Commentary Magazine

The Strange Death of Tory England

A generation ago, in an interesting book, George Dangerfield told the sad story of what he called “The Strange Death of Liberal England.” The collapse of a great political tradition is a solemn thing. How, people asked, did it happen? How, within ten years, could the triumphant Liberal party of the pre-1914 era, the reforming party of Lloyd George, Asquith, Haldane, Grey, and Winston Churchill, have lost out to the Labour party as the main champion of the British Left? There were, of course, reasons to hand: the bitter feud between the Lloyd-Georgeites and the supporters of Asquith, and the general increase in socialist strength and militancy in Europe that followed on the First World War. But Liberalism in Britain had had deep roots. Religious non-conformism had long been a powerful force. The radical legislation of the pre-war decade should have enabled the Liberal party, like FDR's Democratic party twenty years later, to keep its grip on the working-class vote. In the event, Liberalism crumbled. And with it fell that whole in-and-out, Whig-and-Tory, Eton-and-Harrow, Tweedledum-Tweedledee structure of British political culture that had lasted for over two centuries.

What is the relevance of this to Britain's recent, and rather unsensational, General Election and change of government? The Labour party, after all, won by the narrowest of margins. The British people were plainly in no revolutionary mood. The results of the election reflected pretty accurately a desire for change, but not for revolutionary change. In actual votes, the Conservatives suffered a loss of one-and-a-half million, a clear verdict against Sir Alec Douglas-Home and his administration. But the Labour party failed to increase its share of the poll and got even fewer votes than it had in 1950-51. The real victors were the Liberals, who increased their share of the vote to over three million. (The number of Liberal voters varies, of course, with the number of Liberal candidates actually standing; but it is a fair assumption that, had Liberal candidates been running in every constituency, the party's vote would have topped four million—some 15 per cent of the electorate.)

Despite all this, however, it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of the fall of Sir Alec's administration. Harold Wilson won by a tiny margin in 1964; but so did John Kennedy in 1960. In politics, after all, winning is winning. And the advantage that accrues to the victor, if he can exploit the prestige and power of his office, is formidable. It is plainly the case that the Kennedy image failed to take America by storm when it was first promoted. Yet, within two years, office had so magnified the Kennedy image that the President appeared unbeatable to his political opponents. If he plays his cards well—and it is worth recording that Mr. Wilson's campaign reading was Theodore H. White's The Making of the President, 1960—I believe that Harold Wilson has a good chance of achieving something similar to what Kennedy achieved before him.

Is this going too far? What chance has Wilson to establish himself, when even his best friends would not claim that he is exactly a charismatic figure, and when death or illness could deprive him overnight of his slender majority of five? Before the final results of the election were in, commentators generally agreed that a majority of at least fifteen seats in Parliament was mandatory for efficient government. Against this, Sir Winston Churchill's remark was much quoted, to the effect that a majority of one is enough. I have little doubt that Churchill was right—but only on one condition. A government with a weak majority must not act as a weak government. It is imperative for it to act boldly and quickly, using all the resources at its disposal. What offends the electorate is a faltering administration; this was the trouble with successive Labour governments in Britain in the past. It was not the revolutionary boldness of Ramsay MacDonald's administrations, in 1924 and 1929, that led to Labour's downfall: on the contrary, the socialist wolves of the hustings quickly became bureaucratic lambs in office. To be sure, these early Labour administrations were compelled to rely on Liberal votes in the House of Commons. But they fell, ultimately, because the public sensed a lack of vigor in their handling of affairs. The Labour government of 1945 with its landslide victory was a different matter. But the second postwar Labour government (1950-51), with its majority of less than ten, quickly fell prey to its own dissensions and to the tactics of attrition employed by its opponents. Yet by general agreement, the 1950 government did not go down because of the smallness of its majority alone; it failed because the party had lost the moral impetus it possessed in 1945. Some of its best leaders, Bevin and Cripps, were dead. Herbert Morrison, Labour's finest organizer, was proving a poor Foreign Secretary. The resignation of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman over the post-Korea rearmament program led to the disastrous Left-Right split of the 1950's. By the autumn of 1951, the fight had gone out of the Labour movement. The electorate responded, predictably, by returning a Churchill government—though with a mere majority of seventeen.

Churchill's 1951 administration, then, held power by a margin only slightly greater than that of the Labour administration it replaced—or, indeed, that of the Labour administration of today (the figure usually given, five, is somewhat deceptive, for on most issues the nine Liberals in the House of Commons will vote with the government, making an over-all majority of twenty-three). Yet whatever the faults of that final period of Churchillian rule—and they were many—the new Conservative government did not suffer demoralization as a result of its slender majority. From our present perspective the Conservative 50's in England already look—and I suspect will increasingly look—like one of the classic do-nothing periods of British government. But this was not the impression made on the electorate at the time. There was a flurry of Churchillian activity: “Overlords” were appointed to direct Britain's “return to greatness”; Churchillian wartime paladins rode again; not the austerity, but the glory of Britain's wartime role was lovingly evoked. Today, of course, it all rings hollow enough. The facts of Churchill's virtual inability to govern, and of Eden's unsuitability as Crown Prince, are now pretty well known. It is now all too plain that at the moment when the rest of Europe was emerging from the dark years of the 40's, and was poised for the rapid advance of the 50's, Britain had begun to lose her momentum. Of course, the British people were as much to blame as their government; indeed, the government reflected the British popular mood very precisely. It was not until October 1964 that the British people took retribution on the government they had elected thirteen years earlier—retribution for indulging their weaker impulses, rather than offering them emphatic leadership.

If, then, the apparent activism of the second Churchill government was in reality a sorry facade, the point is that it did not matter. Nor did the smallness of the government's majority count very much. What counted—and this is certainly applicable to the present situation—was the impression of strong, purposeful leadership that the electorate was given by the government, assisted in this by a divided and demoralized opposition and a new generation of supremely self-confident Tory MP's (including such now eminent names as Maudling and MacLeod). In the spring of 1955, the Tory administration, now under Sir Anthony Eden, was returned with a larger majority. Four years later, Macmillan led his party (the Suez debacle brushed under the carpet) to a still greater victory.


There were, to be sure, many factors making for the drift toward conservatism in the 50's: increasing affluence, Labour's own divisions, a certain tiredness and unwillingness to try new courses that beset the whole of the British people after the huge and heroic efforts of the 1940's. But the underlying reason for the Conservative triumphs of the 50's was, I believe, very simple. The Conservatives looked like a ruling party and Labour did not. The Labour party seemed unable to resolve those tensions between Right and Left, between full-blooded socialism and liberal reformism, that had come into the open with Bevan's resignation in 1951. To all appearances, the Left actually preferred political oblivion to any tampering with inherited socialist principles. (R. H. S. Crossman—to give one example—was arguing after the 1959 defeat that the Labour party should be prepared, if necessary, to wander for twenty years in the wilderness rather than turn itself into a progressivist party on the model of the American Democrats. Mr. Crossman, it may be noted, is now in high office as Minister of Housing in the Wilson cabinet.) And the Right, for its part, apparently preferred to reserve its thunderbolts for the enemy within, rather than the enemy without.

For ten years, then, from the resignation of Bevan to the defeat of the unilateralists in October 1961, it was Labour that appeared to have lost the will to govern. Only in October 1961, when Hugh Gaitskell finally reasserted the authority of the leadership, and after the Conservatives had moved into yet another period of economic troubles, did the tide show signs of turning. With the collapse of the attempt to join the Common Market, the Tories began to falter. Too late were the “modernizers”—Heath, Boyle, Maudling—given their heads and encouraged to reconstruct the image of the Conservative party. But the indecorous struggle for the leadership in October 1963—between Hogg, Hume, Butler, and Maudling—revealed the near-panic that had seized the Conservative hierarchy. At last the situation was reversed: the Labour party was now united under the leadership of Harold Wilson; the Conservative party was in disarray. The electorate was not slow to appreciate this sudden reversal.

If this analysis is correct, it is plain that Harold Wilson has only one course: he has to govern boldly. He must initiate—or at least, to put it more cynically, appear to initiate—strong, clear, daring policies and act as if he were at the head of a powerful parliamentary majority. If he does so—and there is plenty of evidence that this is his intention—his reward could be a majority that would enable him to govern Britain until the end of the present decade. If he falters, the chances are that the Conservatives will return, and that Labour will fall again into disarray.

My own guess is that Harold Wilson will bring off this gamble. He has the nerve; he has the skill and the knowledge; and he has not so far made a single false step. There is no disposition anyway among the Conservatives to underrate him. His present team, it is generally agreed, is not satisfactory. He has brought in too many antique party war-horses from the back-benches who in a year or so will have to be put out to pasture. He has also failed to promote some of the younger, and very able, Gaitskellites who had been universally tipped for office. But it would be wrong to accuse Wilson of factional bias—a charge which Gaitskell could hardly escape. True, he has rewarded those who helped him to the party leadership. But he has balanced his administration delicately between the more senior former Gaitskellites—George Brown, Anthony Crosland, Roy Jenkins—and his own former playmates of the Left—Barbara Castle, Frank Cousins, Anthony Greenwood, and Richard Crossman. He intends quite certainly to be a party leader and Prime Minister on the Attlee model—if anything, more so. In their day, Attlee and Bevin were kept under continual harassing fire from bodies like Crossman's “Keep Left” group. The left-wing of the parliamentary Labour party—about seventy strong—is something of a biological prodigy: it has dissolved and reformed itself several times from the days of Keep Left, through its Bevanite phase, to the unilateralist “Victory for Socialism” group of recent years. At all costs Wilson must prevent the emergence of a coherent left-wing faction in the parliamentary party. He will do this, no doubt, by bringing prominent left-wingers into the administration and by dangling the bait of future office before others. But he will certainly heed Attlee's view, too often disregarded by Gaitskell, that the Labour party, as a coalition of interests, can only be successfully led from the political center.

In any case, the objections to Wilson's new administration as inexperienced will probably fall away. Many of the new names are unfamiliar to the public; yet most have had years of parliamentary experience. Again, men grow with office. Most of the 1951 crop of Conservatives were totally unknown at the time; yet within five years reputations had been made, and within ten years effective control of party policy was passing into their hands. If Labour remains in power, it is almost certain that the Croslands and the Jenkinses, and still younger men like Bill Rogers and Anthony Wedgwood Benn, will follow the Heaths and the Maudlings. There is no real substance in the charge that Wilson's will be a one-man administration, or that Labour lacks suitable government material in its younger echelons. None of this, admittedly, would seem to amount to a revolution. It proves, at most, that Labour can provide as competent government as the Conservatives—something serious political observers have never doubted anyway.


But that is perhaps not quite the end of the matter. For the return of Labour after thirteen years in the wilderness changes the British political landscape in a subtle and important way. Left-wing parties are generally plagued by an “underdog complex,” the result of their identification with the political and economic interests of the non-governing classes, their association with labor unions or despised immigrant groups. And in Europe, they suffer from an additional psychological disadvantage. Whereas their opponents come from a coherent and self-confident group, their own leadership is often split between “renegades” from the traditional governing class—frequently intellectuals from the universities—and trade-union men with the greatest suspicion of those who have entered “the movement” from the outside. To make things even more difficult, socialist ideology tends to combine with the trade-union outlook to reinforce the negative, “protestant” element that always underlies left-wing movements: it is often more satisfying to register a protest than to face the challenges of power. Now, if we look at the three most powerful left-of-center parties in the West—the American Democratic party, the German SPD, and the British Labour party—it is evident that Labour stands somewhere between the SPD and the Democrats in this respect. The Democratic party, plainly, is the prime example of a left-of-center party that has become fully “legitimized.” The SPD, on the other hand, still labors under the old Wilhelminian charge that it is a body of vaterlandslose Gesellen (“men without a fatherland”), that it is not staatserhaltend, not a part of the national ethos. It held power, of course, in the days of Weimar. But it was never accepted by the German bourgeoisie as a fully legitimate element in the national polity. Thus, though the SPD did remarkably well in last September's Land elections (achieving 45 per cent of the vote—a proportion far removed from the 33 per cent of the early 50's, and comparable to the vote of British Labour), there are few who would be optimistic enough to predict an absolute majority for the party in the 1965 elections. The SPD's weakness today, like Labour's in the past, is that it does not look, and often does not behave, like a governing party. Until it does, it is not likely to achieve power. The contrast with the American Democratic party hardly needs to be emphasized.

Admittedly, the social composition and background of the three parties are very different. But the problem of self-projection as a credible alternative government is not entirely dissimilar. In Britain, of course, the picture is complicated still further by a peculiarly intricate structure of class emotions which has no equivalent in other Western countries. It did not matter that Dr. Adenauer spoke German with a Rhineland accent, or Professor Heuss with a Swabian; and Herr Strauss's ambition will not be contained by his Bavarian manners and lower-middle-class antecedents. But in England, at least until now, these things have mattered a great deal. One-third of the British working class votes Tory; and it votes Tory because it prefers to be ruled by officers and gentlemen, and not by its own kind. The problem of presenting an image that will neither offend the middle and lower-middle classes and the Tory-voting working class too sharply on the one hand, nor alienate traditional trade-union support on the other, has therefore been especially difficult for the Labour party.

In Attlee and in Gaitskell, Labour found leaders who, though sometimes lacking in personal impact, were reassuring to the Establishment-minded in all classes. But the brand-image of the party remained obstinately working-class. Every industrial strike, and particularly the frequent wild-cat strikes that plague British industry, confirmed the middle class in their view that Labour was the party of “them” and not “us.” The great Labour triumph of 1945 might have been expected to end all this—to “legitimize” Labour at last as the true successor of the great Radical party of Asquith and Lloyd George. Most political observers in those years would have taken this view. The successive Tory victories of the 50's, however, showed that the trick had not, after all, been turned. Even after six years of power the Labour party image was still far closer to that of the SPD than to that of the American Democrats. Harold Wilson's achievement will be (one hopes) to prove that he can “legitimize” Labour at the same time as he resolves the class divisions that have bedeviled the party in the past.

In this, Wilson's own “classless” image could be of very great importance. For the first time Britain has a Prime Minister, and Labour a leader, who is neither lacking in personal self-confidence nor belongs obviously to the upper class like Gaitskell, nor to the working class like Bevin. It is perhaps hard for those who have not actually lived in Britain to realize the significance of this. Wilson is a man to whom the traditional English class distinctions simply do not matter. He is not, like Gaitskell, indignant about the public school system: he regards it as irrelevant. He speaks with a Yorkshire accent; but far from making him folksy, this seems to reinforce his curiously anonymous, classless personality. He is known to be fonder of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding than of Continental wines and cuisine. He is, at the core, intensely British. But he is a new breed of Englishman, closer to the grammar-school-educated, non-upper-class heroes of Kingsley Amis's novels—rather puritanical, a little philistine, contemptuous of “gentlemanly” values—than to the bowler-hatted figure of the whiskey ads. Of course, the phenomenon is not really as new as it appears. The tradition of non-conformist dissent, rooted in the lower-middle class, has been there since the 17th century. But the type of Englishman represented by Harold Wilson has seldom attained supreme power. Now, helped along by the scientific and technical revolution of recent years, he is fast becoming the “typical” kind of Englishman. It is to this classless Britisher—the trained technologist, the skilled worker, the new intelligentsia from the redbrick universities—that Wilson is consciously directing his appeal. The often painfully inadequate performances of Sir Alec Douglas-Home during the election campaign have made it plain that, though the Englishman still loves a lord, he would rather have a non-gentleman of evident competence to look after his national affairs.


