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John O'Sullivan: Every Tory moderniser should read this book


John O'Sullivan is Editor-at-Large of National Review. Published by Bantam, Robin Harris book can be purchased at Amazon.

Screen shot 2011-11-14 at 18.26.54“Read biography,” said Disraeli, “for that is life without theory.” Robin Harris is very far from being a devotee of the Disraeli cult. Modern conservatives, he believes, misinterpret both Disraeli and Gladstone by exaggerating those of their ideas that still have purchase today and by ignoring those things they cared most about at the time. But he has taken Disraeli’s advice on biography further than the Master in two senses.

The first sense is that he has written a biography of the Conservative party in all its twists, turns, efforts, failures, achievements, and—not least—occasional nervous breakdowns since its early beginnings in the rhetoric of Burke and the statecraft of Pitt the Younger. I write “biography” rather than history because this book traces the ways in which the Tory party, much like a human being, has changed in response to the large social changes of two hundred years while retaining more or less the same identity throughout.

Describing this essential identity is not a simple matter since its constituent elements emerge, merge, diverge and merge again in different ways at different times over the period. But these main elements are clear enough and, though any list will be debatable, they include:
  • The Conservative party has traditionally sought to ally Britain’s ruling class of the day- initially the “landed interest” - with rising social classes upon the common principle of defending property. Where social classes without property either were or included potential recruits, it has supported and facilitated their aspirations to property.
  • Tories have generally been seen by themselves and others as the patriotic party both because they have encouraged and profited from occasional jingoism and, more seriously, because they have sought to root major policies in the long-term interests of the British state. Broadly speaking, from the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” until very recently, this has meant a grand strategy built on the worldwide promotion of sound finance, property rights, free trade, and free capital movements. Andrew Gamble, a sympathetic critic of Toryism from its Left, calls this combination “Anglo-America” because the United States inherited the task of defending this liberal world order after 1945.
  • Because the Conservative party emerged gradually into history out of the factional political disputes of the Napoleonic period and later, pure ideology plays a lesser role in its life than in that of the Labour and Liberal parties. That is not to say ideology plays no part at all - merely that Tories hold all political ideas to account in the light of their performance more sceptically and thus sooner than others. In the Burkean tradition of ordered liberty, liberalism was made for man, not man for liberalism. 
  • The Tory party, finally, represents strategic and economic realism in domestic political debate against the utopian idealism of its various opponents. This willingness to deal with unpalatable facts is why it has earned the honorable name of the “Nasty” party. It is the party that cleans up the mess that spendthrifts, pacifists, and utopians invariably leave behind.

These different elements combine, dissolve and re-combine to produce policies that even when they alter over time, are nonetheless supported by a consistent tough-mindedness. Thus, although the Conservative Party has mostly supported free trade, it spent the first thirty-five years of the twentieth century divided over—and eventually advocating—imperial protectionism. This departure from the economic orthodoxy of “Anglo-America” was justified by distinctly hard-nosed calculations: first, that Britain would need a larger economic base in order to remain the equal of rising world powers such as Germany and the United States; second, that tariff revenue could finance higher defence expenditure without the need for higher income taxes.

Those calculations were not wrong, but the policy failed - and in retrospect it looks doomed to fail. Appeasement too, in the hands of the Tory-dominated National Government, was a hard-nosed policy designed to rescue a worldwide empire from the consequences of imperial overstretch. As Dr Harris mordantly notes, however, this policy failed as well. One is now surely justified in adding “Europe” as a third example of a tough-minded strategy for national revival that has failed. Realism is no guarantee of success; it merely offers better odds than unrealism.

As these examples also show, this tough-minded Tory tradition allows for a wide variety of political responses to national problems. Tories have been on both sides of innumerable major issues ranging from the extension of the suffrage to “Europe” over time. Some even make a fetish of this flexibility: “catching the Whigs bathing and running off with their clothes” is their sole concept of political imagination. Granted this wide latitude, however, what determines the actual policies Conservatives have adopted?

Here comes in the second sense in which Dr. Harris has followed Disraeli’s injunction to biography. He explains the broad and changing directions of Tory policy as the result of the different preferences of its more dominant leaders. At the Carlton Club meeting that led to the break-up of the Lloyd George coalition (and, later, to the formation of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers), Bonar Law had declared: “The Party elects a Leader, and that Leader chooses the policy, and if the Party does not like it, they have to get another Leader.” Dr Harris interprets this remark less as a successful bid for power (though it was certainly that) than as a sociological description of how the Tory Party works.

Accordingly, he sees the Tory Party almost as nine different parties shaped by the personalities of nine leaders - Peel, Derby, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan, Heath and Thatcher. Each leader contributed some element to the Tory identity; that element often persists today. Disraeli transferred to his party his own “zeal for the greatness of England,” and partly for that reason he made the party more popular nationally than it had been ever before. Salisbury, a pessimistic aristocrat sceptical of democracy, made the Tory party both a political home for the middle class and a well-organised electoral machine, thus becoming against all the odds his party’s most successful democratic leader until Margaret Thatcher. Stanley Baldwin made his inter-war party “the natural party of government” with his emollient soothing of popular fears. (But this judgment is not necessarily a compliment—see below.)

Heath made the Conservatives the “party of Europe,” but since he exaggerated its benefits and glossed over its drawbacks, he left the country (still) unresolved problems and the Tory party material for seemingly endless splits. Margaret Thatcher was the first leader “since Peel to devote pride of place to economic policy over other aspects of government” and her “unevenly virtuoso” performance revived the self-confidence of a Conservative party that was floundering and uncertain under her predecessor. Etc, etc.

These nine leaders are not the sole recipients of Dr. Harris’s critical gaze. He sees other leaders playing important roles - Bonar Law saving the party from ruin twice; Neville Chamberlain undermining the Tory reputation for strategic realism; John Major undermining its reputation for economic competence. But for various reasons (usually brevity in office), leaders such as Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home, and Major did not impress a distinctive identity on their followers. Most were caretakers of the parties bequeathed by their predecessors. As to “Cameron’s Party,” Dr Harris attaches a discreet question mark to it reflecting the unfinished nature of the modernization project. In general, however, the message of this book is that any accurate biography of the Tory party will mainly reflect the influence of its most significant leaders.

This is a bold and original approach - and Robin Harris would seem to be its ideal practitioner. He is a former Director of the Conservative Research Department who in the Thatcher years hired David Cameron. He is an established historian and the author of an elegant biography of Talleyrand. He knows the Conservative Party in both theory and practice. And - full disclosure - he and I have been friends for almost thirty years, and we both assisted Lady Thatcher in the writing of her memoirs. My expectations for this book were therefore high; but Dr Harris has exceeded them.

In the first place this book is genuine history written with real authority. It describes persuasively how people at the time felt, spoke, and acted about the political controversies in which they were engaged. It does not impose our parochial concerns or our opportunistic interpretations on them. Quite the reverse. It demolishes a number of cherished Conservative myths, notably the idea that the main object of Disraeli’s political life was to promote social reform rather than (a) the political interests of the landed gentry and (b) himself. What it principally achieves, however, is to bring dead controversies to life in the course of showing how they contributed to the birth and rise of the Conservative party.

Nor - and this suspicion might perhaps have been provoked by Dr. Harris’s Thatcherite career - is the book an example of teleological history. His list of significant Tory leaders is definitely not a kind of apostolic succession that reaches its destined high point in the elevation of the Blessed Margaret. Mrs. Thatcher is given her impressive due in the chapter on “her” party. But high marks for Thatcher are more or less inevitable in any history of the Tory party that is not avowedly anti-Conservative. Dr. Harris’s critique, though favorable overall, contains sharp criticisms of her governance and ideological legacy. Indeed, the very structure of a book that treats Conservative history as a succession of political biographies militates very effectively against any kind of teleology.

Also, this history is finely written and highly readable with an undercurrent of dry wit running through its narrative (“When Balfour, or any other Conservative leader, lost the bores, he lost the party.”) Its pen pictures of leading Tories are models of economic description. And its final judgments on them - and on the Tory parties they led - are balanced but unsparing. 

Given that Dr Harris is writing about electoral reform and church politics in the nineteenth century, economic decline, social reform, and war in the twentieth century, and environmentalism and cultural politics in the current century, he cannot judge his chosen leaders by any single criterion. As his narrative moves into and through the last century, however, one standard emerges against which most of them have to be measured (if only because they hoped to measure themselves favorably against it.) It is their success or otherwise in halting and reversing the decline of Britain since its late Victorian hey-day.

This is a tricky standard because in retrospect Britain’s relative decline was inescapable in a world of rising nationalisms and continental super-powers. Also, at least one of the leaders examined here - namely, Churchill - is unique in having overcome a supreme national challenge by virtue of extraordinary leadership. But Churchill himself lamented in later years that Britain had lost its status as a front-rank power despite this last glorious achievement. That was largely because of an underlying economic and industrial decline to which his and other postwar Tory administrations contributed through their political and economic timidity. (Dr. Harris focuses in particular on the failure to adopt ROBOT—a “road not taken” which I leave his readers to discover for themselves.) And if the test is responding to that decline, then the spotlight must turn on five Tory leaders: Balfour, Baldwin, Macmillan, Heath, and Thatcher.

My one serious quarrel with Dr. Harris is his almost contemptuous dismissal of Balfour. Though Balfour failed miserably as a party leader, presiding over a prolonged internal civil war, and though his droll witticisms in coping with major crises irritate Dr. Harris, he both diagnosed the “national efficiency” deficit of Britain after the Boer War more seriously than any other political leader and proposed more realistic remedies to it than Joseph Chamberlain and the protectionists - namely, much greater national emphasis on education, apprenticeships, science, technology, and management. He fell from power before being able to carry through many of his reforms. Though he may not deserve inclusion in the pantheon of Tory leaders who shaped the party, he nonetheless has an honorable place as a Prime Minister who at least began to tackle national decline intelligently.

Macmillan and Heath between them represent a very different strategy to break the cycle of decline. It was a vigorous policy sustained over several years in each case. And it was an innovative one. Except for the brief “Selsdon” free-market interlude that began the Heath government, the strategy introduced two ideological novelties into the Tory tradition. The first was a massive degree of centralized statist intervention—indicative planning and incomes control in Macmillan’s case; prices and incomes control, industrial subsidies, and corporate economic planning in Heath’s. Tories had flirted with corporatism before, notably in the 1930s, but never on this scale. The second innovation was a reckless degree of fiscal and monetary expansion disguised rhetorically as “a dash for growth.” This combination was supposed to ensure that the ensuing boom would produce economic expansion and industrial innovation rather than inflation, overheating, and a balance of payments crisis. In fact it produced a succession of different crises: the long sterling crisis inherited by Harold Wilson in Macmillan’s case; stagflation, the 1974 miners’ strike, the three-day week, and the defeat of his government in Heath’s case. In retrospect, the differences on economic policy between the Heath and Macmillan administrations and Harold Wilson’s intervening government look minor but, where they exist, they are to the credit of Wilson who maintained a somewhat more responsible monetary policy. (His 1974-76 government is a different matter.)

Macmillan and Heath tested the limits of Tory flexibility almost to destruction - but not beyond that point. The former was a sentimental neo-socialist, the latter a desiccated technocrat. Each took his party deeply into dogmatic statism under the misleading banner of pragmatism. Yet both exercised rigid discipline over their parties until the final smash-up and both retain influential Tory admirers today. There seems to be a confused logic underlying such support: When Tories pursue conservative and/or free market policies, they are acting ideologically; when they pursue socialist or statist policies, they are acting pragmatically. The practical effect of such logic (seen in such writers as the late Ian Gilmour) is that conservatism becomes the only ideology to which anti-ideological Tories object. This warped logic still influences Tory debate.

