IS CONSERVATISM DEAD?; (1) in Power for Most of the 20th Century, What Can Save the Oldest and Most Successful Political Party in the World? (2) SATURDAY ESSAY

By O'Casey, Sean | Daily Mail (London), June 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

IS CONSERVATISM DEAD?; (1) in Power for Most of the 20th Century, What Can Save the Oldest and Most Successful Political Party in the World? (2) SATURDAY ESSAY


O'Casey, Sean, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: JOHN CASEY

SO, THE landslide did happen. Mr Hague duly fell on his sword, and it looks as if the Conservatives are doomed to be out of office for a generation. It is their turn to drink of the bitter cup, tasted so often by Labour that they got used to it.

I remember being told by Sir Keith Joseph that the task of the then victorious Tories was to educate Labour so that they would one day be ready to have their turn in power.

That seems like another age. Labour were in the wilderness from their split and catastrophic defeat in 1931, until 1945. They were out of office again from 1951 to 1964, from 1970 to 1974, and from 1979 to 1997.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have never had to get used to defeat in modern times. They were in power for the greater part of the 20th century.

They are the oldest, and most successful, political party in the world.

After defeat, they have always come back.

In the 18th century, after years of power, they were thrown out of office for 50 years. But they have always adapted themselves and reinvented themselves. In the 19th century they were quite often the reforming party.

Against their real beliefs, they ended the legal discrimination against Roman Catholics. They pushed for factory acts limiting working hours and child labour, creating schools attached to factories. Under Disraeli, in 1867, they enacted the biggest extension of the right to vote - almost to universal male suffrage - in history.

Having been the party of aristocracy, they captured and kept the working-class vote.

Disraeli made the Tories the party of the British Empire - which was hugely popular and virtually unquestioned by the main parties until World War II. The Butler Education Act of 1944 opened education to hundreds of thousands who before would never have aspired to it.

None of this, though, guarantees that the Tories will come back this time.

These past two defeats are worse than any they have suffered since the 19th century - in fact, since the coming of universal suffrage. Such a comprehensive rejection of a party - which until less than a decade ago seemed the natural party of government - could be a mortal wound.

For the first time in at least a hundred years, you could imagine the Conservative Party becoming marginalised.

The Liberal Democrats, now the strongest Third Party since 1929, have hugely consolidated their position in what were once rock-solid Tory seats, where electors have an ever stronger sense of what they stand for.

If Labour ever brings in proportional representation (which Mr Blair half-promised Paddy Ashdown) and keeps its alliance with the Liberal Democrats, the Tories may never taste power again.

So how has it come to this?

Since the War, there have been two great reforming administrations - those of Attlee and Thatcher.

ATTLEE'S Labour government of 1945-51 created the Welfare State, nationalised the utilities and big chunks of industry, and imposed penal taxation. When the Conservatives got back in 1951, their chief article of faith was that they must not upset the new order.

They were merely to tinker at the edges, and quietly manage Britain's inevitable industrial decline, while trying to make gentle reductions in taxation.

They reconciled themselves to the Welfare State, to the swollen public sector, and to over-mighty trades unions.

Harold Macmillan said that the two groups he most shrank from tangling with were the Brigade of Guards and the miners. Evelyn Waugh remarked that the Tories had not succeeded in putting the clock back by even one minute.

When Thatcher won the 1979 General Election there is little evidence that she - or anyone else in the Tory Party - had any idea of the counterrevolution she was about to unleash.

There were no coherent plans for large-scale denationalisation. …

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