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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism