Johnson now has the serious task of restoring pride to the working class, failed by Labour

24 Jul

The New Snobbery: Taking on Modern Elitism and Empowering the Working Class by David Skelton

If David Skelton had delayed publication of this book by many more months, he would have had to rename it The New Orthodoxy.

For the lessons he urged in his last book, Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map, are becoming more and more widely accepted.

That book was reviewed on ConHome in October 2019, and in December of that year Boris Johnson redrew the political map by leading the Conservatives to victory in many of the forgotten towns.

Or the blue remembered towns, as one might now call them. The initiative now lies with the Conservatives.

The “new snobbery” identified by Skelton is mainly a problem for the Labour Party, which needs to regain the seats it lost in 2019, and cannot do so as long as voters in places like Hartlepool, captured by the Conservatives at a by-election held less than three months ago, feel despised by many on the Left.

That astonishing result came just in time for Skelton, who writes:

“Once the scale of the Hartlepool defeat for Labour had become clear, elements of the Left indulged in another round of electorate blaming. One claimed that the problem for the Left was that ‘a huge number of the general public are racists and bigots’ and asked, ‘How do you begin to tackle entrenched idiocy like that?’ Another claimed, ‘We don’t have an opposition problem. We have an electorate problem.'”

Skelton has collected much snobbery of this kind, some of which he quotes in his piece this week for ConHome.

In his book Skelton reminds us that such sentiments are not new. Here is Engels to Marx in November 1868, as newly enfranchised working-class voters supported “reactionary” parties:

“The proletariat has discredited itself terribly.”

Nobody has put it better than Engels. The workers often refuse to behave as progressive middle-class intellectuals instruct them to behave.

Skelton writes in a rushed, clumsy and gloomy tone about the dreadful delusions of the leftie intellectuals, but surely they have more cause for despondency as they contemplate Johnson’s to them incomprehensible success.

Lunatic “woke” nostrums, and attempts by their adherents to usher in a tyranny of virtue, cry out for a new Michael Wharton who helps us laugh to scorn these impertinent attempts to purify our history, language, institutions and the rest.

Earlier this week, I met a peer who has just been on one of the courses where members of the House of Lords are taught how to behave. He took it all with the utmost docility, but at the end asked his instructor whether it was all right to be rude to an Old Etonian.

“Oh yes,” she replied without a moment’s thought.

And perhaps that is one of the things people like about Johnson. One can be as rude as one wants to him and he doesn’t seem to mind.

The Prime Minister has an old-fashioned idea of liberty, as involving a degree of tastelessness; a propensity to live and let live; and a willingness to tease the Puritans, not least by avoiding a culture war fought on their own ineffably humourless terms.

We now have Wharton, not as a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, but as Prime Minister: a man capable of seeing the absurdity of everyone, including himself.

But there is another part of Skelton’s story where gloom is understandable. The destruction of great industries, the loss of skilled trades, the humiliation of proud workers reduced to scraping a precarious existence, is the dismal post-war story in town after town.

The example closest to Skelton’s heart is the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks in his home town of Consett, a topic dealt with at greater length in his previous book.

One of the worst things about the nationalisation after the Second World War of the commanding heights of the British economy was that decisions were no longer taken locally, but in London, where it was easier to pretend that parsimonious investment, limited by Treasury rules and recurrent public spending crises, would be adequate to modernise these grand old industries.

Local pride and ownership were lost. Now everyone owned the plant, which meant nobody owned it, and its future was in the hands of distant politicians and officials who for the most part had no deep knowledge or commitment.

The nationalised industries declined into job-preservation schemes which failed even in their own terms, a series of doomed rearguard actions as the great names of British manufacturing went under.

Just as modern architecture done on the cheap in the 1950s and 1960s led increasing numbers of us to shudder at the idea of allowing anything to be built, so regional policy and industrial policy were discredited by a lengthening record of failure.

In his recent Levelling Up speech, Johnson lamented the “basic half-heartedness” of the 40 different schemes or bodies which over the last 40 years have tried to boost local or regional growth.

He admitted that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership” because “we were in the grip of a real ideological conflict in which irresponsible municipal socialist governments were bankrupting cities”.

Now, he rejoiced, “that argument is over and most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

So we are at last returning to local leadership. That at least is the idea. We can be pragmatic rather than ideological, and can bring everyone together in a particular locality in order to do what works.

Skelton agrees that we should not allow ourselves to get “stuck in the endless trenches of a culture war”.

He observes that the Labour Party “emerged from those great institutions of working-class life: the chapel and the trade union”, but that the proportion of Labour MPs who were manual workers “has fallen from almost 20 per cent in 1979 to less than three per cent today”.

The party has become obsessed by cultural issues, and has forgotten that secure, well-paid work is what matters to its former voters.

Let the Labour Party debate cultural issues to its heart’s content, while the dignity of work is championed by the Conservatives.

Skelton wants to formalise “the partnership between workers and employers” by putting workers on boards, which he thinks would “help to rein in the excesses of executive pay”, and would “increase productivity, enhance retention and promote a long-term focus”, instead of short-term expedients to increase shareholder value.

Every successful Conservative leader from Disraeli to the present day has taken seriously the requirements of the working class, and has thereby triumphed over priggish middle-class Liberals and Socialists who supposed they were the true guardians of the workers. Here is a serious task for Johnson.

Alistair Lexden: At the top of the greasy pole – Disraeli 140 years on

4 Apr

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

On 25 February 1868, Mary Anne Disraeli, whose adoration of her husband knew no bounds, wrote excitedly to her friend, Lady Charlotte de Rothschild: ‘By the time this reaches you, Dizzy will be Prime Minister of England!’ (the letter would have been delivered by the then highly efficient Post Office within a few hours).

The prospective new premier shared his wife’s attachment to the nickname by which he was widely and affectionately known; indeed, he often used it himself. By coincidence, he also wrote on that momentous day in his career to Lady de Rothschild, who had sent him a note asking who the new prime minister would be. He replied laconically: ‘ Your devoted Dizzy.’

He always appreciated, and responded warmly, to kindness, perhaps because he had to bear so many insults, even from within his own Party. A senior Tory backbencher, Sir Rainald Knightley, never ceased cursing ‘that hellish Jew.’ To his great credit, Disraeli uttered no public word of protest or complaint. He accepted that in Victorian England those of Jewish descent could not expect much general goodwill, unless they possessed great riches, like the Rothschilds.

In the afternoon of that memorable 25 February , the formal announcement of his appointment by Queen Victoria was made in the House of his Commons by his closest political friend at that time, Lord Stanley, eldest son and heir of the 14th Earl of Derby, who had led the Party for over twenty years and dominated its affairs.

