From the birth, or at least the christening, of the Labour Party in January 1906, it was a mere 18 years before the first Labour government took office in January 1924. This was the most dramatic development in modern British political history. From the 17th to the 19th centuries Tories and Whigs had appeared to contend over questions of Church and King, which had now long been answered. The creation of the Liberal Party at the end of the 1850s seemed to change the course of politics, but the alliance of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites (or free-trade Tories) who met at Willis’s Rooms in 1859 and agreed to combine, call themselves Liberals and vote down the Tory government, was always fragile. By 1886 it fell apart over Irish Home Rule.
Although the Liberals regrouped to win a landslide election in 1906, they were essentially a middle-class party that was uneasy about the irruption of the masses into politics. Maybe the unease was justified, because the story of the next generation was the supplanting of the Liberals by Labour as the main party opposed to the Conservatives, so that, by the 1929 election, which led to the formation of the second Labour government, Labour and Tories were neck and neck in the popular vote.
However short-lived the first Labour government of 1924 proved to be, Ramsay MacDonald and his colleagues still believed that the future belonged to them. Sidney Webb, the desiccated Fabian economist who drew up Labour’s first socialist constitution in 1918, Clause IV and all, calculated with what he believed was mathematical precision the inevitable coming triumph of Labour. They could still believe in that prediction after the dégringolade of 1931, and their faith seemed justified by 1945 with the landslide that gave Labour its first majority government and the opportunity to change the country.
Yet it might be that the central story of British politics for these past 100 years has been how the Conservatives came to terms with the rise of Labour and responded to it, to such remarkable effect. Over that century the Tories have been in office far more often than in opposition, in a way that might justify Jonathan Sumption’s observation that we are a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour. And the Tories have achieved this by a ruthless urge to power combined with an endless adaptability, sometimes vehemently rejecting Labour policies, sometimes quietly adopting them. In 1845, Benjamin Disraeli said that Robert Peel had caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes, and the Tories often enough discreetly donned Labour’s clothing.
In fact, the Tories had begun to adapt almost in anticipation of Labour, long before it was born. After the period of blind reaction during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the time of Shelley’s “England in 1819” – “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King… A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field… Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay” – the Tories had faced reality, first with Catholic Emancipation in 1829, then accepting the great Reform Bill of 1832, and then, after tearing themselves apart in the 1840s over the Corn Laws and free trade, passing their own second Reform Act in 1867, expanding the franchise further.
That was the work of Disraeli. By 1874 he had won a clear-cut election and held office for six years, the beginning of three decades in which the Tories were in office for more than two thirds of the time. There was admittedly an unacknowledged extraneous reason for that success. If the Church of England was “the Tory party at prayer”, then the chapels, Methodist, Congregationalist and others, became the Liberal Party at prayer, and they were ardently opposed to “the Trade” – that is, the licensed liquor business of brewers, distillers and pubs – with the implicit aim of prohibition. In response, the Trade became the Tories’ most faithful if most clandestine financial supporters for many years, beginning with that 1874 election, when Gladstone, the defeated Liberal leader, complained that “we have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”.
However the Tories had consequently been borne up, one union leader said that Disraeli’s government of 1874-80 did more for the working classes in six years than the Liberals had done in a generation, attached as they were to laissez-faire principles. Disraeli’s tradition never died. The rather dubious figure of Randolph Churchill coined the phrase “Tory democracy”, which he privately said was “mostly demagoguery”, but he was too modest. That brilliant German writer Sebastian Haffner much later said that Churchill had hit upon a combination of patriotism and welfare that would sustain not only the Tories but all European parties of the moderate right over the next century.
Maybe its greatest exponent, and certainly the greatest reforming minister of the interwar years or even of the century, was Neville Chamberlain. After the first Labour government fell and the murky general election of 1924 saw the Tories swiftly return to office, Chamberlain asked Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, for the office of minister of health rather than chancellor of the Exchequer. Randolph Churchill’s son Winston became chancellor, in which role he did not distinguish himself.
But Chamberlain transformed the country. On taking office he announced 22 intended bills, and within four years he had carried out 20. The most successful minister in the first Labour government had been John Wheatley, who outlined a housebuilding programme but barely had time to put it into action. It was Chamberlain who then became the great house-builder, as well as the man who laid the foundations of universal healthcare and who transformed local government with a system greatly superior not only to the one it superseded, but to the one that replaced it under the Edward Heath government more than 40 years later.
Before the First World War Churchill deserted the Tories to join the Liberals, and for a while he was David Lloyd George’s radical comrade-in-arms. By the time he became prime minister, and almost accidentally Conservative leader thanks to Chamberlain’s mortal illness, Churchill had forgotten his early radicalism. In the wartime coalition cabinet he was deaf to his colleagues who wanted to talk about what came after victory, whether it was Labour’s Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin concerned with postwar reconstruction, or the Tories’ Anthony Eden and Alfred Duff Cooper who tried to impress on him that Britain would have the leadership of Europe for the taking.
But Churchill was not quite deaf or forgetful, and not oblivious to the challenge that Labour represented in domestic politics. In a radio broadcast from Chequers in March 1943 he said that, after victory, “We must establish on broad and solid foundations a national health service.” It would become a sacred touchstone for Labour that the Attlee government and Aneurin Bevan had created the NHS following their victory at the 1945 election, an election at which the party manifesto promised “a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist… available to all citizens”.
That was the Conservative manifesto in 1945. And it was the most striking example of the way that the Tories were stealing Labour’s clothes or trying to beat them at their own game. By October 1951 the Tories were back in office, although Labour had won substantially more popular votes at that election, and Churchill was back at Downing Street, although he really ought to have retired. In opposition, Conservative Central Office had buzzed with clever young men who had served in the war, who would be elected to parliament in 1950, and who would all be leading figures in the party by the 1960s: Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling, Enoch Powell and Heath. While they were working in the party office Churchill called them “my pink pansies”, he being disturbed by their progressive notions and the way they seemed to have accepted the legacy of Attlee’s Labour government.
And so the Tories did accept it. The health service was an accomplished fact, and Indian independence too, however much that galled Churchill. Few Conservatives even questioned the nationalisation of coal and the railways, at least not then, while the assimilation of the two parties was summed up in the coining of “Butskellism”, meaning the similarity in economic approach between RA Butler, the centrist Conservative who became chancellor in 1951, and Hugh Gaitskell, his Labour predecessor in that office who would become party leader in 1955.
In hindsight, those Tory governments after 1951 were more passive than active, and the most notable thing about them was the survival of the patriciate. From 1911 to 1940 the party had been led by Bonar Law, Baldwin and Chamberlain, who had all been born in the purple of commerce, as Lady Bracknell would have said. The four successive prime ministers from 1951 to 1964 were the grandson of a duke (Churchill), the son of a landowning baronet (Eden), the son-in-law of a duke (Harold Macmillan), and an earl (Alec Douglas-Home, whose cabinet contained 11 Old Etonians). That looked more like defiance than a reaction to Labour, but reaction would follow.
At the 1964 election, Labour campaigned on a slogan it might use again today, “Thirteen wasted years”, along with Harold Wilson’s taunting of Douglas-Home as “the 14th Earl of Home”. The Tories lost the election to Labour, though by a surprisingly narrow margin, and the following year Douglas-Home resigned the party leadership. He had been the last party leader to “emerge” by the “usual processes” without any form of election, which in practice meant he had been jobbed in by Macmillan. This was denounced and derided by Iain Macleod in a famous polemic in the Spectator 60 years ago, and although his piece provoked much anger within the party when he predicted that a leader would never be chosen in the same way again, he was quite right.
Next the Tories took another leaf out of Labour’s book by handing the choice of leader to the party’s MPs, and the MPs chose Heath. By any possible standards he was not a success. He lost three of the four elections in which he led the Tories, his government of 1970-74 didn’t achieve much, and he would prove to be one of a long line of mediocrities who became Tory leaders, all of them lower middle-class men, a line electrifyingly interrupted by “a woman who through character and conviction changed the country”; and you would need more than one guess as to which savant wrote that and where – the answer is Perry Anderson in the New Left Review.
Yet my theme needs to be qualified. If much of our political history since the first Labour government has been the Tories coming to terms with the challenge from Labour, the story of the past generation has been Labour’s coming to terms with Margaret Thatcher. She rejected Butskellism or any form of compromise, and she despised Butler’s own favourite phrase about politics as “the art of the possible”. Harder to see in the 1980s, when she was in office, was the outcome or legacy of Thatcherism: she herself would say that her greatest political achievement had been Tony Blair, and she would surely be right.
As astute observers saw in 1997, Blair’s gift was to promise change while making it clear that actually there would be no fundamental change. Nor has there been any great difference since he departed in 2007, apart from the accidental leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Starmer’s party still bears the imprint of New Labour, a kinder, gentler version of Thatcherism. As we watch the Tories disintegrate into a rabble of feuding factions under the helpless leadership of Rishi Sunak and facing possible electoral oblivion, we need to acknowledge the underlying ultimate triumph of the right.
[See also: Why Britain loathes the middle classes]