Baldwin’s case is more complicated. He was a semi-mystical political dreamer who saw his role as being to create the national solidarity needed for class cooperation in industrial reform and economic revival. Against that soothing background his Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, pursued a tough, orthodox fiscal policy, and other Ministers arranged for British industry to set up cartels in return for limited protection. This combination would have faltered in the long run; it reinforced the defensive mentalities and restrictive practices of British industry. But in the peculiar circumstances of the Slump—and here my view is slightly more favorable than Dr. Harris’s—it did pretty well. Britain recovered more quickly than any other advanced nation, and modern industry began to spread across southern England.

This achievement was real, but it fostered the national complacency that Baldwin embodied. It was also set at naught by the rise of the dictators and the onset of the Second World War. For these challenges Baldwin’s talents were quite unsuited. He was baffled by Hitler - Dr. Harris describes his response as a “mental shrug” - and he intuited that the national mood would permit only gradual and pacific responses to German threat. It was under Baldwin that Appeasement became the settled national policy (though it would become a more active one under the energetic Chamberlain). Britain thus drifted into war. His admirers claim, with some justice, that war found the British people united by Baldwin’s social emollience. But war also found British industry and industrial relations insufficiently modernized and efficient and - under a war-time national government that included Labour and then a postwar Labour government- made them less so. Dr. Harris’s verdict is damning:

“Baldwin won huge majorities. He just did not know what to do with them. At a deeper level, undoubtedly he reflected the mood of the times. This, in fact, was the problem. He reflected it too well. In Baldwin the country got what it wanted and, arguably, and to stray into more disputable territory, it got what it deserved. But it did not get what it needed.”

There are, of course, echoes here of a more recent Prime Minister.

Not Mrs. Thatcher, it need hardly be said. She probably hated Britain’s decline with more real passion than any political leader since the First World War. Her “project” was the revival of Britain in all important respects; but she expected to root this in a recovery of the British economy. (The Falklands war was an unexpected challenge turned to good effect.) Her methods were more or less the opposite of the Macmillan-Heath recipe: she favored macro-economic fiscal and monetary restraint and a micro-economic policy of removing obstacles to enterprise (including subsidies.) Not everything went as intended by a long chalk. But she drove through necessary reforms against strong opposition by virtue of brave political leadership and sustained administrative stamina. The broad economic and foreign policy successes that followed are so well-known as to make repetition of them needless here. It is simply silly to argue, however, that changes of this magnitude and controversy could have been achieved either by emollient Tory leadership or by social democratic negotiations between “stakeholders.” Dr. Harris is entirely right to conclude that “it is difficult to argue that these achievements, taken as a whole, were anything other than startling, when compared with the record of other modern British governments - not least modern Conservative governments.” For a generation Britain’s long decline was finally halted and reversed.

Owing to the extraordinary fiscal ingenuity of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, however, normal service has been resumed. Britain is faced with yet again with economic slowdown and financial crisis, and it falls to a largely Conservative government to deal with these familiar hobgoblins. This task would be hard even for a well-integrated government, but it has fallen by chance into the hands of a Tory party undergoing a combination of identity crisis and nervous breakdown. Dr. Harris refrains from any final historical judgment on the Cameron Tory party in a short last chapter. (In a slightly failed attempt at discretion, he exiles his more pungent comments, including a crisp demolition of “Red Toryism,” to the footnotes where journalists in search of headlines should repair.) Even so, he raises some questions—the most troubling of which concerns the philosophical nature of the modernizing project of which Cameron conservatism is the most mature expression. What does it stand for? In Walter Mondale’s scathing question to an earlier candidate bearing “new ideas”: “Where’s the Beef?”

As others have noted, the more Cameron modernization is explained, the less anyone understands it. There is something elusive and will o’ the wisp about it. Initially, it defined itself negatively as a movement opposed to the unreconstructed Thatcherite Tories. It proudly announced that there was such a thing as society. It renounced any foolish intention of “banging on” about crime, immigration, Europe, or other supposed obsessions of more traditional Tories. Its adherents were constantly looking for a “Clause Four moment” when they could demonstrate their distance from the “Nasty” past by dissing a prominent Die-Hard. But there is a strictly limited appeal in not being Norman Tebbit. Only those who follow politics closely would even realize that a dramatic gesture of ideological revolution was being bravely made. (Sorry, Norman.) Something more positive was required. 

