The Conservatives: a History

The Conservatives: a History
Robin Harris
Bantam Press, 640pp, £30

Robin Harris starts out confidently enough, gliding skilfully through the history of the Tories in the 18th century. He has little time for Bolingbroke, whom Benjamin Disraeli uprated to a pinnacle of wisdom. Harris dismisses him as "a recognisable Tory type, a rightist frondeur of great brilliance and no ballast". He deals fairly with Robert Peel, recognising that his about-turn on the Corn Laws was occasioned not so much by the failure of the potato crop in Ireland as by his previous change of mind over Catholic emancipation. After that somersault in 1829 he thought it out of the question to change his mind again so soon in public. So when the next crisis hit the system in 1832, Peel retreated in a bad temper to his new house in Staffordshire while parliament and the country excited themselves over the Great Reform Bill. He refused to take any part in the Duke of Wellington's doomed attempt to form a government in the Days of May and pass a Tory version of the bill.

However, Peel did not escape so easily from his personal dilemma, namely that he found it easier to be persuaded by the arguments of
his opponents than by those of the squires who formed the backbone of his party. He began to slide into his speeches in defence of the Corn Laws subtle and almost unnoticed sentences to the effect that protection could be justified only if it would be to the benefit of the nation as a whole.

When the Irish potatoes began to rot, Peel's dilemma sharpened. Ireland needed the corn duty to be lifted to deal with the threatened famine. Peel could find no convincing argument for imposing the duty again once it had gone. He knew the risks and, at least in theory, accepted that the deed should be done by someone else. But Lord John Russell fumbled his attempt to form a government. Peel kissed hands again and steeled himself to advocate free trade and prepare (if need be) for the subtle pleasure of martyrdom. He could hardly have foreseen that the sardonic young member for Shrewsbury would be his chief assassin.

The venom of Disraeli's attacks on Peel in 1845 and 1846, the biting words and merciless exploitation of weakness, are without match in the history of parliament. They cannot be explained by the refusal of Disraeli's request for a seat in Peel's government. All this is well conveyed by Harris. There is perhaps something missing, however, when he turns to the story of Disraeli as prime minister. Yes, Disraeli was old and tired by the time he reached the top of the greasy pole in 1868. Yes, he abandoned protection as soon as he decently could. He was persuaded that it was in foreign policy that the real test of a nation's or prime minister's greatness lay.

Yet these facts alone do not justify the growth of the Disraeli myth after his death. His successors as leader of the Conservative Party have jostled to pick up the mantle and proclaim that they are his true heir. Perhaps the expla­nation is simply that Disraeli, as the cartoons suggested, was a magician and that his magic died with him after beguiling so many people, including Queen Victoria. As Lord Lexden has told us in his recent study A Gift from the Churchills, Disraeli's "favourite flower", the Primrose League, which promoted the Tory cause among working-class voters, flourished greatly and then withered away. The mystery remains for others to examine and unravel. Perhaps Harris's reasoning is as good as any.

Disraeli, the Jewish outsider who championed traditional institutions, [and Salisbury and Thatcher] are all in their different ways completely surprising. It matters to the country that the Conservative Party should retain its capacity to produce surprises and to harness the eccentric distinctive qualities of British national greatness.

Harris moves into troubled waters when he analyses the capacity (Salisbury) or incapacity (Arthur Balfour) to lead the Tory party. Balfour described the Carlton Club as "infested by the political bore", on which Harris sagely remarks that "when Balfour or any other Conservative leader lost the bores, he lost the party". We learn that party managers favoured elections at harvest time when the agricultural workers were busy in the fields and disinclined to dabble in radical politics. We discover that Salisbury, having made W H Smith first lord of the admiralty in 1877, failed to recognise him at a breakfast party. And we hear that Balfour was satirised by a Liberal opponent as follows: "I'm not for free trade and I'm not for protection,
I approve of them both and to both have objection . . . So, in spite of all comments, reproach and predictions, I firmly adhere to unsettled convictions."

The long tale winds its weary way to the sea, past Austen Chamberlain, Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin. But the pace and mood alter as Harris nears modern times. He begins to show the colour of his own opinions. This, surely, is a pity. The first half of the book is
historical analysis, often shrewd; but then the author becomes a polemicist and casts aside any pretence of objectivity. He writes a chapter on Edward Heath's party but never has a word in praise for that remarkable man. (He is, I think, the first commentator to suggest that Ted took up sailing for political reasons, a suggestion that would amaze his fellow mariners.) When he comes to David Cameron he is scathing about the aims of the modernisers in the new Tory party, who sought, he argues, to impose total change from the centre. The modernisers, he says, know the literature but lack any intellectual ballast.

Parliament and the constituencies have been neglected by the present leadership. The coalition government, Harris asserts, is far from stable. Cameron and his circle may have to choose between siding with their colleagues in parliament and in the country, or clinging to their coalition partners.

Harris writes well and with considerable force, but there are two books here in one cover. The first is a decent account of Conservative origins; the second is a warning of trouble ahead. These are both legitimate subjects for argument, but they should not be confused. That Harris has written a biography of Margaret Thatcher for publication after her death adds to the confusion. I am sure that he will deal kindly with her; but she will deserve more than a hagiography.

Douglas Hurd served as foreign secretary from 1989-95 and is a Conservative peer

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood