested in politics than policy.  The majority of the work left to R.A Butler (Chair of Conservative Research Department – the group also contained Ian Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell) whose Industrial Charter was presented to the Tory party annual conference in 1947.  The symbolic significance of this document is highlighted by Heppell; two and a half million copies of the Charter sold.

There were of course post-war laissez faire supporters in the party, who described the ideological change as “pink” and “semi socialist” however the programme was accepted and was followed with the `Right Road for Britain`. Which as Heppell explains recognised, “the welfare state, full employment, and broadly reaffirmed the language of the Industrial Charter and the role of the state therein.”  The ideological and intellectual transformation of the party evident further with the publication of Hogg`s The Case for Conservatism` “in which he stated that the party opposed the ungodly and rapacious scramble for ill-gotten gains that one associates with laissez-faire capitalism in which the rich appeared to get richer and the poor poorer.”

Alongside these policy/ideological changes came organizational renewal the key role of Woolton as Party Chair outlined by Heppell.  As are the reforms associated with David Maxwell-Fyfe leading to change in the “financial base and their means of candidate selection” which Iain Macleod felt altered the image of the Tory Party.

The Tory victory in 1951 argues Heppell illustrates that Labour became a victim of their own consensus.  Fears that the Conservative would return to the agenda of the 1930s failed to materialise and in an economic context dominated by affluence Labour became the natural party of opposition leading to a period of soul searching, evident in the revisionist thesis written by Crosland.  Gaitskell proposed reforming Clause 4 but Genesis would not be removed from the Labour bible just yet.

Anthony Eden eventually replaced Churchill, Labour unable to take advantage of the Suez Crisis 1956. Macmillan`s emergence as leader took the political sting out of the crisis and the electorate returned the Tories in 1959 with a 100 seat majority. Macmillan had his local difficulty, as cracks began to appear in the Tory party commitment to the consensus. An embryonic Tory monetarist analysis began to emerge.  Macmillan did not think mass unemployment a panacea for economic problems leading to the resignation of his Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft along with Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell.  Heppell down plays this (Thorneycroft represented a minority within the Cabinet) but highlights that Powell became a vociferous advocate of a free market agenda, converting Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher.

Victory in 1959 saw Macmillan confronting economic problems with what Heppell describes as a “three-pronged renewal strategy, which became defined as Keynesian plus package.” The party then dealt with the messy succession of Alex Douglas-Home a candidate Heppell explains disliked by the right and left of the Tory Party. The emergence of Harold Wilson gave the Tories added problems, Heppell argues Wilson, “skilfully crafted a narrative based around Labour as the party of modernization, change and the white heat of technological revolution.”  Wilson was helped by events, the Profumo affair and by a Tory leadership appearing increasingly remote and aristocratic. Policy battles ensued around what Heppell describes as the “sensitive issue of abolishing resale price maintenance RPM”.  The policy pushed forward by Ted Heath as president of the Board of Trade caused “considerable division within the PCP, and indeed within the Cabinet.”  It also gave the impression that the Tories were not united. 

Ted Heath, the meritocratic leader chosen by the Tories after he defeated Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling. As Heppell explains Powell knew he could not win the leadership election but “his candidature would constitute a foretaste of the alliance Thatcher successfully constructed to win the leadership through a combination of free market enthusiasts and traditional right wingers concerned about immigration”.  Heath`s approach to opposition and government (1970-74) is examined forensically by Heppell.  The eventual removal of Heath and the role played by Douglas-Home (Alec`s revenge) and Edward du Cann, Chair of the 1922 Executive Committee is outlined.

Timothy Heppell outlines these ideological, organizational and policy changes. And in doing so examines the Tories through the prism of `statecraft` an approach which allows for a full examination of the party from 1945 to the present.  Labour under Wilson won in 1964 but the period of Tory opposition from 1966 to 1970 under Heath provides the clearest comparison with the period of opposition from 1945 to 1951.  The Tories successfully renewed themselves after the war but for various reasons outlined by Heppell, they failed to do so from 1966 to 1970.  The much vaunted Selsdon Man (the term coined by Harold Wilson) was neither fish nor fowl though neatly summarised by Heppell around four policy areas:

  • Seek entry into the EEC
  • Refuse to provide assistance for `lame duck` companies
  • Create a statutory framework to regulate industrial relations
  • Not introduce a compulsory incomes policy

This painful period in office and failure to fully implement the Selsdon agenda is outlined by Heppell. The Tories not only ran out of a coherent policy package but also luck with the “rise in Arab Oil Prices in 1973 and the collapse of Mr Heath`s prices and incomes policy in 1974 fuelled inflation”. The lacuna in policy and the reasons why the Heath government fell into such disarray provides for fascinating reading.

In 1979 the Tories broke with the Attlee Consensus, an electoral victory that heralded a monetarist revolution – the bye-product was mass unemployment, paid for by the wasted dividend of North Sea Oil. Although some academics contest the very notion that a post war political consensus ever existed i.e. SE Finer and Ben Pimlott. The consensus it`s argued was a myth dreamt up by commentators to discredit policies before the year zero of contemporary British politics, 1979.  It was after all a Labour government under Healey and Callaghan at the behest of the IMF that formally broke the Attlee consensus, moving away from Keynes and towards monetarism.  The Labour Party Conference of 1976 a watershed in contemporary British politics. From 1974-5 inflation reached “25 per cent…stopping inflation became the primary goal of stabilization policy”.

The post war commitment to full employment was dented as Labour allowed unemployment to rise from “1975 to 1977, from 700,000 to 1.4 million.”  Thatcherism could be viewed as an ideological gloss on a set of policies already in motion.  Although Labour`s commitment to monetarism was pragmatic.  And Callaghan would be replaced by a leader whose outlook (if not that of her party) was ideologically driven and committed to ditching the One Nation agenda linked to consensus.

A short blog cannot do justice to the range of issues outlined in this outstanding book but it should be read by anyone interested in British politics, especially those tempted to think the Tories are a spent force.

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