Geoffrey Wheatcroft is rarely dull in print and this book is no exception. It is a rattling good read, although more because of its knowledge of insiders’ gossip, its pithy judgments of both men and measures and the rhythm of its prose than because of the force of its central thesis.
His judgments of men may be pithy, but they also often hit the mark. For instance, he recognises the Tory party’s recurrent faiblesse for charming mountebanks. So, he has Disraeli and Macmillan bang to rights and, while acknowledging Churchill’s greatness in 1940, he can say with perfect accuracy, ‘Churchill may have been the grandson of a duke, an Old Harrovian and a hussar officer, but he wasn’t a gentleman.’ However, why he thinks these three things are the qualifications of a gentleman he does not make clear. In other instances, too, the pith is more important than the accuracy of the barb. So, while he gives Lord Whitelaw the credit for spotting Archer as a wrong ’un and the poll tax as ‘trouble’, it does not stop him from describing Whitelaw as ‘at worst an ineffectual booby’. Anyone who saw Whitelaw at work realised that his old bufferdom was one of his most effective weapons. Equally, when cantering through the history of the party before he himself began to grace the fringes of the Westminster village, Wheatcroft rightly fingers Prime Minister Salisbury as an anti-democrat, but makes him seem less interesting than he was by failing to point out how the newly pragmatic post-1867 Tory nevertheless ruthlessly used the politics of democracy to dominate his party and, for much of the time, the nation for over 20 years.
Nevertheless, his knowledge of more recent events and of modern gossip is usually impeccable and this reviewer found himself nodding enthusiastically at many of his political opinions. On the gossip, my only quibble is that, by 1979 at least, when Spencer Le Marchant called for ‘a pint’ in the Smoking Room of the House of Commons he was calling for champagne, not claret. On the opinions, Wheatcroft has long been sound on the embarrassing cowardice of successive British governments in dealing with the racketeers and murderers of Sinn Fein/IRA. He is also right about other things. Mrs Thatcher did indeed destroy local government. Her instinct was to centralise and she was no doubt encouraged by the identities of those who opposed her attack on the councils: Tory wets, many of them old Etonians like Sir Charles Morrison and William Benyon. Surely such as they could not be right. Equally, Wheatcroft has a point when he suggests that Thatcher might have been wiser to have resigned soon after the ’87 election and he is certainly right to say that Norman Lamont should have gone after Black Wednesday: it was the least the humiliation demanded.
He is good, too, on the strengths of the aristocratic mid-20th century Tory party. He quotes, for instance, E. P. Thompson’s communist brother, Frank, who, after fighting in the Western Desert, wrote, ‘There’s no getting away from the fact that the regiments whose officers are the most blue-blooded — the Guards, old cavalry regiments — have proved themselves the best fighting regiments in the British army.’ Many of these men went into politics after the war. Some of them, such as Robert Boscawen and Carol Mather, went on to provide backbone in the Whips’ office for many years. They, as Wheatcroft points out, have been replaced by professional politicians who have been seduced into surrendering the supremacy of parliament in exchange for plush offices, pretty research assistants and vast pensions. We shall not see their like again, but if parliament is to survive we need to find some contemporary substitutes.
But what about the reason he wrote the book in the first place? Wheatcroft seems pretty confident that there is an exact parallel between the Liberal party in 1919 and the Tories in 2004, which is when, at a guess, all but the last two pages of the book were written. It must, therefore, have seemed rather a jolly wheeze to adapt Dangerfield’s book title and write a deathbed obituary of the moribund Tory party.
It is remarkable how confident the author seems of his premise until three-quarters of the way down page 278 of the 280. For the remaining page and a half of the main text the tone suddenly changes. Tony Blair is no longer the prime minister who has stolen all the Tories’ right-wing clothes. Rather, ‘the whole tenor of the Blair government has been bossy and authoritarian, fonder than ever of MacLeod’s nanny state’. He adds, ‘The Tories may find themselves at a final dead end.’ He says ‘may’. He does not say that they will. In other words he, in his conclusion, unlike in his book’s title, is hedging his bets.
He is right to do so. In the short term, with the dawn of 2005 the wheels are beginning to come off the Blair government as surely as they came off John Major’s in the mid-90s. Equally, the Tories are at last becoming more professional and showing signs of preferring to fight the enemy rather than each other. If Blair feels he cannot now avoid an election on 5 May, the Tories will at least make a real fight of it.
Almost more important, in the long term the facts of life are Tory.
Wheatcroft makes much of his perception that Blair is a right-winger and that thus he has stolen the Tories’ clothes. It is true that Blair has introduced bureaucratic and authoritarian government on a scale hitherto unprecedented in Britain. How-ever, these are not characteristics of Tory government. They are the characteristics of fascistic and left-wing governments, particularly when accompanied by sanctions on free expression that frighten people into self-censorship. Blair is, therefore, hardly stealing the Tories’ clothes; he is providing them with the opportunity to visit their tailors.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Tories will grasp the opportunity once again to reinvent themselves as they have so often done before. Nor is there any guarantee that the party will succeed. Parties, like humans, have Gadarene tendencies. However, even in the 21st century, the nation state is still the least bad form of polity, and whatever else it has stood for over the centuries, the Tory party has above all always stood for the nation. Nowadays more than ever, in order to succeed nations still need small government, low taxes and free trade. Above all, they need parliamentary government rather than government by bureaucracy or by bureaucracy’s handmaidens, the international courts.
The last few weeks have seen the beginnings of a Tory recovery, much helped by the government’s arrogance and incompetence. They have also seen signs that parliament has not entirely forgotten its purpose. The House of Commons almost rose from its knees and the House of Lords reminded us that without the peers parliament will always have difficulty in standing up to the executive — a timely reminder at a moment when the Prime Minister wishes further to curtail its powers. These two phenomena are not perhaps wholly unconnected.
After all, the government derives its authority to tell us what to do from parliament. Unless Whitehall submits itself continually to short-pitched bowling in Westminster it loses that authority. No amount of transfer of power to the unaccountable and corrupt bureaucracy in Brussels will alter that fact.
It is possible that the Tories will destroy themselves as the first 278 pages of Wheatcroft’s book predict. However, if they do someone else will have to reinvent them unless the nation itself wishes to emulate the party’s own Gadarene tendencies of the 1990s. Perhaps the doubts that surface in the final pages of this book are rather nearer the mark.