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The Strange Death of Tory England by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

22 September 2007

Today’s review is posted in remembrance of the late Ian Gilmour. A little less than a year ago, he wrote an interesting article about the Profumo affair for the London Review of Books — it’s worth reading, if you have a few minutes to spare.

The Strange Death of Tory England by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

When you consider that Britain’s Conservative Party won the majority of elections in the 20th century, and from 1922 until 1997 there was no Conservative Party leader who had not ended up as Prime Minister at some point in his or her career, the electoral difficulties and the revolving-door changeover of Party leaders in the last decade or so is intriguing to say the least. Now that the Party is trying to reinvent itself yet again under the leadership of David Cameron, the question presents itself: what on earth happened to the Tories?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft explores that question in The Strange Death of Tory England, a book whose title is a clear reference to George Dangerfield’s 1935 work The Strange Death of Liberal England. Dangerfield’s book was an attempt to understand what had happened to the Liberal Party, which in 1907 had won with a landslide unmatched until the victory of New Labour ninety years later but which by the 1930s had fallen into Labour’s long shadow. Wheatcroft, in turn, explores the history of the concept of a ‘Tory’, its role in the formation of the modern Conservative Party, and the shifts in the electorate and changes in politics that either put the Tories in power (Churchill in 1951, Thatcher in 1979) or drove them from it (Heath in 1974, Major in 1997).

Wheatcroft is a very good writer for this kind of historical survey and examination, turning from gossip to critical analysis to anecdote to introspection without breaking the flow of the narrative. He seems to have enough distance from the subject to avoid falling into apologetics or angry defensiveness, but the distance is not so distant that it loses any of the passion. There are a few points where he could go a little deeper into his analysis and possibly produce a firmer conclusion, but he does touch on a number of critical points, particularly when he highlights the history of the ‘Tory maverick’ (a figure that appears to have faded out in the last decade or so, if the current party roster is anything to go by) who on occasion was not afraid to buck the party’s traditions and put principle before politics. And as Wheatcroft concludes, after musing on the outcome of the 2005 General Election:

Conservatives have sat around for some years saying to themselves that they will get back one day, but there is no necessary reason why this should be so. No law of history says that any political party has to survive. In 1906, the Liberals won the greatest of landslide elections, and within ten years they had lost office as a party, never to hold power again. Whether the Tories are destined to follow them may depend on humility and capacity to learn from error.

The Strange Death of Tory England is not kind to the Tories on the whole, but there is at least a modicum of sympathetic interest in the successes and failings of a political party which is an integral part of modern British history.

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