Show Hide image

The Tory schism: from Robert Peel and the split over the Corn Laws to the Ukip insurgency

Speculation about a split on the right is nothing new – as far back as 1846, when Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, the “battle for the soul” of the Conservative Party was underway.

On this map of the British political landscape in 1880 Disraeli ends up the loser fighting his own Conservative Party. Image: Rex Features

The Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell’s defection to Ukip has triggered talk of a seemingly inevitable “battle for the soul” of the Conservative Party – one that could split the Tories so badly that they end up out of power for many years, even decades. Yet speculation about some kind of split on the right is nothing new. Even in the early 1990s, long before the rise of Ukip, there was much speculation to the effect that the argument over Europe then raging in the Tory party might end in the kind of rift that followed Robert Peel’s 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws (which protected British agriculture against cheaper imports). This was a schism that prevented the Tories from winning an electoral majority for nearly 30 years, and it is easy to see why it could continue to do so. After all, both the bare bones of the story and the cast of main characters can be made to seem familiar.

A Conservative prime minister seen by many of his parliamentary colleagues as patronising and aloof rides roughshod over public opinion and their own heartfelt concerns. It turns out the latter are far more effectively expressed by a charismatic outsider with a populist touch that few, if any, of his rivals come close to matching. Sadly, however, for all the enthusiasm and emotion generated, much of the electorate – especially those who represent the Britain of the future – remains largely unpersuaded, thereby handing victory, almost by default, to the Tories’ opponents. Finally, when things begin to go wrong for them, too, the Tory party wins a majority – but only after it ostensibly has been forced to abandon the principle that triggered the civil war in the first place and only after it has lost some of the brightest and the best to its rivals. Even then, things aren’t completely settled; the dispute rumbles on, occasionally costing the party an election it might otherwise have won, until the early part of the next century.

Yet a more detailed look at the facts suggests the differences between then and now are as striking as the similarities – of institutions, individuals, interests or ideas. When it comes to the first, we need to remember that the 21st-century Conservative Party is a very different beast from its mid-19th-century predecessor. This was a far looser collection of MPs whose loyalties often lay as much with men as with measures. And since, even in 1841 and therefore after the Great Reform Act, it could win a governing majority with just 306,000 votes (as opposed to the 14 million it took in 1992, the last time the Tories won one), it had little in the way of permanent extra-parliamentary organisation, be it voluntary or professional. Nor, as a consequence, did it need to keep sweet the myriad donors and lenders who today provide the tens of millions of pounds required to keep things ticking over, let alone fight elections. In other words, the entity that split after 1846 was a fluid work in progress rather than a fully formed party – so much so that the split might be better seen as an aspect of its creation, rather than a catastrophic misjudgement by a bunch of people whom John Stuart Mill called stupid.

In the modern era (and perhaps even the postmodern era) most large, mainstream, well-established parties do not split, at least in the sense of suffering a substantial break­away that gives rise to a significant new competitor and/or an alliance (maybe merger) with an existing rival. Labour’s loss of 30 MPs to the newly formed Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s was the exception that proves the rule, and one it eventually managed to overcome. That is not to say they do not experience rifts. But these are for the most part contained or sublimated, sometimes in more or less formal factions and sometimes, when views cross-cut rather than map on to each other, by less hard-and-fast tendencies. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems, where the barriers to entry for small parties – especially those whose support is evenly but thinly spread, rather than geographically concentrated – are so high that they guarantee all but the most dedicated and the most deluded will stick with the devil they know. Unless and until the Conservative Party decides that, like some other centre-right parties in Europe, its best chance of getting into government lies in forming a coalition with a smaller party on its far-right flank, it will continue to oppose any form of proportional representation. As a result, any mass breakout from its ranks, if it occurs at all, is likely to be limited and short-lived.

So much for institutions: what about individuals? Here, too, there are big differences between 1846 and 2014. For one thing, however gifted a populist communicator Nigel Farage is, he is no Disraeli. Farage is the insurgent leader of a potential breakaway movement: Disraeli was the parliamentary leader of the rump that remained loyal after the Peelite split, steering the party through a long period of opposition after 1847 and finally winning a majority at the election of 1874. This was his reward not just for his admirable patience, but for his astounding guile passing the Second Reform Act just before an all-too-brief first bite at the premiership six years previously.

It may well be that Cameron is as disliked by as many of his backbenchers as Peel was by his. Peel lost the support of his party not so much because he refused to make a change for which his MPs were calling but because he refused to let them stop him making a change that he himself felt ideologically compelled to make. Even Cameron’s greatest admirers would be hard-pressed to argue that, with the honourable exception of gay marriage, he would rather go down fighting for a principle than achieve some kind of quick fix. His characteristic modus operandi is to do anything and everything he can to buy off his critics, in the hope that it will allow him to make it past the next election, after which he can probably work something out. That, after all, is exactly what he has been doing on Europe since he first promised to pull Tory MPs out of the European People’s Party alliance during the Conservative leadership contest in 2005.

For Peel, repealing the Corn Laws was part of a wider free-trade agenda that would, he was convinced, boost not only the country’s economy but also his party’s chances of attracting the support of the emerging middles classes living and working in its most dynamic cities and regions. The fault line exposed in the party by the Corn Laws wasn’t simply a political or policy disagreement: it was rooted in an ongoing, disruptive transformation of Britain’s political economy, and therefore its party system.

Pretty much the same can be said of what happened to the Liberals after the First World War. Ostensibly the split in their party combined personality and principle, Lloyd George arguing that Asquith and his colleagues had to set aside some of their most cherished convictions in order to mobilise the resources advisable to combat an existential threat. But what did for the Liberal Party was that it proved unable to adjust to an era in which competition would revolve around the claims of working people to the economic rewards and political power to which their industrial muscle and sheer numbers, at least in their own view, entitled them.

Douglas Carswell’s conservative critique of Britain’s relationship with the European Union is in essence that of the hyper-globalist rather than the Little Englander. Sovereignty is important, but so is the idea that membership of the EU leaves us in Britain “shackled to a corpse” and therefore prevents us from fulfilling our manifest destiny as a freewheeling, free-trading, easy-hire, easy-fire, offshore island doing business with the “Anglosphere” as well as the rising powers of Asia and South America.

Perhaps Carswell, and others who might follow him into Ukip either before or after the next election, can claim – as Peelites such as Gladstone, who split the Conservatives by defecting to what became the Liberal Party, could claim – to be on the side of the future rather than the past? Perhaps the majority of the most powerful financial, commercial and industrial interests in Britain, which continue to believe that belonging to the EU and expanding our economic horizons need not be a zero-sum game, are as deluded as the aristocrats and gentlemen farmers who believed that agriculture would remain dominant?

Probably not. Business in Britain is hard-headed rather than sentimental in its belief that, on balance and for the foreseeable future, EU membership is necessary. There are many free-marketeers in the parliamentary Conservative Party who, more or less regretfully, think the same way. Those same MPs look at Ukip and at what it says about, say, welfare, immigration and education, and see in its words and actions not their kind of neoliberalism but, rather, angry nativism and aggrieved nostalgia. Most current and would-be Conservative MPs, even though they value tradition and believe in the common sense of ordinary people, still believe in a better tomorrow rather than a better yesterday. And the people whom they know in their heart of hearts the centre right needs to attract, at least in the long term, are not the autochthonous voters stranded in English seaside towns but the majority who work in the expanding sectors of the economy.

Ukip undeniably has some strengths. It is essentially a bottom-up rather than a top-down project, and it has already lasted nearly twice as long as the SDP, which broke away from Labour in 1981 after the party’s decision to elect Michael Foot as leader and take a sharp turn to the left. It also seems determined to mimic the Liberal Democrats’ (and, indeed, the French Front National’s) strategy of building on local success. Its ability to attract funding from wealthy individuals, however eccentric they can be made to appear by their opponents, is important. It may also be the case that the volatility of voters who are less and less anchored in tribal loyalties and the media’s eagerness to find colourful characters has changed the rules of the political game. So, too, perhaps, has the alternative route to influence that social media and the internet offer to backbenchers. And, perhaps, as the techno-populist Carswell would no doubt argue, those of us who are sceptical just don’t get it. The earthquake may be coming, the volcano about to blow. Somehow, however, I doubt it.

The Conservative Party contains many MPs who believe that this country would be better off outside the EU. And, who knows, some of them may end up concluding like Carswell that the best way of persuading Cameron or whoever succeeds him that the Tories have no option but to recommend withdrawal is to defect to Ukip. Yet most of their colleagues, as well as many of those who work for their re-election at the grass roots or who supply them with the financial wherewithal to do so, would look with horror on anything that could imperil the party’s ability to take on and beat its main enemy, Labour – which also happens to be the shortest route to getting the referendum so many of them crave.

The Conservative Party has stayed pretty much intact for almost the whole of the past century, even though Tories have been arguing among themselves about Europe since at least the early 1960s. This, combined with lessons learned from Labour’s more traumatic experience in the 1980s and the remorseless logic of Britain’s political economy and electoral system, suggests that all the talk of tectonic plates shifting may be just a little bit premature. 

Tim Bale is the author of “The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron” (Polity Press, £14.99)

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Show Hide image

The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt