Here is some good news for the Tories. All is not lost for them. It is true that, as their conference this year abundantly showed, they are at a very low ebb. Nowadays few people take them seriously - and they themselves are having a struggle doing just that. The term shadow ministers is particularly apt for their front bench because in the shadows is where they stay. Their leader, Iain Duncan Smith, shows every sign of growing more desperate by the day; as a climax to their conference he actually made a virtue of being a quiet man – a reputation a politician will usually try hard to avoid. They have rummaged out 25 policies to offer the voters but these are little more than tardy admissions that when they were last in power they were indeed the “nasty party” (as if there are any “nice” ones). An example of a party being nasty was in a letter written in 1996 by Ted Heath's election agent, which warned him about the benefits we were all enjoying during those years of Tory rule:
“Younger, traditionally Conservative supporters have mostly had a very difficult time over the last 6 or 7 years . . . having had to face, in worse cases, redundancy, negative equity, failing businesses or even bankruptcy.”
A man with much to be quiet about
At this year's conference we had the nauseating spectacle of David “Two Brains” Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Minister, declaring that “. . . the Tory war on lone parents is over”. It would, of course, have been better for those lone parents if he had said this at the time the war was being waged so enthusiastically by his party. One speaker after another rushed to the microphone to confess to past “mistakes” and to promise a brighter, more caring future as if the days had never been, when Tory conferences cheered and stamped their feet at Thatcher defiantly telling them that she -her policies – were “not for turning” and when she insisted, in the face of powerful opposition, that “there is no alternative”.
Then there is the matter of sleaze, which cost the Tories so many votes in 1997 and which they had fervently hoped had died the death. Any ideas they had on that score were brutally suppressed by Edwina Currie spilling the beans about her relationship with John Major. In this scandalous soil were nourished a thousand saloon bar jokes – it was David Mellor all over again but much worse. Smutty humour does not contribute to a political party being taken seriously.
Nineteen Forty Five
It has always been very difficult for the Tories to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are occasionally out of power; they regard such episodes as brief, insane interludes in the natural order of things. There was a time when this was perhaps a more valid attitude because, as in the Thatcher years, they seemed to be there for all time, to be the natural party of power. The difference now is that Labour's majority has endured, and looks like continuing that way for some time. Voting Conservative is simply not fashionable at present, as if the natural order of things political has undergone a change. It means that Blair's majority, founded on Labour's success in making themselves almost indistinguishable from the Tories, must be chipped at because it is unlikely to quickly crumble away.
In some respects there was a parallel to this before 1945. The previous election to that, in November 1935, had produced a House of Commons with 425 Tories and allies against 180 opposition MPs, of which 154 were Labour. Had an election been possible in 1940, the Conservative majority may have been reduced but, on the evidence of past elections, it would have been very unlikely for it to have been overturned for some time. The crucial element in bringing about the change which produced the massive Labour majority in 1945 was, of course, the war. The working class had been promised that if they buckled down to the war effort – worked hard, coped with all the hardship, fear and grief, if they fought and died - they would be rewarded with a better world free of the mistakes of the past. It was seductive stuff, which benefited the Labour Party – and the working class were vulnerable to it, electing the Attlee government by an emphatic margin. Ted Heath, who had to rethink his plans to start a career in politics because of the size of that Labour majority, described the mood in a letter:
“. . . the average man who had been fully employed during the war thought of the unemployment he suffered before the war and decided he would not have the Tories again”.
Even so, for some people the result was a shock. “They have elected a Labour government” wailed a bejewelled woman in an exclusive London club, “ and the people will not stand for it”. The Tory MP Henry Channon – a rich, pampered, useless heir to a fortune who married into the Guinness family thus making himself even richer and enabling him to inherit the safe Tory seat of Southend which had been “represented” by one or other member of the family since 1918 – and which passed on to his son who was equally rich and useless – moaned that he was “. . . too ill and angry to reflect seriously on the disastrous Election results. I am stunned and shocked by the country's treachery”. Within a fortnight there was some relief for his shock and anger because “the Stock Market has recovered and is actually soaring. Evidently it does not fear the Socialist [sic] Government”. With all this going on it was not entirely surprising that about a month later he came away from a meeting of the 1922 Committee “fearing that the Tory party was definitely dead”.
But that was too pessimistic from the Tory point of view because the party quickly got down to the arduous process of recasting itself in policies and attitudes designed to answer the doubts of Heath's “average man”. In this they had some political talent to call on – like Heath himself, Enoch Powell, Iain Macleod – whose abilities in the murky world of politics helped them later to become high profile leaders of the party. These people, along with those who had been hardened by their time as ministers in the wartime government, were skilled at touching on the most sensitive nerves of the Attlee government, who were themselves exhausted by the stress of being in that government and then re-building British capitalism after the war. And all that Tory effort bore fruit when, at the next election in 1950, they came within a whisker of success.
In the aftermath of 1945 and later during the late 1960s, the Tories showed great ability in asserting themselves as the supremely natural party of government over British capitalism. So they can take comfort from the memory of that recovery, in the knowledge that although they have been out of power before they have not lost their talent to dupe the working class and can do it again. This opens the all important question of whether it matters. Capitalism is too vast, too powerful, too intrusive, to be affected to any significant degree by which party holds the job of trying to control it. Whoever sits in power over it capitalism continues to impoverish and repress most of its people. There are many symptoms of poverty – none of which ever troubled the likes of Henry Channon. For example the Institute for Public Policy Research recently found that children living in the more deprived neighbourhoods are three times more likely to be knocked down in a road accident than those who live in richer areas. This is not because poorer children don't understand how to cross the road safely but because they lack access to safe playing areas like good gardens or playgrounds. Their playground is the street, where they socialise without safe adult supervision and sometimes – too often – get knocked down. So poverty – capitalism – is unsafe, it frightens and it injures and it kills. That is what being vulnerable – to use one of the Tories' favourite buzz words – really means.