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The closing of the conservative mind: Boris Johnson and the hollow men

In the latest in our series on the state of the right, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher laments the decline of the Tories as a mass membership party.

In the summer of 1962, the Tory party was in fretful mood. The days of “Supermac” were gone and to restore the lost gloss, prime minister Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet in the Night of the Long Knives on 13 July. Among the victims was the inflexible chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, the Philip Hammond of the day. To keep Selwyn quiet, Macmillan persuaded him to do a one-man roving inquiry into the state of the party in the country. I was whistled up from the Conservative Research Department (CRD) as a dogsbody to take notes, book tickets and bring in the tea.

We sat opposite each other in heatless first-class carriages as the train rumbled through endless snowscapes in the worst winter of the century: Selwyn in heavy black overcoat and paisley muffler reading Georgette Heyer with the book held up to his extravagantly flared nostrils.

What I hadn’t an inkling of was that I was witnessing the last great days of the mass party in Britain. At that time the Conservative Party was not the hollowed-out shrunken thing it is today. It had two million members or more, a professional agent in every winnable seat and some that weren’t winnable, trade union organisers and women’s officers, and above all the support of every local businessman worth his salt. There they were, straight out of the pages of JB Priestley, with waistcoats and watch chains: wool merchants in Bradford, steel men in Swansea, carpet makers in Kidderminster, fireworks manufacturers in Halifax – these last a couple of brothers or perhaps cousins who wore identical brown suits and both sported brown bowler hats.

Back in London, party grandees would come to spill out their grievances to us. Selwyn was not by temperament a right-winger. Coming from a long line of Anglo-Welsh doctors and ministers, he had started life as a Liberal, and retained a distaste for the more brutish side of Tory life. But he could not resist the demand for an interview from Cyril Osborne, the MP for Louth, an early stalwart of the Monday Club, a savage hanger and flogger, hater of homosexuality and, most of all, of Commonwealth immigration.

For what seemed like hours, Osborne ranted on about how buggery and pornography were destroying the country, which would soon be a chocolate-coloured hodge-podge if we didn’t stop the immigrants, and why wouldn’t Rab Butler call him Cyril – this last complaint startled me most, as most politicians would first-name you the moment you met. At first it seemed Selwyn was listening to this tirade with non-committal politeness. Then I noticed that his whole body had gone stiff. When I returned from ushering Osborne out, to my amazement Selwyn did an ungainly little dance on the scarlet and blue carpet of the CRD, chanting “Thank God that man’s gone”.

The Selwyn Lloyd report contained several worthy suggestions about improving communications between the leadership and the grass roots, but it was published the afternoon after John Profumo resigned, on 5 June 1963, and so made zero impact. There was no suggestion anywhere in the report that the party was in much danger of losing huge chunks of its membership. What it did at least teach me was the loathing that already divided left and right, a visceral hatred far more intense than the formal hostility between Conservative and Labour (the same was and is true within the Labour Party too). Who first remarked that “in the House of Commons the people sitting opposite you are merely your political opponents, it’s the people sitting behind you who are your enemies”? I first heard it from Derek Walker-Smith, that portly amiable Tory minister who gave new meaning to double-breasted waistcoats.

In theory, a nationwide network of Conservative political centres, devised largely by Rab Butler, maintained a two-way flow of ideas between Central Office and the constituency associations. This interchange might have been more ritual than reality, but it did give loyalists some feeling that they were in the loop. All the same, the party began to haemorrhage members through the late 1960s and 1970s. According to the Houghton Committee, by 1975 they were down to about 1.2 million, with further sharp falls to follow in the 1980s. David Butler in British Political Facts quoted a figure of only 250,000 for 1993. It is a mournful irony that the years of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest triumphs may well have been the years in which party membership fell fastest. Estimates in August last year suggested a membership of 124,000, although recent reports say those joining to vote in the leadership contest have pumped the number up to 160,000. Not surprisingly, polling evidence suggests that the membership rump consists mostly of elderly white males with stern views: hostile to immigrants, to any further loosening of sexual mores, and to the EU – more a party of Cyril Osbornes than of Rab Butlers and Selwyn Lloyds.

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It is a catastrophic fall for what used to be one of the largest political parties in the free world. Yet almost as remarkable as the decline itself is how little the party’s leaders have seemed to care about it. When I was on the Rowntree Foundation’s power commission on political participation 15 years ago, the Tory MPs who spoke to us seemed positively blithe. These days, people had more amusing ways of spending their free time than going to political meetings, we were told.

Well, what about the voluntary organisations whose memberships had risen as fast as the Conservative Party’s had declined? The National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds now had millions of members. Oh, came the reply, those were single-issue pressure groups that didn’t make demands on your free time. But then in the old days there had been hundreds of thousands of sleeping Tories. Why were they no longer happy to pay a fiver a year to a party which they continued to vote for in general elections? Why had belonging to a political party become a weird, shaming thing – much more so for Tory supporters than for those of parties such as the Greens? The Labour Party, after all, had managed to revive its membership numbers both when Blair came to power and then under Corbyn.

If they thought about it at all, Tory MPs consoled themselves that the views of such a sadly shrunken party could be more safely ignored or overridden. But that wasn’t true. A mass party that contained a diversity of views could be more easily nudged this way or that. By contrast, a small fanatical rump could insist on having its views respected, on pain of non-selection or deselection.

Yet every leader from Edward Heath to David Cameron paid less and less mind to the withering base. The choice of candidates was now largely monitored by Central Office (though how did so many shockers get through the screening?). The party conference had become a PR rally, and local Tory councils drained of money and power.

When I was working for Mrs Thatcher, 20 years after my tea with Selwyn and Cyril, I couldn’t get over the contempt for local government openly expressed by cabinet ministers. Nick Ridley once floated the idea of abolishing local government altogether, except as agencies for delivering central services. I sat in as No 10’s observer on the cabinet committee to abolish the Greater London Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils. Not a single minister except Lord Hailsham uttered a peep of protest at this deliberate extinction.

While France has gradually decentralised over the past 50 years – something Charles de Gaulle said was impossible – the UK, and England in particular, has gone in the other direction. Even initiatives such George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” are really grace-and-favour gestures by central government, rather than genuine devolution. As for Scotland and Wales, Heath’s tentative devolution plans were squashed by Thatcher. The Tories became the party of English centralism and nationalism. But even under Heath the party had already become obsessively managerial in its outlook – witness the Heathco strip in Private Eye.

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In one issue only did feelings in the party make themselves more powerfully felt, as party membership dwindled. From the start, there had been heartfelt opposition inside the party to Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. Forty one Conservative MPs refused to support Heath’s application to join in October 1971 (many more didn’t much like the idea) – roughly the same number as today’s self-described “Spartans” of the European Research Group. The European project survived under Heath as under Macmillan only with the help of Roy Jenkins and the Labour rebels. The Tory leadership pocketed the votes and never seriously tried to sell the deeper justifications for membership: as a protection against trade wars and blood wars and against the one bleeding into the other; and as a rescue of the nation state, in Alan Milward’s memorable phrase, rather than an undermining of national sovereignty.

The old suspicions of foreign entanglements were left to fester. As the hope of reversing other social reforms has faded, so Brexit has become the sole marker of what it is to be right wing, even eclipsing the issue of immigration – initially identified as the prime driver of Brexit.

Well, they have reaped what they sowed. The present generation of Tory leaders have been schooled to diss Brussels at every opportunity, because this was the only way to maintain a safe seat. Now ten or 20 years on, at what should be the supreme moment of their political lives, they are strangely speechless. None of the leadership contenders has anything clear or substantial to say; the only exception is Rory Stewart, which is why he is regarded as a maverick candidate.

What is to happen on 31 October? They will not speak up for the withdrawal agreement, although most of them did in the end vote for it, at least once. They know how much the grass roots recoil from a close and lasting relationship with the EU. Scared of their own members, even more scared of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. It is hard to improve on TS Eliot here, I think: “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!/Our dried voices, when/We whisper together /Are quiet and meaningless/As wind in dry grass…”

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. Last month a distinguished former Labour minister whispered to me hopefully: “Deep down, I think Boris is a social liberal.” But with Johnson, there is no deep down, there is only the wind in the dry grass. As the weary rigmarole continues, inevitably the language degenerates into talk of conspiracies by the deep state to frustrate Brexit, of foul betrayals. Johnson may be the greatest fabricator of imaginary plots since Titus Oates, the greatest patriotic blowhard since Horatio Bottomley, but on he goes because the other side has no counter-narrative.

Candidates may, as Johnson does, make all sorts of disconnected promises – tax cuts for the middle classes, goodies for schools and hospitals. But I cannot see how any Tory leader can govern in a sustained, effective fashion, unless he sets out to re-establish a flourishing national party. Yet in all the hustings I have heard no candidate lament his party’s sadly shrunken state or offer any remedy.

The Labour Party will, I suspect, survive Jeremy Corbyn. Will the Tory party survive Boris Johnson? 

Ferdinand Mount’s most recent book is “Prime Movers” (Simon & Schuster)

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news