Though Disraeli had been indispensable to him in the Commons, Derby had always had the last word on policy and tactics, supported by his lieutenant in the lower house who loyally deferred to him. The Party had no wish to change this long-standing state of affairs, despite its leader’s increasing ill-health. For some weeks, Derby dithered, but, racked by gout which made even the writing of a letter impossible, it finally became obvious to him that he could not go on. For months Disraeli had run the government, receiving and replying to long letters dictated by the immobile Derby at his ancestral seat, Knowsley in Lancashire, with Stanley, who in 1862 had been thought of as a candidate for the Greek throne, acting as messenger between them. (Ten years later, as the 15th Earl of Derby, he would resign as Foreign Secretary after a bitter clash with Disraeli, and go on to become a Liberal cabinet minister.)

When Derby told the Queen that he would have to resign, she immediately agreed, without seeking the views of anyone else, that there was only one possible successor. It has been argued recently that in such circumstances consultation within political parties had now become a settled duty; yet no one in 1868 seems to have expected it to occur. Everywhere, Disraeli, then in his sixty-fourth year, was accepted as the inevitable choice. At no point did he actively seek the premiership. His words on achieving the highest political office (he was the twenty-ninth person to occupy it) were to become famous: ‘Yes! I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.’

Did he actually say these words? They appear only in an unreliable book by a deeply distrusted figure on the fringe of Disraeli’s circle, Sir William Fraser, but it was exactly the kind of thing Dizzy would have said.

The existing, extremely competent cabinet, which included three dukes (Buckingham, Marlborough and Richmond), three other peers and two sons of peers, remained almost entirely unchanged, reflecting Disraeli’s unalterable view that government was a task for the upper classes, in which he confidently included himself (believing, wrongly, that he was descended from a family of high birth). A voluntary departure reduced the total size of the cabinet to fourteen.

The new premier wasted no time over his one and only sacking. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chelmsford, immediately after the announcement of his appointment , telling the unfortunate man peremptorily that ‘it is not in my power to submit your name for the custody of the great seal to the Queen.’ Chelmsford’s offence was insufficient partisanship: his speeches had lacked Tory passion and he had made judicial appointments impartially instead of reserving them for Tory lawyers. His very able successor from Belfast, Hugh Cairns, who both knew the law and loved party strife, was a man after Disraeli’s heart, and quickly became one of his most trusted colleagues.

The cabinet also gained a new Chancellor of the Exchequer, the post which Disraeli had held under Derby. The following day, 26 February, the Queen was informed that his successor would be the junior Treasury minister, Ward Hunt. ‘He is more than six feet four in. in stature’, Disraeli wrote, ‘but he has the sagacity of an elephant, as well as the form.’ From the start, it was clear that the new premier would not be altering his vivid, novelist’s prose.

The most important formality of all was completed on 27 February. There was no question of the monarch, who was at Osborne, Prince Albert’s creation on the Isle of Wight, coming up to London in a considerate gesture to a busy new premier (in July 1886, Lord Salisbury had to trek 600 miles to Balmoral). At least Disraeli had a warm welcome when he reached Osborne at 7pm on the 27th ,as he told his devoted Private Secretary, Monty Corry, in a letter the following day:

‘I was standing in the Closet when the door opened & the Queen came in, radiant with smiles, & holding out her hand, saying “ You must kiss hands” which I did, immediately & most heartily, falling on my knee, & saying I kissed her hand in faith & loving loyalty. Then she sat down, which she only does with the chief minister, I still standing, & talked so long, that I had hardly time to dress. I dined with her quite alone—i.e. Princess L[ouise] & Dss of Ath[ole] & I dine again with her today.’

It was the start of a remarkable relationship, applauded by Tories but excoriated by their opponents. On 29 February, the Queen told her eldest daughter that ‘the present man will do well, and will be particularly loyal and anxious to please me in every way. He is vy. peculiar, but vy. clever and sensible’. She wrote again on 4 March with rapturous comments: ‘He is full of poetry, romance & chivalry’.

Within weeks, abundant consignments of spring flowers, primroses prominent among them, started arriving at the Disraelis’ house off Park Lane. A view was taking hold, thanks in large part to Walter Bagehot, that the monarch should be an impartial, ceremonial figure, entirely above politics. Neither the Queen nor Disraeli accepted that doctrine. Monarchs do not readily abandon the powers they have inherited. Victoria, though wilful and obstinate like her Hanoverian predecessors, was shrewd, perceptive and, after thirty years on the throne, extremely knowledgeable. Disraeli subdued her more unfortunate prejudices (though not as regards Gladstone), and profited from her sharp insights into people and affairs, particularly in relation to the Church of England, then a source of many problems as well of major patronage (five sees including Canterbury had to be filled in 1868) which she understood and he did not, thinking always in Party terms (‘Another Deanery! The Lord of Hosts is with us!’).

Naturally, Gladstone and his supporters complained bitterly about Disraeli’s rapport with the monarch and the political benefits it brought him. It was up to his great rival to find ways of overcoming it, but he never had the faintest idea of how to go about the task of building a successful relationship with her.

The Queen’s new friend, her first premier not to have a title, took his seat in the Commons as Prime Minister for the first time on 5 March. The Times reported that the galleries ‘were unusually crowded, and peers, ambassadors, and distinguished strangers overflowed into the lobbies and corridors.’ A gay Liberal MP, Lord Ronald Gower, recorded that ‘when he entered John Stuart Mill [then MP for Westminster] was on his legs, but he had to interrupt his speech for several minutes on account of the ringing cheers that Disraeli’s appearance evoked.’

The new premier delivered no magnificent oration, as many had hoped. He spoke only briefly, promising ‘a policy of peace’ abroad and ‘a liberal policy’ at home, leaving his listeners perplexed, a frequent Disraelian ploy. He told the Queen that he had been ‘very guarded, &,in that respect, so successful, that it prevented all discussion. At least, the leader of the Opposition was silent.’ A taciturn Gladstone was a source of particular pleasure to him.

‘Will you lend your reception rooms to my wife?’, Disraeli asked Lord Stanley, his Foreign Secretary, on 9 March. ‘There must be some high festivals on a very extensive scale–& she can do nothing with D[owning] S[treet]: it is so dingy and decaying’ (the Disraelis continued to live at their own London home). A great celebration of the new premiership with several hundred guests duly took place in the gleaming new Foreign Office building on 26 March; even the Gladstones came. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who was there, wrote in his diary:

‘Dizzy in his glory, leading about the Princess of Wales; the Prince of Wales, Mrs Dizzy’. It recalled scenes in Disraeli’s novels. In the words of George Buckle, the official biographer of Disraeli’s later years, ‘it was such a party as the author of Coningsby and Lothair loved to describe, with half enthusiasm and half satire; and this time the author himself and his wife were the leading figures in the show’.

The glittering Foreign Office reception with its royal guests did not help inaugurate a memorable, if brief, period of Disraelian government. He had a year of political glory behind him, and would not know another until the start of his second administration in 1874. The Tories’ capacity to direct the course of events in the late 1860s, while in a minority of sixty without a coalition partner – a situation inconceivable today – depended entirely on keeping Gladstone’s Liberals in total disarray.

That is what Disraeli achieved in 1867. Having brought the Liberals’ right wing into the Tory division lobby in opposition to a modest parliamentary Reform Bill harmful to Tory interests and demolished the Liberal government in July 1866, Disraeli, as Derby’s standard-bearer in the subsequent minority Tory government, then abandoned his first set of Liberal allies and passed a radical Reform Bill giving the vote to the urban working class – which no one, least of all Disraeli, had even contemplated at the outset – with the support of the Liberal left. The Bill was a gamble as regards the new urban electorate (‘a leap in the dark’, in Derby’s famous phrase), but greatly strengthened the Tories’ prospects in their heartlands, the county constituencies, which was the government’s principal objective.

It was a breath-taking triumph which only Disraeli could have brought off. It required mastery of political manoeuvre and intrigue combined with bravura performances at the despatch box. Disraeli, the finest debater of his time, never faltered during his annus mirabilis of 1867. No wonder Gladstone disliked him so much.

In 1868, Gladstone had his revenge. Ireland provided the means. The country itself was not a source of grave anxiety. It was largely peaceful after sporadic violence the previous year. Disraeli had complete confidence in his ministers, both of them Irishmen (an unusual occurrence), in Dublin: the Chief Secretary, the Earl of Mayo, who was rewarded with the Viceroyalty of India in July (four years later he was assassinated on a visit to the Andaman Islands), and the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquess of Abercorn, whose frequent pleas for a dukedom were answered at the same time. In April, the Prince and Princess of Wales made a successful visit to Dublin which Disraeli hoped would be followed by the establishment of a permanent residence for them, an Irish Balmoral, but the Queen vetoed the scheme. Gladstone, who later took up the scheme, had no more success .

It was the eruption of Irish violence in Britain on a serious scale for the first time which enabled Gladstone to regain the political initiative and ruin Disraeli’s chances of a successful premiership. Politicians at Westminster were shaken by incidents in late 1867 associated with the shadowy (and consequently much feared) Fenian terrorist movement, funded from the United States.  A policeman was killed in Manchester; an explosion at Clerkenwell jail in London, set off to enable Fenian prisoners to escape, killed twelve people and injured 120. (Disraeli was incensed by the Met’s incompetence, and demanded the Commissioner’s dismissal.) Rumours of further outrages abounded.

Disraeli wrote to Derby on 16 December 1867 about ‘a plot, quite matured, to blow up the Houses of Parliament by gunpowder introduced through the gas-pipes.’ Ships were said to be on their way from America to kidnap the Queen at Balmoral. That level-headed woman dismissed the story as a hoax, which indeed it was.

In the wake of the Fenian threat, both Parties agreed, as they would again and again in similar circumstances over the next century and a half, that greater attention must be given to Irish policy. They would try to pretend that their response was wholly unconnected with Irish violence (dismissing terrorism in the late 20th Century as ‘ mindless’), but it was of course the shadow of the gun and the bomb that they sought to remove by taking new initiatives. In the atmosphere of crisis in 1868, Disraeli showed that he knew how to serve Irish interests as a whole rather better than Gladstone, though the latter would emerge with all the credit.

It was common ground between them that there were three issues above all which required urgent attention. First, a new university needed to be established, incorporated by charter, to provide for Catholic students (complementing Protestant Trinity College, Dublin). Second, the privileged position of the established Anglican Church of Ireland, which served no more than an eighth of the population, could not remain unchanged. Third, the unduly high rents which some, but by no means all, Anglo-Irish landowners charged their tenants should be brought down and kept under effective control. It was the final question which aroused the deepest feeling throughout Ireland (and from it sprang within ten years a mass movement, the Land League, which swiftly provided Irish nationalism with wide public support for the first time.)

At the beginning of 1868, the Tory government already had serious work in hand on all three, as well as on other issues including primary education and the extension of the railway system ‘affecting beneficially every part of the country’ as Disraeli told the Queen on 4 March after a two-day cabinet meeting devoted to Irish affairs. It was agreed at that meeting that, since the land question was more important than the others, a Bill to begin the process of improvement (no one expected a swift resolution of long-standing agrarian discontent) which Mayo, the Irish Chief Secretary had drafted, should be introduced in the Commons.

Twelve days later Gladstone made his dramatic move, which transformed the entire political situation and brought doom to Disraeli and his minority government. Though he had no quarrel with the Tory programme of action and fully acknowledged the importance of the land question, he suddenly insisted that the Church of Ireland must take precedence over all else. On 14 March, Disraeli told the retired, but still closely involved Derby that Gladstone was ‘in a furious rage.’ Late in the evening of the 16th, he vented his rage on the Anglican Irish Church, calling it ‘an insult to every Roman Catholic’ which ‘as a State Church, must cease to exist.’

Tories were swift to point out that just three years earlier he had assured his Oxford constituents that the Irish Church question was ‘remote and apparently out of all bearing on the practical politics of the day’. Now, suddenly, it was overwhelmingly urgent. How lucky Gladstone has been that there have always been historians ready to take at face value his insistence that he acted at all times from the purest motives untainted by Party political considerations. (It is a view that Professor John Vincent, who died recently, and I challenged in a detailed study of another serious Irish crisis – over Home Rule – in the mid-1880s.)

Inconsistencies count for nothing when the political stakes are high. A single radical reform, unexpectedly produced and offered with all Gladstone’s eloquence as the solution to Irish discontent, seemed to many infinitely preferable to Disraeli’s complicated package of measures, which would take time to produce results. Gladstone encouraged them to believe that disestablishment of the Church of Ireland would put an end the Fenian threat to British peace and, in his well-known phrase, pacify Ireland.

George Buckle described it as ‘Gladstone’s most brilliant and successful stroke as a party leader.’ It brought the squabbling groups within his Party, who had pulled in different directions over parliamentary reform, together again. Harmony reigned for the first time since 1865. The Liberals were back in full possession of their sixty-seat majority. When asked why out of the blue his Party had taken up the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Gladstone’s friend and cabinet colleague, the Duke of Argyll, replied with refreshing candour ‘there really was no other way of getting Dizzy out of office.’ Just three weeks had passed since Disraeli had knelt to kiss the royal hand so fervently, taking it in ‘both his’, as the Queen had noted with surprised pleasure.

Gladstone’s demarche had come, said Disraeli, ‘like a thief in the night.’ During the rest of March and April, Irish disestablishment dominated Commons debate. It was now the Tories’ turn to fall apart, as they tried to work out a response to Gladstone. English love for the embattled Irish Church was in short supply. The cabinet could not agree whether to defend it a`outrance , to reform it, to endow Catholics and Presbyterians as well, or to disestablish it themselves (an option that only a few supported). Disraeli settled for a vigorous defence of the principle of Church establishment which, if completely breached in Ireland, would lead ineluctably to its abrogation elsewhere, and destroy the constitutional settlement of 1688.

The first of three Gladstonian resolutions demanding disestablishment was passed with a majority of 65 in the early hours of 1 May. Some cabinet ministers wanted to resign; Disraeli ignored them, and, with the Queen’s vigorous support, announced on 4 May that Parliament would be dissolved ‘as soon as the public interests permit, and that an earnest endeavour should be made by the Government that such an appeal should be made to the new constituency.’ In other words, the government intended to remain in office until new electoral registers including those enfranchised under the 1867 Reform Act were ready. Disraeli made clear that meant an election in November, unless Gladstone carried a motion of no confidence in the government ,which would precipitate what Disraeli called ‘a penal dissolution’ without delay.

Gladstone, relishing his new-found political strength, was happy to let the Tories remain in office without power. A Gladstonian Bill, paving the way for Irish disestablishment, passed the Commons in June (but made no progress in the Tory-dominated Lords). Measures acceptable to the Liberals proceeded. Bills implementing parliamentary reform in Scotland and Ireland were passed. Public executions were abolished. The first nationalised industry was created; the telegraph service passed into public ownership so that the Treasury could acquire its anticipated profits (they never materialised).

Disraeli was given just one cause for celebration. On 26 April, news arrived of a British triumph in Abyssinia, to which an army had been sent the previous year to rescue a group of British subjects, consisting chiefly of missionaries, held in chains in the remote mountain fortress of Magdala. Glad tidings of victory, achieved with insignificant casualties, were delivered to Disraeli at home, where he was found ‘gorgeously arrayed in a dressing-gown and in imposing headgear’. Having released the prisoners, the British forces withdrew .A barren and unprofitable territory was not added to the British Empire.

Disraeli naturally made the most it all, rejoicing that ‘ the standard of St. George was hoisted on the mountains of Rasselas.’ He continued:

‘We have asserted the purity of our purpose . In an age accused, and perhaps not unjustly, of selfishness, and a too great regard for material interests, it is something, in so striking and significant a manner, for a great nation to have vindicated the higher principles of humanity. It is a privilege to belong to a country which has done such deeds.’

The expedition cost twice as much as the government had estimated. Disraeli was unrepentant, writing airily ‘ it certainly cost double what was contemplated, and that is likely to be the case in all wars for which I may be responsible. Money is not to be considered in such matters: success alone is to be thought of.’

Naturally, Gladstone did not make life easy for his great opponent’s government. Disraeli wrote to the Queen on 18 July that ‘Parliamentary work has been so protracted, severe, & exhausting: amounting to upwards of twelve hours a day.’ The main item of business, as the Parliament elected in 1865 drew to a close was, he told her, ‘the bill for the prevention of the Cattle plague, by establishing separate markets for foreign meat at the ports of embarcation.’

Parliament was prorogued, prior to its dissolution, on 31 July. The speech from the throne read on behalf of the Queen invited the nation to reject Irish disestablishment (and by implication the Liberals) at the forthcoming election. She expressed the hope that the people’s verdict ‘on those great questions of public policy which have occupied the attention of Parliament and remain undecided, may tend to maintain unimpaired that civil and religious freedom which has been secured to all my subjects by the institutions and settlement of my realm.’

Disraeli always supervised Tory election campaigns in some detail, not unlike a 20 Century Party Chairman (a post created in 1911). In 1868, he scrutinised intently the work of the Conservatives’ election management committee, composed of grandees and apparatchiks. He solicited £10,000 from each of his cabinet colleagues (the three dukes were very reluctant to pay up) to put towards an election war chest of £100,000, which, to his disappointment, he came nowhere near achieving.

He seemed to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the recent electoral history of each county constituency, and the prominent local families from whom Tory candidates had been drawn. Many received letters from him, urging them to keep the faith and hinting at knighthoods and baronetcies in return. Advice was offered about how local difficulties could be overcome. Those who needed financial help were put in touch with wealthy neighbours. Throughout the summer he hardly rested. ‘I have written so much today that I am almost blind & can’t guide my pen any more’, he told Lord Stanley on 21 August. This was an era in which Prime Ministers wrote nearly all their own letters, delegating only the most humdrum matters to private secretaries

Unlike Gladstone, however, Disraeli did not set off on the campaign trail. For this, he was chided by the official biographer of his later life, George Buckle:

‘He had given the vote to a hitherto unenfranchised million of his fellow countrymen, belonging in the great majority to the working classes ; but so absolutely incapable was he of demagogic arts that he neglected, almost to a culpable degree, to endeavour to utilise his great legislative achievement to secure their support…Gladstone and several of his colleagues undertook impassioned electoral campaigns in which the new Irish policy of their party was eloquently expounded. But Disraeli contented himself with issuing an address, undoubtedly of some length and elaboration, to the electors of Bucks’, his constituency.

This was one of the greatest contrasts between the two famous adversaries. Disraeli was an outstanding Parliamentarian who rarely spoke on public platforms; Gladstone was formidable in, and outside, Westminster. Even Disraeli’s election address, dominated by disestablishment, contained nothing to make the new working-class electors feel that he would improve their lives. ‘One nation’ was conspicuous by its absence, but then he never claimed to be in the business of trying to create it, or even used the term.

Disraeli always viewed the world and public affairs with tremendous optimism, one of his most attractive qualities. As the election approached, he was confident of victory. On 28 October, he told the Queen that the government ‘may reasonably calculate on the return of 320 supporters’, giving the Tories their first Parliamentary majority since 1841. He was utterly confounded when the election took place in November. Gladstone won a majority of over a hundred. Disraeli had done significantly worse than Derby in 1865. It was, he told the Queen on 24 November ‘a strange & most unforeseen result.’ On the 28th, Lord Stanley recorded that the cabinet ‘all agreed, without one dissentient voice, in the policy of immediate resignation’, setting aside the age-old convention that after losing an election an incumbent government would wait to be defeated in Parliament before leaving office.

On 1 December, Disraeli tendered his resignation to the Queen at Windsor. On the same day, the London Gazette announced that Mrs Disraeli ‘had been granted the dignity of Viscountess Beaconsfield, of Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckinghamshire.’ The Queen told him that she ‘can indeed truly sympathise with his devotion to Mrs Disraeli who in her turn is so deeply attached to him’. The new Viscountess wrote of her ‘happiness’ at knowing that she owed her honour ‘to Your Majesty’s appreciation of Mr Disraeli’.

*

Three significant overall conclusions can be drawn from this account of Disraeli’s first, brief premiership, which make it a suitable subject for a commemorative essay.

First, it shows that, to an extent not widely recognised, he was an accidental Prime Minister. In an age of elderly premiers, Derby had absolutely no wish to retire in 1868. He was 69, eleven years younger than Palmerston when he died in office in 1865. He wanted to be the first Conservative leader since 1841 to win a Parliamentary majority, and leave a lasting mark as head of a successful government.

It was Derby’s gout that made Disraeli Prime Minister in 1868. At no stage had Disraeli said that he expected to get to the top of the greasy pole; there are some indications that he did not. If Derby had stayed on for several more years, as he intended, Disraeli, five years his junior, might well have been overtaken by another senior Conservative – Lord Salisbury, for instance, his own ultimate successor, who at this stage loathed Disraeli as a man who was betraying true Conservative principles and ought to be ousted.

Second, it shows that Disraeli did not neglect, or misunderstand, Irish affairs, as has been widely alleged. They had their place on the government’s agenda before Fenian attacks in Britain gave them extra urgency. Disraeli then intensified the work that was then in hand, particularly on the land question which was at the heart of the Irish problem. Gladstone outmanoeuvred him by launching an onslaught on the Church of Ireland, reuniting his divided Party and sweeping the country at the November 1868 election.

Third, and most important, his first short spell at the top of the greasy pole in 1868 did him no good at all. His one substantial achievement was to make the Queen a Tory. The Party in Parliament was in a much weaker state at the end of 1868 than at the beginning. The beneficiaries of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act voted Liberal. Tories hate failure. In 1872, he nearly lost the leadership; only two of his ex-cabinet colleagues opposed a plan to replace him by the new 15th Earl of Derby. Disraeli himself lost heart. In 1872, his wife died; he said ‘I am totally unable to meet this catastrophe.’ Then suddenly Gladstone’s government ran into difficulty, and two years later the Tories reversed their 1868 humiliation.

The essential point here is that it was only at a very late stage in his career that Disraeli started to attract his Party’s acclaim. He was lauded after 1874, particularly as a result of his great triumph at the Congress of Berlin, from which he returned proclaiming ‘peace with honour’. The Tories now at last took him to their hearts. His sudden death in April 1881 produced an outpouring of feeling for him, which led, two years later, to the creation of the Primrose League , the two-million strong organisation that ensured his political immortality as the best-known and most loved Conservative of the nineteenth century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – Robert Blake, Disraeli ( Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966) and The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (Fontana,1985). George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, Vol. IV 1855-1868( John Murray, 1916) and Vol. V 1868-1876 (John Murray,1920). Michel W.Pharand et al., Benjamin Disraeli Letters, Vol X. 1868 (University of Toronto Press,2014).Richard Shannon, The Age of Disraeli 1868-1881 ( Longman,1992). J.R. Vincent ed., Disraeli Derby and the Conservative Party: The Political Journals of Lord Stanley 1849-69 ( Harvester Press,1978) and his essay ‘ Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield’ in Herbert van Thal ed., The Prime Ministers Vol. 2( George Allen & Unwin, 1975).

From Walpole to Johnson, the rude, original vigour of the Prime Minister and the Commons have survived

3 Apr

The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon

Spoiler alert. Ten pages from the end of his 337-page study, Anthony Seldon concludes that “the undoubted challenges” of being Prime Minister “have not made the job impossible”.

He also concedes that making lists of the best Prime Ministers, though “entertaining”, is also “largely meaningless”, because there are no “agreed criteria on what constitutes ‘success’ for a Prime Minister”.

But Seldon knows which PMs he puts in his top class, worthy of the accolade of being “Agenda Changers”, by which he means they “changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of Prime Minister operated”:

“Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher.”

No Winston Churchill, which is rather refreshing, for that endlessly fascinating figure can sometimes obscure everyone who came before him.

But oddly enough, in the piece for The Times which Seldon wrote about his book, the top eight become the top nine, for Churchill is included.

One must register here an immediate protest at the exclusion of Pitt the Elder. For although his titanic parliamentary speeches are lost to history – there was no Hansard in that confident century – the electrifying effect of this pioneering globalist’s performances is amply recorded, and it is a mere quibble to say that in 1759, the Year of Victories, he was not actually Prime Minister, but merely the driving force of the Government and of British arms.

In Seldon’s book, Churchill is relegated to the second division, described as “Major Contributors”, as if they had donated substantial sums to the school appeal, after which we get “Positive Stabilisers”, “Noble Failures”, “Ignoble Failures”, and “Left on the Starting Line”, this last category consisting of PMs who served for too short a time to make much of a difference.

All this has the merit of being highly thought-provoking. Seldon is a Gladstonian technocrat. He admires moral seriousness, and getting things done. Life is real and life is earnest, and so is politics.

Walpole, who took office 300 years ago today, is some ways lucky to make the cut. Seldon begins with an imaginary dialogue between Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, who is the 55th holder of the office.

Throughout these three centuries, control of the House of Commons has been a cardinal requirement for any Prime Minister, and loss of control, which Walpole suffered at the start of 1742, meant you were out.

Although Seldon reserves his greatest admiration for Prime Ministers who changed the way the office works, he does not seek to hide the fact that in some ways it has remained unchanged.

He does not, however, have much sympathy with any Prime Minister who might be suspected of frivolity. He has little time for Benjamin Disraeli, and a great deal for Robert Peel.

The enduring impact of the great split of 1846, when Disraeli destroyed Peel and almost destroyed the Conservative Party, is underplayed by Seldon:

“For Conservatives, memories of Peel’s splitting the party caused successive leaders regular anxiety.”

Regular nightmares would be more accurate. Robert Blake, in The Unknown Prime Minister, his life of Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister from 1922-23, puts the matter in its true perspective, when explaining why in 1913 Bonar Law felt obliged, as the still quite new Conservative leader, to abandon his personal support for Imperial Preference, an issue as bitterly divisive as Brexit became a century later:

“Did Bonar Law act rightly in thus reversing his own declared policy for the sake of Party unity? To answer this is to to answer a problem in political ethics which has never yet been satisfactorily solved. But in acting as he did there is no doubt that Bonar Law was following the established tradition of previous Conservative leaders. Ever since the day when Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws had broken the Party and driven it into the wilderness for 20 years, successive Conservative leaders had felt it was their duty, at all costs and at almost any sacrifice, to avoid repeating Peel’s action. Disraeli, Salisbury, Balfour, had all regarded party unity as of paramount importance – and Bonar Law both on this occasion, and at several other critical moments in his life, took the same view.”

Such party considerations are almost entirely ignored by Seldon, who instead focuses on what happens inside Number Ten. Bonar Law, who brought down Lloyd George but then served as Prime Minister for only 212 days before being forced by mortal illness to step down, is put among the Prime Ministers who had too little time to do anything significant while in office.

Lord Salisbury, who spent a total of almost 14 years as Prime Minister, is placed by Seldon in the third division. One looks in vain for any recognition of Salisbury’s ability often to defeat Gladstone, by ensuring that after the widening of the franchise in 1884, an organised appeal was made to the “Villa Toryism” found in the suburbs which were springing up round every prosperous town.

In Seldon’s view, Salisbury “was responsible for few fresh initiatives over his 14 years”, so doesn’t belong at the top table. Novelty is what counts, so Tory leaders who disguise innovation as keeping things the same receive no credit.

Lord Rosebery, who in 1894 succeeded Gladstone but remained in office for only a year and a bit, comes off worse. “We need not linger on Lord Rosebery,” Seldon tells us, later adding that this Prime Minster “lacked gravitas, failed to build on Gladstone’s legacy, to give a clear direction, and led the Liberals into a defeat”.

It is certainly true that despite being a man of wealth, intellect, charm and spell-binding eloquence, and winning the Derby twice while he was Prime Minister, Rosebery was a failure. But reading Seldon’s study reminds us that failure can be good for liberty, and good for Parliament.

The voters, who are almost entirely absent from this account, need someone to blame when things have gone wrong, and in many ways it is more satisfying to blame a brilliant Prime Minister than a second-rate one.

The Commons matters because it can end any Prime Minister’s career. Here is one of the great checks on tyranny, for MPs in whichever party or coalition of parties has a parliamentary majority are quick to realise when their leader has become such a liability with the wider public that they themselves will be in danger of losing their seats at the next election.

The Commons withdraws its confidence from a Prime Minister who has failed, and a new Prime Minister, who perhaps sees more clearly what the nation requires, is given the chance to show what he or she can do.

Churchill taking over from the previously impregnable Neville Chamberlain in 1940 is the most dramatic example of this brutal process. We have a wonderfully responsive system, which is one reason why it has absorbed three centuries of shocks: plenty of wars, riots, crashes, slumps and strikes, but no revolution.

The Commons is still there, and when it senses that the right moment has come it will – unless pre-empted by some some other means of getting rid of the Prime Minister such as an election defeat – unmake Johnson as it unmade Thatcher.

Seldon makes proposals for lightening the load borne by the Prime Minister, by delegating much of the routine business of government to a Deputy Prime Minister, and many external responsibilities to the Foreign Secretary, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer demoted to become only the fourth most senior member of the Cabinet.

Such reforms may be desirable, and might even lead to greater efficiency, but efficiency is not enough. And Seldon recognises that well-intentioned reforms often prove transitory.

John Major tried to show he was a different kind of leader by consulting the Cabinet more respectfully than his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was accustomed to do. As Seldon comments, “It didn’t last. It never does.”

Seldon has interviewed a number of insiders, including Gus O’Donnell, a former Cabinet Secretary, who tells him:

“The role of full Cabinet has been over-emphasised. It’s just become too big to be the decision-making body.”

The same point was made, more amusingly, by C. Northcote Parkinson in the 1950s.

There are a number of astonishing errors in Seldon’s book: Lloyd George is said to have sat for 55 years for a “South Wales seat”, while a well-known remark by Horace Walpole about the fourth Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle (“A Secretary of State without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue, without secrecy or policy, and a Minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and Ministers, without being turned out by any”) is attributed to H.T. Dickinson.

But there are also some wonderful things. Here is the Duke of Portland, Prime Minister in 1783 and again in 1807-9, and classified by Seldon as an Ignoble Failure:

“the idea of courting popularity by any means I have always reprobated…the possession or enjoyment of it has always something in it very suspicious, and I know hardly any act or measure vulgarly or commonly called popular which has not originated in a bad cause, and been productive of pernicious effects.”

Many Remainers would agree most devoutly with Portland. Could it be (as I suggested the other day) that we still live in an 18th-century country?

One of the best things about this book is that it makes one think anew about our political tradition, and give thanks that certain features of it, including the office of Prime Minister, still possess, despite all attempts by glorified management consultants at modernisation, some traces of their rude original vigour.

Alistair Lexden: The Conservatives and the Carlton Club – in partnership for nearly 200 years

30 Jan

Alistair Lexden is the Carlton Club’s official historian. His publications include ‘The Carlton Club 1832-2007’ (with Sir Charles Petrie,2007) and ‘A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League,1983-2004’ (2010). In preparing this address, he drew heavily—and with gratitude– on Seth Alexander Thevoz, ‘Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs’ ( I.B.Tauris,2018).

On 28 January, Lord Lexden spoke to some 100 members of the Carlton Club by Zoom about the Club’s history. The text of his address follows.

There would have been no Carlton Club without that excessively overweight, spendthrift, arts-loving monarch, King George IV.

There would undoubtedly have been a powerful Conservative club, but it would have been called something else – perhaps the Wellington Club in tribute to the great Duke, who was leader of the Party when the plans for its establishment were made after 1830. In that case, history would have been robbed of one of Wellington’s celebrated quips: “never write a letter to your mistress, never join the Carlton Club”.

It was a very odd thing for him to say, despite its having his characteristic terseness and, as regards the first bit, good sense. He was after all the Carlton’s founding father and, although he played no large part in its affairs, he must have observed its success with considerable satisfaction. Perhaps, like many phrases supposedly uttered by famous people, it was attributed to him, but actually coined by someone else.

In no sense was George IV a founding father of the Club, though one of his brothers, the Duke of Cumberland, a man widely reviled as a murder suspect, was one of the original members, along with a cousin, the Duke of Gloucester; no one at that time thought the royal family should be politically impartial. The King made his contribution unwittingly. In the 1820s he decided to demolish Carlton House, a palace in all but name, where he had lived in splendour as Prince of Wales, and to turn the then unpretentious Buckingham House into a residence fit for kings.

Carlton House Terrace, itself not lacking in splendour, was built over what had been the royal gardens. While it waited for its permanent home to be made ready for it in Pall Mall, the Club found a temporary abode in the Terrace, renting the house of a Tory supporter, Lord Kensington. It was in this way that the famous name was acquired. The indirect royal link was commemorated through the incorporation of the Prince of Wales’s feathers into the Club’s symbol. (At least I think that was the case; in the absence of any surviving records bearing on the point it is impossible to be sure.)

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the establishment of the Carlton Club in the history of British party politics. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, there were in existence two great clubs, Brooks’s and White’s, linked to the historic Whig  and Tory Parties respectively. But by the 1830s, the two Parties needed far more than their long-standing London bastions could supply. They simply were not large enough. Some MPs had begun to resort to non-political Clubs, like Boodle’s in St James’s Street, giving rise to the following merry ditty: ‘In Parliament I fill my seat/With many other noodles/And lay my head in Jermyn Street/And sip my hock at Boodle’s’.

Such exile from the political mainstream soon became unnecessary. Politics entered a new era, in which the two Parties, which evolved in the 1830s and the two subsequent decades (acquiring new names, Conservative and Liberal), expanded their activities greatly. They needed London accommodation on a generous scale in premises which provided  a variety of rooms, large and small.

That is what the Carlton Club supplied. In 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession, it opened its first Clubhouse in Pall Mall on the corner of Carlton Gardens, yet another reminder of the gross, bloated monarch, George IV (114 years later a slim Miss Margaret Roberts would depart from the next door house in Carlton Gardens en route to her marriage to Mr Denis Thatcher).

The Club remained on its Pall Mall corner site until a Nazi bomb fell on it in October 1940. The original Clubhouse underestimated the Party’s need for space. It was enlarged in the 1840s as Sir Robert Peel brought the Party first to election triumph in 1841, and then to political disaster and division as a result of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. To assist the Party’s recovery from the split that the Corn Laws’ repeal brought about, the enlarged building was demolished and replaced by an even bigger one in 1856.

Members stared from the Club’s windows across Carlton Gardens at the Reform Club, founded in 1836, four years after the Carlton, to equip the Tories’ opponents with the same range of services, social and political, that the Carlton  pioneered. (It should be noted in passing that in the new nineteenth-century political world the Conservatives put themselves at the forefront of organisational change, where they were to remain until Tony Blair’s day.)

The close proximity of the two rival Clubs meant that they kept each other under close observation. In the early days, the Reform took a great interest in the volume of mail posted by servants of the Carlton, who retaliated by waiting until darkness fell before venturing forth. During a political crisis in 1884, blinds were pulled down at every window of the Carlton Club’s library after a member  noticed two figures across the road in the Reform Club spying with the aid of opera glasses. Members of the Carlton noted with satisfaction that their Club eclipsed the Reform in size and grandeur.

The Reform Club’s interior today gives some idea of what the Carlton would have been like inside. The Carlton’s atrium, immediately inside the entrance, at over 100 square metres was larger than the Reform’s. It was there that Conservative Members of Parliament and at least a sprinkling of peers would meet with some regularity to be addressed by their leaders over the next century, the most famous such meeting occurring in 1922 when Lloyd George’s coalition was brought to an end. With all visitors to the Club banned, absolute privacy would have been guaranteed if MPs, then as now, had not leaked so readily to the press.

The smaller premises in St James’s Street could not accommodate such meetings, which must, I think, be a cause of some regret. The Parliamentary Party had to settle for a large Commons committee room or Central Hall, Westminster.

The most important cause of the fundamental political changes, of which the formation of the two great political clubs was such a significant consequence, was the reconstruction of the electoral system, brought about by the Great Reform Act of 1832. It is no coincidence that the Carlton was established in that year following earlier, more modest attempts to give the Party a new London base in Charles Street, off St James’s Square, by a group of leading Tories, known unsurprisingly as the Charles Street Gang.

The 1832 Reform Act created, for the first time, a set of common qualifications for the right to vote in borough seats on the one hand and for county seats on the other, based on stiff property tests – designed as a permanent measure, not as the first step on the road to full democracy. The total number of voters increased, though not hugely so; the new electorate numbered around a million. The Tory Party needed to locate and enlist its supporters in order to get them on the electoral registers, which the Reform Act brought into being for the first time. This often involved long and expensive battles in the courts.

Of course, then as now, most of the work had to be done in the constituencies themselves, where solicitors became the first agents of the Conservative Party, in effect if not always in name. The Carlton provided a centre in London, where nationwide activity could be co-ordinated and, where necessary, supplemented.

Finance was a constant requirement at a time when general elections cost a million pounds and more, colossal sums in today’s values. From the outset, the Carlton had no more important function than to maintain a substantial Political Fund, for which its Political Committee was given responsibility. Lurid accounts appeared in the non-Conservative press about the flow of Carlton gold, as it was called, to constituencies for corrupt purposes, of which there were plenty of examples under the reformed electoral system, down to the 1880s.

There was no doubt much exaggeration in the stories of Carlton-financed malpractice, put about by opponents and included in the political novels of the period. To the historian’s deep regret, It is impossible to establish the truth because the records of the Club’s Political Committee do not survive for any part of the Nineteenth Century. How good it would have been to have had the inside story of the Carlton’s role in the colourful history of nineteenth-century electioneering.

(May I mention in parenthesis at this point the means by which the Conservative Party finally broke away from high, often corrupt, election expenditure? It was achieved through the Primrose League, founded at the Carlton in 1883. The League produced a whole army of election workers, half of them women, who happily toiled for votes, constituency by constituency, without receiving a penny piece in return. Beginning its life at the Carlton, the League returned to it in the years of its decline, occupying a small office at the Club in the 1970s. The Carlton at its height had some 1,800 members; the League at its zenith some two million. I am glad that Primrose League banners, and some examples of the extensive regalia worn by its members, are now on permanent display at the Club, along with a short sketch of its history which I wrote for the Club some years ago.)

Like Conservative headquarters today, the Carlton was sometimes accused of imposing candidates on constituencies. That was rarer then than now. What normally happened is that constituencies with vacancies to fill turned to the Carlton for recommendations, the nearest thing to today’s official candidates’ list.

It was in this way that a remarkable Tory who fascinated his contemporaries, and continues to fascinate posterity, got into the Commons after a succession of unsuccessful contests. An ardent supporter of the candidate recorded what happened:

“At the General Election in 1837 a Committee of the Conservative party in Maidstone had determined to run one candidate only, namely Wyndham Lewis Esquire (an intimate friend of the Duke of Wellington). At the end of the first day’s canvas, on casting up the promises, they so far exceeded the number contemplated, that the Committee determined to apply to the Carlton Club for another candidate, and three of our Committee went up to London, and with the aid afforded at the Club, Mr Disraeli was selected, and he consented, and went down with our three friends at once, and entered upon the canvas on the following morning. He soon became a great favourite with the voters.”

(At the 1837 election Maidstone had 1,399 electors.)

This important role in election management was supervised from ‘dark little rooms under the Carlton Club’, as an election agent put it in 1853. Above, in the infinitely more comfortable rooms of varying size, MPs gathered in some numbers when the Commons was in session. It was almost unheard of for an MP not to join the Carlton. The Commons was an unattractive place to spend any length of time at this period. Destroyed by fire in 1834, rebuilding work continued for some 30 years, and the place often smelt horribly because the Thames was little more than an open sewer until ‘the great stink’, as it was known, was finally subdued by Disraeli’s versatile political skills in 1851.

Travel between Commons and Club was easy. An MP recorded that “there is a cab stand at the very door of the House, and the whole process of going for, and returning with, an honourable gentleman does not occupy more than eight minutes.” The Carlton provided everything MPs needed: accommodation, food, drink (that indispensable element of club life), stationery, newspapers, a postal service and that essential ingredient of political life at all times and in all places, gossip. Sir Robert Peel as Party leader spent much of his time at the Carlton, as did Disraeli who called in most days. Never before had Tory MPs seen so much of their leaders, or been on such close terms with them.

The Club’s Committee, dominated by titled grandees, was kept busy ensuring that services were up to scratch. Who among today’s Committee members would be willing to sort out maintenance problems on Christmas Day as their noble predecessors did in the early days? In 1839 they ordered that “holes in water closet seats throughout the House be cut larger.” Britain’s leading political Club did not neglect its members’ comfort.

*

“In a progressive country”, said Disraeli, “change is constant”. How has the Carlton changed over nearly two centuries? The election managers and agents, supervised by the Party Whips (there was no Party Chairman until 1911), departed from their dusty basement for the newly established Conservative Central Office in 1870, for they now needed more room for the work of election organisation with the arrival of working-class voters in borough constituencies as a result of Disraeli’s Second Reform Act of 1867. But Carlton gold, raised by the Political Committee, continued to help fill the Party’s election coffers for the rest of the Nineteenth Century.

Almost all  MPs remained members of the Club until the First World War, happily paying its ten-guinea subscription, fixed in 1832 (equivalent to nearly a thousand pounds today), which remained unchanged until  the 1930s. But as the Commons developed its refreshment and other services, MPs tended to make less use of the Club .

No longer could they expect to rub shoulders on a daily basis with their Party leader. Disraeli, who died in 1881, was sorely missed. His successors spent little time in the Club, appearing only when they had meetings to address. Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour positively disliked it. Affection at the highest level was not seen again until after 1945, when Churchill and Macmillan resumed the habit of making fairly frequent visits, a practice continued by Mrs Thatcher who was to become the Club’s second President (Harold Macmillan, who was devoted to the place, having been the first). Perhaps in the future serving Conservative Party leaders will  be drawn once again to visiting the Club with some frequency .

Cause for serious complaint arose in the early Twentieth Century. The Club’s standards, maintained by Christmas Day Committee meetings in the early years, fell sharply. A great crisis erupted in 1912. Lord Balcarres, then Tory Chief Whip, recorded in his diary on 1 April 1912 that:

“the club is rapidly falling from its high state. Not only is the food bad, the waiting atrocious and the normal comforts of club life quite deficient, but with the steady deterioration in its social qualities the Carlton which in old days was at the very centre of political activity now almost ceases to count…The management and control have fallen into weak hands with deplorable results.”

Could the decline be reversed? The Club’s Secretary, who had been in his post for 35 years, was sacked, and a Club Chairman was appointed for the first time. Marked improvement occurred. MPs attested to the high quality of the catering during the inter-war years by eating in the Club in considerable numbers; they were well represented when the Nazi bomb arrived at 8.30pm on 14 October 1940. Cuthbert Headlam MP noted in his diary the following day that “there were over 100 members in the Club at the time and not one of them was scratched which seems to indicate that God approves of Conservative legislators.”

The real test for the Club was whether it could revitalise its serious political work. That did not happen for a long time. The Political Committee, on which all such work depended, had ceased to exist by 1912, and was not reconstituted until 1949. Even then, it did not do much, apart from arranging for Churchill to address a packed Club through loud speakers. The final completion of the  Political Committee’s resurgence was noted as late as 1983 when the Club’s AGM was told that “the Carlton Club was back as a strong political force”, as it had demonstrated by raising £50,000 for that year’s election campaign. The Committee had returned to its central position in Club life, where it remains today.

But for the Club as a whole that was by no means the most serious problem which had to be overcome in these years. Even before members arrived at 69 St James’s Street in 1940, longing for the moment when their Pall Mall home could be rebuilt and complaining about the cramped quarters in which they were now confined, membership had been falling alarmingly. By 1976, it was down to just 845, with only a handful of MPs among them. The spectre of closure loomed. It was removed by the one of the greatest of all political magicians, Harold Macmillan, then aged 83. In 1977, he achieved in months what had eluded everyone else: the amalgamation of the Carlton with the Junior Carlton, founded in 1864, which had been clinging obstinately to its independence in Pall Mall while its membership also plummeted. Not since the days of Disraeli had the Carlton had such unstinting support from an outstanding Conservative – and it came just in time.

As the Club was climbing back to financial stability, rebuilding its membership and regaining its political role in a form suited to our times, it suffered its second physical assault. It came from the IRA on 25 June 1990, fifty years after the Club had been bombed out of its Pall Mall Clubhouse. Half the ground floor, a quarter of the first floor and a significant area in the basement were damaged. In 1940 no one was killed; in 1990 a member, Lord Kaberry, and a porter, Charles Henry, died as a result of their injuries, a source of infinite sadness to members.

Everyone was astonished by the speed with which the Club patched itself up, and, having done that, began to lay ambitious plans for refurbishment which, evolving over the years, have brought the Club to its present handsome state. The grand building in Pall Mall was certainly imposing, but no one ever said it was a thing of beauty.

Happiness within the resplendent walls of 69 St James’s Street was impaired for some years after 1990 by a division of opinion over whether women should be full  members, having been associate members since 1977. The issue was finally resolved in 2008. Who today is not glad of the great contribution which women are making to the Club?

Long- established institutions must always remain conscious of the traditions of which they are custodians. Writing to Winston Churchill in 1948, the then Club Chairman, Lord Sandford, stressed that ‘members should realise the traditions attaching to their membership, and be prepared to shoulder those responsibilities which commit them to an unstinting support of the Party and its work.’ In that essential respect, the Carlton has remained unchanged over nearly two centuries.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Johnson beams like a schoolboy who has got his hands on an enormous cake

30 Dec

“A majority is always better than the best repartee.” So said the greatest and wittiest parliamentarian ever to lead the Conservative Party, a statesman who could disguise headlong retreat as triumphant advance: Benjamin Disraeli.

Boris Johnson came to the House today with a stonking majority. He had repartee at his command too, but the majority is what matters.

Many of the best judges had predicted his Brexit negotiations would fail. Five former Prime Ministers had denounced his tactics. Deadline after deadline had passed without agreement.

Yet here he was, certain in this afternoon’s vote to gain a vast majority, with his own party’s sternest and most unbending Eurosceptics declaring themselves satisfied by his Christmas Eve deal, but set to be joined in the division lobby by the Leader of the Opposition, and by as many Labour MPs as accept Sir Keir Starmer’s instruction to vote for the deal.

What a triumph, to have resolved the choice into one where even devout Remainers have to support him, and only the Scottish Nationalists, who had hoped and prayed for no deal, would vote in substantial numbers against him.

Johnson avoided triumphalism. The last thing he wanted to do was to shatter the consensus he had created by striking a partisan note.

He communicated instead an impregnable benevolence. Every so often he could not help breaking out in a smile of pure enjoyment, like a schoolboy who has managed to get his hands on an enormous chocolate cake.

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, tried to disconcert him, by objecting that Johnson refers to the Scottish Nationalist Party, when actually it is the Scottish National Party.

Johnson remained undisconcerted, indeed amused: he remarked ingeniously that he uses the word “nationalist” with a small “n”.

The Prime Minister proceeded to show he is now on the best of terms with everyone else, including Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier. He thanked “all our European friends for their pragmatism and foresight”, and assured them that they could look forward to “a fantastic new relationship” with “a prosperous, contented” United Kingdom which is “at once European and sovereign” and will be “the best friend and ally the EU could have”.

“We were told we could not have our cake and eat it,” Johnson added, looking more than every like a schoolboy with a cake so enormous that however much he eats of it himself, and however much he shares with the friends now crowding around him, there will always be more.

In any election campaign you will find most of the candidates assuring the voters, “You can have your cake and eat it.”

For that is what most people long to believe, and it is certainly what Johnson loves to tell them, though not at excessive length, for that way boredom lies. In under half an hour he sat down.

Sir Keir swallowed his bitter medicine with good grace, while declining to swallow some of the Prime Minister’s more exuberant assurances.

“Will there be no non-tariff barriers to trade?” Sir Keir demanded. So we still have a functioning Opposition.

But the day belonged to Johnson. In the autumn of last year, he had no majority in the Commons, and the Remainers sought at every turn to confound him.

Now they have been forced to surrender, and he has a huge parliamentary majority.

It probably won’t last: these things seldom do. But this morning one could not blame him for looking like a schoolboy with a cake of quite extraordinary dimensions.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

Johnson believes faith in the nation can unite lifelong Tories and traditional Labour supporters

6 Oct

Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he

“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”

It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.

His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.

Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.

This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:

“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.

“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.

That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.

One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.

Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.

This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.

He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.

Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”

One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.

Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:

“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”

And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:

“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”

Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.