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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Speculation about a split on the right is nothing new – as far back as 1846, when Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, the “battle for the soul” of the Conservative Party was underway.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 Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

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Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

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In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

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What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge