Portrait of a Party by Stuart Ball: The devil's in the detail

A detailed history of the Conservative Party's domination between the First and Second World Wars.

Portrait of a Party: the Conservative Party in Britain, 1918-45
Stuart Ball
Oxford University Press, 608pp, £85

The Conservatives were by far the dominant party between the wars, winning more votes than any other party at every general election between 1918 and 1935 – in 1929, Labour won more seats but fewer votes. Few would have predicted such success for a party of the right so soon after the advent of a democratic franchise – universal suffrage was enacted for men in 1918 and for women in 1928 – in a dark age, dominated by mass unemployment and the rise of fascism in Europe.

Historians and political scientists, preoccupied with the decline of the Liberals and Ramsay MacDonald’s supposed betrayal of Labour, have been slow to analyse the Conservatives. Stuart Ball seeks to fill this gap in Portrait of a Party. He adopts the thematic approach of the political scientist, looking at Conservative beliefs, electoral support and constituency organisation, as well as the party machine at national level and the leadership. He has consulted a vast range of primary sources – not only the papers of Conservative ministers and MPs but also the rich archival records of the party at all levels, including the minutes of no fewer than 215 constituency associations. He must have a high boredom threshold.

Ball is a highly accomplished historian, the author of two fine books on the Conservatives between the wars and numerous scholarly articles, yet Portrait of a Party promises more than it provides. Much of it does little more than tell us in great detail what we know already and much that we did not know turns out to be uninteresting. Are we any the wiser for being told, “In Sheffield, the Hillsborough and Park divisions were worked from the city headquarters, but the other divisions had separate offices, as did all four of the Hull constituencies,” or, “In the later 1930s, the Harborough division of Leicestershire had 19 men’s, 34 women’s and 19 joint branches”?

Portrait of a Party will prove more of a compendium and a quarry than a classic. Ball has been overwhelmed by his material. He seems to have forgotten the first law of historical research: that, after completing his work, he must throw much of it away. The book is far too long and the price exorbitant.

The meat of the book lies in the chapter on the electoral performance of the party. But Conservative success is not difficult to explain to anyone whose vision has not been distorted by ideological spectacles. In John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast, Richard Hannay declares that, in 1914, he had been fighting for “peace, deep and holy and ancient”, and that the war had made him understand “what a precious thing this little England was, how old and kindly and comforting, how wholly worth striving for”.

Conservatism appealed to nostalgia for the pre-war era and to a desire for “tranquillity”, the party’s electoral slogan in 1922. The newly enfranchised female voters seemed particularly susceptible to these feelings and the Tories seemed to understand the needs of female voters better than Labour, even though Conservative local associations were unwilling to select female candidates. Just four women were elected as Conservative MPs between 1918 and 1931. All were chosen for constituencies that had previously been represented by their husbands. Once elected, they were not allowed to enter the smoking room unless invited.

Nevertheless, in every interwar election and until the 1980s, it appears that women were more likely to vote Conservative than men were. “Organised working-class life,” Ball suggests, “was heavily masculine in focus, excluded women from power and often from employment and placed the husband and father even more authoritatively in the centre of the picture than did the middle or upper classes. Trade union and Labour politics at local level were often tinged with misogyny and could seem aggressive and confrontational.” Things are different today, of course.

Ball makes much of a distinctive Conservative ethos and set of beliefs but these seem to be mainly window dressing. The prime motivation seems to have been fear – of modernity, of the trade unions, of Bolshevism and of socialism, held in a Conservative poster to be an acronym for “State Ownership Confiscated Incomes All Liberty Imperilled Security Menaced”.

The Conservatives appreciated that, in the words of Neville Chamberlain in 1928, “We are not strong enough to win alone. In fact, we are a minority of the country.” They needed to appeal beyond their core vote. Fear was usually sufficient. Lord Salisbury, the Victorian prime minister, said that the Conservative Party had no more utility than the policeman and would be needed only so long as there were burglars.

Ball dresses up these instincts in a sophisticated and detailed psephological analysis. But perhaps we do not need sophisticated and detailed psephology. Perhaps the best explanation was given by the children’s author Richmal Crompton, the creator of Just William, in her story “William, Prime Minister”, published in 1930. William believed:

“There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”

Henry is the Socialist candidate and Douglas is the Liberal, promising presents to all those voting for him. But William, the Conservative, is elected unanimously.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College London

Neville Chamberlain while Minister for Health in 1932. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit