Now for a Really Conservative Century

By Marr, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Now for a Really Conservative Century


Marr, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Andrew Marr fears that the next hundred years could make this decade look like decadent liberalism

We are leaving the conservative century. The next one will be the progressive century. Aside from the passing rows over asylum policy or Railtrack, that is the big promise Tony Blair makes to the centre-left. He is a strategic politician, a man with one eye on history and another on the big rhythms of politics; and golden-tongued. A passage from dark reaction to a century of light is the most optimistic promise any centre-left leader has been able to make for a generation. But is it a realistic one?

Let us start with what is measurable. That phrase, "the conservative century", entered the political lexicon through a collection of essays on the Tory party published six years ago and taken up by various journalists, including me. The book's editors, Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball, pointed out that not only had the Tories been in power for 70 of the hundred years since 1895, but the main non-conservative party had enjoyed a significant majority in only three parliaments -- the Liberals in 1906-10 and Labour in 1945-50 and 1966-70.

Since then, we have had the new Labour landslide of 1997, altering the mood more than the overall arithmetic. But the record of a century of Tory rule merely punctuated by progressive blips hit Blair with great force. He was particularly struck by the way in which the historic division of the centre-left into Liberals and socialists had allowed the Tories such a long and easy dominance; and his continuing interest in healing the progressive wound in the British body politic follows from that.

And yet, aside from years served in No 10 and election victories chalked up, the 20th century looks in retrospect more like a progressive century than a Tory one. It was conservative. But it was not conservative. This was the century, after all, when women got the vote, when trade unions rose to the height of their power, when the welfare state was constructed, when wealth taxes and substantial income taxation were introduced, when full employment was made an explicit part of government policy.

Tories may have been in office for most of the years, but they were also following agendas that were not traditional conservative ones. The ratchet of history was against them. Who was it who first used the phrase about welfare, "from the cradle to the grave"; who argued for "a broadening field for state ownership and enterprise"; and who said, about the need to abolish unemployment, "we cannot have a band of drones in our midst, whether they come from the ancient aristocracy or the modern plutocracy or the ordinary type of pubcrawler"? None other than Winston churchill, speaking in March 1943. His postwar government supported the newly created NHS, setting the line for subsequent Tory administrations.

Comprehensive schools grew faster in number and grammar schools closed faster during Margaret Thatcher's time as education secretary than before or since. As prime minister she may have committed herself to the rolling back of the state and the reversal of the postwar socialistic consensus, but privatisation never reached the core provisions of welfare -- indeed, between 1981 and 1991 welfare spending rose as a proportion of GDP.

Overseas, it was Tories, such as Iain Macleod and Harold Macmillan, who were among the most determined and effective decolonisers. The party of empire and navy became the party of the scuttle. Tories may be, in theory, the great defenders of national sovereignty, but it was under Tory leaders -- Ted Heath, Thatcher and John Major -- that the decisive moves of Britain into European union were taken. There were no socialists in power at Westminster when we signed the Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act or Maastricht.

At home, again, the 20th was the century in which homosexuality and abortion were legalised, theatre censorship was abandoned, the death penalty was abolished and racism became unrespectable. …

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