Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories Are Reduced to Hoping That Something Will Turn Down

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories Are Reduced to Hoping That Something Will Turn Down

Article excerpt

Russian prince once observed that between the revolution and the firing squad, there is always time for a bottle of champagne. The Conservative party has clearly absorbed this dictum; one of the most remarkable aspects of British politics since 1 May is that whenever the handfuls of Conservative survivors forgather, they disport themselves cheerfully.

One such gathering was held on Monday evening, in honour of Britain's greatest living Tory thinker, Maurice Cowling, who has just produced a pamphlet entitled A Conservative Future (Politeia, 3). In it, Mr Cowling refers to `the possibility of recreating a Conservative intellectuality like the [one] . . . which underpinned the Conservative party between 1970 and 1990,' and which assisted Margaret Thatcher's government to win `the major battles that it fought in the public mind.' Though Mr Cowling is too modest to say so, he played an important role in creating that intellectuality. It is also indisputable that a Conservative electoral revival does, in part, depend on an intellectual revival. Tories have to win the argument before they can win the votes.

In one respect, however, Maurice Cowling's own career provides evidence for the strictly limited nature of the intellectual victories the Tories won in the Seventies and Eighties. John Major's Cabinet contained one pupil of Mr Cowling's Michael Portillo - plus at least one prominent disciple, John Patten. They joined forces with William Waldegrave and some of the political appointees in No. 10 to try to obtain a knighthood for Mr Cowling. They failed. There is a committee which oversees such matters: the so-called Maecenas committee, of which Professor the Lord Briggs FBA is a prominent member. The Maeceneans rejected Mr Cowling.

The Cowling oeuvre is controversial. But his works on 20th-century British history are some of the most powerful of all refutations of the determinist view of history. Their impact has been limited, partly because so many of his professional colleagues are trying to retain at least some of the prejudices of their Marxist youth, and partly because Mr Cowling seems to go out of his way to write obscurely. Frank Johnson says that if he decided to read books on the theory of knowledge, he would expect opaque prose, but if he is merely reading about Lloyd George's negotiations with Seamus O'Hooligan, he does not see why the author should not write clearly. Mr Cowling can write lucidly, as his earlier books - and this pamphlet - demonstrate, so his refusal to do so is wilful.

There are no complexities in Asa Briggs's prose. His books read like extended versions of articles in History Today. We already know that in large areas of public policy, and especially in education, a preThatcherite establishment retained its control throughout the Tories' 18 years. The pre-Thatcherites were also able, it appears, to exercise veto powers over the Honours List. That Asa Briggs, himself full of honours when Maurice Cowling was denied even a professorship, should still sit in judgment over Mr Cowling well into the Tories' second decade is further proof of how notional was the Tories' suzerainty over much of official Britain.

Mr Cowling's work is not only difficult, but comfortless. In his recent works, he implicitly wrestles with the paradox of the Tory party's very survival; how could this pre-democratic party, so many of whose intellectual and spiritual roots were antidemocratic, make such an easy accommodation with democracy? …

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