`It's Over' the Demise of Conservatism

By Laymon, Richard | History Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview

`It's Over' the Demise of Conservatism


Laymon, Richard, History Review


In an inimitable review of party politics over the last 160 years, Richard Kelly argues that the Conservative Party is like a marriage gone wrong.

This is the story of a marriage, one which has lasted for over a century and a half. It is a marriage which, despite some rocky patches, has been remarkably flexible, fertile and successful. It is a marriage which, only ten years ago, attracted the envy of other partnerships. Yet that marriage has now broken down, and it's probably irretrievable. It is a marriage known as the Conservative Party.

Some have said that the marriage always had shaky foundations, involving partners who were different in so many ways. The two partners, known locally as Whig and Tory, were brought together in the 1830s by that wily matchmaker Robert Peel. Peel was aware, though, that the two partners came from very dissimilar homes -- the Whigs being `new money' and `trade', while the Tories were more `landed' and aristocratic.

Peel was also aware that their instincts and general outlook differed sharply. Tory was rather gloomy, cynical and cautious, and somewhat sceptical of fancy notions like `freedom' and `progress'. Whig, meanwhile, was altogether more optimistic and occasionally quite radical, placing little value on stuffy old customs.

Furthermore, Peel acknowledged that the two had contrasting views on the sensitive issue of economics, Whig favouring an open, `free trade' relationship rather than the old-fashioned `protectionist' ideas of its new partner.

Peel sensed, however, that the two had a major common interest which would always surmount such domestic quarrels. This interest was a shared fear of democracy and class war, a fear sharpened by the Great Reform Act of 1832. Tory and Whig might have come across their wealth at different times and in different ways, but at least they both had wealth -- and both had a determination to keep it.

It was more like a marriage of convenience than a match made in Heaven -- and, as is often the case with such relationships, it buckled at the first sign of pressure. The repeal of the Corn Laws after 1841 prompted a massive row in the new household, one which brought out all the old differences over free trade and protection.

It was a row which almost terminated the marriage there and then, and its consequences were severe. For the next 30 years, the marriage was a barren one, virtually devoid of any full-blown governmental contact.

During the late 19th-century, there was a definite improvement in the relationship, thanks mainly to Tory accepting Whig's insistence upon free trade in return for a few patrician-style reforms around the house -- such as improving the lot of the domestic servants (or `elevating the condition of the people' as Tory pretentiously described it).

However, in the early 20th century, the old dispute over free trade or protection flared up again, Tory having been seduced by a flash, tariff-talking Liberal Unionist called Joe Chamberlain. Despite Chamberlain eventually leaving town following a stroke, and despite attempts at mediation by donnish Uncle Balfour, the damage was acute. The relationship suffered a complete breakdown at the end of 1905, with both partners losing millions of friends in 1906.

Yet salvation was at hand. For shortly after 1906, Whig and Tory were brought back together by a new shared interest, namely a loathing of two new fashions: socialism and communism. They quickly found that their spats over free trade were completely transcended by a common hatred of such dangerous new ideas. They resolved to `give it one more go', if only for the sake of their dependants (who felt rather swamped after the franchise extension of 1918).

During the next half-century, the marriage enjoyed a truly golden period. Normal, governmental relationships were fully restored and, indeed, became more frequent than ever. While some marriages (like that of the Gladstonian and Lloyd George Liberals) withered, and while other couples (like Left and Moderate Labour) bickered constantly in public, Whig and Tory got along rather well. …

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