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Speculation about a split on the right is nothing new – as far back as 1846, when Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, the “battle for the soul” of the Conservative Party was underway.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

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
Show Hide image

The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

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