What followed was a series of photo-ops and exercises in gesture politics - the windmill on the roof, the bicycle to work, the dash to the Pole. This development of the Cameron project was a sort of cultural make-over - “the Dianification of Toryism” as I have argued elsewhere—to render the Tories an entirely different party, one of socially liberal herbivores, acceptable to its critics in Metroland. Cultural make-overs are notoriously hard to pull-off, however, since those being culturally transformed notice the process more quickly than anyone else. And they don’t always like it. The main result of this make-over, visible in the 2010 election results, was to strengthen UKIP by driving dissed-off Tories towards it. It made only modest inroads in the voting bloc of Liberal centrists who had many other suitors.
The 2008 financial crisis made these cultural gestures look frivolous—as well as shocking the Tory leadership which had rooted the Cameron project in the assumption that economic growth would continue smooth and uninterrupted under New Labour. That was a curious assumption to start with: every previous Labour government had ended in economic crisis—why should this one be different? If the crisis embarrassed Cameron and Osborne, however, it also rescued them by imposing a more realistic economic policy upon the party—and by giving them a serious purpose in office. They have to save the British economy by public spending cuts that eventually reduce the deficit. That political commitment is now fully half of the Cameron project. 

Not going bankrupt is, however, a very inadequate political philosophy. It is an aim shared by all parties (even if their methods for achieving solvency differ) and it does little more than lay the groundwork for positive policies. Such policies exist - Michael Gove’s education reforms, Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare changes - but there is little about them that is distinctly Cameronian. Much the same could be said about the flagship idea of the Big Society which amounts to a re-working of the traditional conservative celebration of mediating institutions but one without a manual of instructions. Other signature Cameron issues, such as his ultra-Green commitment to carbon reduction, look both doomed and embarrassing as their costs become apparent. Yet those issues on which the Cameron modernizers had imposed a vow of silence on the party - immigration, Europe, and crime - now constitute the main topics of public debate as they spiral downwards in a series of crises. Those crises - especially the crisis over the Euro - would represent welcome political opportunities for almost any imaginable Conservative party. But these opportunities drive the Cameron Tories into silence and paralysis - and not simply because they are in a coalition with Lib-Dems. Cameron modernization, as originally conceived, has run into a dead end.

That is not really surprising if, as Dr. Harris mordantly and (in my view) correctly remarks, there is no such thing as a new political idea. The best we can do is to mine our political tradition for old ideas whose time has come round again (as Thatcher did). Neophiliac Tories determined on new ideas will therefore find themselves either borrowing ideas from other political traditions (as Heath and Macmillan did) or indulging in empty gestures that disintegrate on coming into contact with harsh political reality.

Dr Harris hints at guidance - no more - in suggesting that the three most successful and significant Tory leaders are Disraeli, Salisbury, and Thatcher. Here, for the last time, I differ slightly with him. I would first add Churchill to the list and then separate out Churchill and Disraeli from Salisbury and Thatcher. All four are distinguished by what Salisbury called, in paying tribute to Disraeli, “zeal for the greatness of England.” That is one indispensable element of English Conservatism. Disraeli and Churchill, however, were romantic buccaneers whose brilliant imaginations and passionate loyalties sometimes overwhelmed the cool practical realism that is the other necessary counterpoint in the great Tory melody. Salisbury and Thatcher both possessed that realism in unusual measure. It explains their harmonious and sympathetic relationship with their own parties—one not shared by most Tory leaders—and their long political success. Realism is no guarantee of success; but if does offer better odds than unrealism.

What the modernisers and other conservatives now need to do is to delve into the Tory tradition for directions out of their present world of shades and illusions. They could do no better than to start with Dr. Harris’s book.


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