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)