The Conservative party: adept to adapt

In or out of office, conservatism has dominated the political agenda in many countries, pushing its policies or forcing others to react to it. At times, Britain’s Conservative Party was written off, but it has always adapted to new situations to become the world’s most successful party

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 31 Jul 2022, 9:34 PM

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is effective not only to deal with microbes, but publicity and talking openly also helps deal with issues among individuals, social entities and political parties. There is much that happens behind closed doors in the corridors of power, but in Britain, introspecting and talking openly about what is wrong with a party is an essential part of the cut-and-thrust of politics.

In 2002, at the height of New Labour’s long years in office, Theresa May, less known then, delivered a stark message to a stunned audience at the Conservative party’s annual conference as its chairperson: “Yes, we’ve made progress, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to the government. There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party”.

It was a remarkable denunciation of the party’s past record, calling it still “unrepentant, just plain unattractive”.

It took eight years for the party since May’s speech to mutate, evolve and return to power in 2010, and stay there till today. It was another example of the Conservative party’s focus on pragmatism rather than ideology that has ensured its long years in power, particularly in the 20th century and beyond.

The party and its earlier incarnation were written off a few times in its over 200-year history — John Stuart Mill once called it the ‘stupid party’ — but it always bounced back, thanks to its ability and willingness to reinvent itself, even if it meant compromising with its values at various points in history: as the party of Little England and the party of Empire; the party of protectionist economic policies and the party of the free market; strict immigration policies that earned it the title of a ‘nasty party’ and allowing in a large number of refugees from East Africa, Ukraine, Hong Kong and beyond; the party that took Britain into Europe and the party of Brexit.

As the Victorian writer Anthony Trollope wrote, “No reform, no innovation… stinks so foully in the nostrils of an English Tory politician as to be irreconcilable to him. When taken in the refreshing waters of office any such pill can be swallowed”. Anything that ends spells in political wilderness is good enough to change, adopt and adapt; the party has been in the business of winning elections since the 1830s. Robin Harris wrote in The Conservatives: “The Conservative Party exists, has always existed and can only exist to acquire and exercise power. It does not exist to be loved, hated or even respected… It is an institution with a purpose, not an organism with a soul.”

The result of one of the party’s recent mutations is the candidature of Rishi Sunak in the ongoing election to be the next party leader and prime minister, who will take over from Boris Johnson on September 5. May’s 2002 speech set the tone, but it was David Cameron as party leader who since 2005 effected a major change in the selection of candidates to ensure more women and non-whites are fielded in elections. He would turn up at various events of Asian and other communities, including religious places, presenting a new face of the party that was long perceived as anti-immigration. That negative image slowly changed, attracting second, third generations of immigrants, born and bred in Britain; young, aspirational and professional, who had little time for left-welfare oriented policies of the Labour party. Besides, Cameron and subsequent party leaders also wooed the working class, most recently reflected in the party’s success in ‘red wall’ seats in North England in 2019 that were traditional supporters of Labour. Several non-white candidates also won from predominantly white-majority constituencies, such as Priti Patel, Sunak, Alok Sharma, Sajid Javid and Suella Fernandes.

It is a measure of the latest mutation that Sunak is one of the two candidates for the top job, and he is seen just as any mainstream leader. He was among several non-white ministers around Johnson’s cabinet table, which was a remarkable moment in a country still grappling with its legacy of slavery, racism and worse during the long history of the British Empire. In the 2015 election, Sunak was fielded from the safe seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, previously held by William Hague. His rise in the party has since been meteoric, most recently winning the most votes of party MPs in the ongoing election, to emerge as one of the last two candidates to be the next prime minister, along with Liz Truss. The party that gave Britain two women prime ministers (Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May) may also give the first non-white prime minister in September, which would be an achievement for a party saddled with baggage on sensitive issues such as immigration, racism and structural bias.

If Sunak’s candidature is seen as a highlight of the mutation, the party is also drawing flak for its record in office and depletion in the calibre of leaders after over a decade in office. The Guardian, the left-liberal newspaper, notes in a recent editorial titled ‘Truss v Sunak: no substance, no seriousness’: “The impression is of a governing party that after 12 years has reached a state of intellectual exhaustion, and aspirant leaders who have returned to default ideological settings. Ms Truss is combining this retro mood music with Brexity boosterism… Polls suggest that this may well be enough to make her prime minister, as Mr Sunak struggles to win over party members who resent his role in Mr Johnson’s fall… Faced with colossal challenges, Britain desperately needs a strong, strategic and pragmatic government. But the country remains beholden to the psychodramas, repetitions and nostalgia of a Tory party running on empty”.

Officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party, and known colloquially as the Tory party, its origins lie in the ‘Tory’ faction, which emerged in late 17th century.

Toryism was born in the tense struggle for supremacy between the monarchy and parliament, with a focus on “authority, allegiance and tradition”. As historian Stuart Ball notes, this ‘Tory Party’ established a secure hold on government between 1783 and 1830, first under the Younger Pitt and then Lord Liverpool. However, after Liverpool’s retirement in 1827 the unity of the party was destroyed when the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel were forced, largely as a result of events in Ireland, to concede full political emancipation to Roman Catholics. The Tory collapse opened the way for a return of the Whigs in the 1830s, and a series of measures including the Great Reform Act of 1832 changed the political scene; in the general election, which followed the Act the Tories were reduced to only 180 MPs. It was in the wake of these upheavals that the name ‘Conservative’ first began to be used; the party was founded in 1834 from the Tory party. The ‘Unionist’ in the party’s name is a legacy of its opposition to home rule in Ireland; the party retains its commitment to the Union of the United Kingdom, opposing the independence of Scotland and Wales.

Ball adds that the continuous modern history of the party begins with the era of Benjamin Disraeli in the second half of the 19th century, who perhaps has the strongest claim to be regarded as its founding father. He held several roles from 1852, as the chancellor, leader of the opposition and prime minister, until 1880, enlisting new supporters in industrial towns and cities. His government of 1874-1880 is considered a landmark in Conservative fortunes, when its domestic measures widened its appeal to the urban lower and middle classes. By the time he left office, the party had widened its base; it was no longer the party that defended the landed and aristocratic elite alone.

In 1872, Disraeli set out three great objectives for the party: to maintain the institutions of the country, to uphold the empire of England, and to elevate the condition of the people. The party’s core values include the desire to defend private property and personal liberty against a state that, except when it comes to its core task of maintaining domestic and national security, should be kept from growing too large and too expensive over the long term. The focus has since been to achieve this by building an effective electoral coalition and keeping the party in power. Its key economic values — liberal, generally favouring the free market and opposing government controls — are reflected in the bitter debates between Sunak and Truss; the former opposing tax cuts until inflation is tamed, while Truss is gaining more traction by promising immediate tax cuts to boost growth.

The Conservatives have been in power for most of the 20th century, and 12 of the 22 years in the 21st century — and still going, with Labour its main rival since the 1930s. Privileging electoral pragmatism over ideology, some basic traits and temperament (sceptical, traditional, patriotic) have continued over the centuries. There is an acceptance that being ‘conservative’ excludes the Tories from intellectual elite circles but there is also the insistence that the temperament brings them more in line with the personalities and instincts of ordinary men and women. It was pragmatism again that led the party to enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, ending 13 years of political wilderness since Tony Blair’s big win in the 1997 election.

The party’s biggest mutation in recent times is its changing posture on Europe. It has been a central figure in defining Britain’s relationship with Europe, initially leading the country into the European Community, and 46 years later leading it out of the group.

The party long struggled with the divide Europe created. Strong pro and anti-Europe factions within the party have occupied much time and space, the ideological divide apparent along two lines: pushing national sovereignty or interdependence on the one hand and extended or limited government on the other. Several leading lights have played central roles in this conundrum over the decades, which culminated in Cameron holding the referendum in 2016, leading to the Brexit vote.

Europe remained a key focus of Conservative prime ministers before the referendum: Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, even as the party’s complicated views on Europe changed with every new leader, suggesting that despite the many twists and turns, it struggled to find an effective way to deal with the sensitive subject. The UK has now formally left the EU, but Brexit will play out long into the future, besides remaining on top of the agenda in the 2024 election.

At stake in the ongoing election between Truss and Sunak is who is best placed to lead the party to victory in the 2024 election. After 14 years in office by then, the Conservative party will need a bit more than the first non-white prime minister or the third woman prime minister to win against a resurgent Labour. The current received wisdom is that the party will enter another spell in the opposition after losing in 2024, but given the party’s long history of mutation, no one is quite willing to bet on it for now.

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