From what I have said it might seem that British Labour was moving steadily toward the position of the American Democratic party. In general, I think this is true. But there is one obstacle to such a development which is not so easily to be overcome. Thirty, if not forty years ago, the Liberal party was already being declared dead by the experts. After 1945, the verdict seemed beyond dispute. Yet it is now clear that the Liberal party, long moribund refuses to lie down and die. Why is this? What does British Liberalism really amount to as a political force? Is it no more than a Poujadist phenomenon, a movement of protest rather than of constructive intention? Until recently, judging by by-election results, many commentators would indeed have written it off in this fashion. But a party that can muster some 15 per cent of the national vote cannot so easily be dismissed. There is obviously a large and perhaps politically rather sophisticated minority that rejects both the Labour and the Tory images. Except in the “Celtic fringe” (where it represents the interests, mostly agricultural, of underdeveloped regions in the national economy such as northern Scotland, rural Wales, and the West of England), the Liberal electorate is middle- and lower-middle class. The party appears, in other words, to attract the very kind of people Harold Wilson needs if he is to bring Labour closer to the Democrats. Nor is there much mystery as to why this section of the electorate votes Liberal rather than Labour: it is repelled by the working-class image of the Labour party. The recent election has shown that there is a decisive anti-conservative majority in the country at present. But it has also shown that the Labour party is not yet in a position to profit fully from the leftward swing of the pendulum.

For the Labour party there are two possible solutions to this problem. One is to enter into an electoral pact with the Liberals, by which Labour candidates would move out of certain constituencies, and Liberal candidates out of others. By this means, the Labour majority could possibly be increased by twenty or thirty, and the representation of the Liberal party by an equal amount. But this would imply a conscious, Labour-sponsored revival of the Liberal party. And there is no doubt that Labour will refuse to give up its claim to be the left-wing party par excellence. The solution that Harold Wilson almost certainly envisages is a swift appeal to the country within the next year or so that will force the Liberal voter to choose between a radical Labour program and conservative torpor. Such an appeal would probably prove irresistible to the reservoir of progressive middle-class Liberal sentiment in the country and it might annihilate the Liberals altogether. The position of the Liberal party, apparently so favorable after this election, is therefore in reality extremely precarious. It can certainly not oppose Labour's reforming measures without alienating its “progressive” supporters. But to cling too closely to Labour's apron-strings could prove equally disastrous. Everything depends on whether Harold Wilson can present his party as the natural instrument of progressive action within the national polity. If he is able to do so, it is hard to see how the Liberal party can have much future. But if he cannot, if Labour's working-class image continues to alienate middle-class voters, the Liberal party may even increase its present strength—and split the anti-conservative vote to the detriment of both left-wing parties.

My own belief is that Harold Wilson will succeed in his general strategy. I think it likely that, if the moment is carefully chosen (and it must not be forgotten that a British Prime Minister can determine his own electoral chronology), Labour is almost certain to be returned with a larger majority. The resulting attrition of Liberal support will, in my opinion, be extremely damaging to that party's prospects.

But the most significant change that this rather dull election campaign will bring about is long-term. Removal from office after thirteen years of power will not destroy the Conservative party, which has shown remarkable recuperative abilities in the past. But it will destroy the left-wing defeatism that was characteristic of the years 1951-1961. England in the 50's looked irrevocably Tory: the class system appeared to have been re-established, the egalitarian hopes of the 40's to have been in vain. The picture that now emerges is startlingly different. The Tory England of the 50's begins to look more like a throw-back, a nostalgic reminder of the years before the deluge. And it also begins to look as if the strange death of Tory England were the result of the hubris of the Tory party itself. It was, in the end, the presumption that the return to Tory rule after 1951 simply constituted a return to normalcy that undid the Tory party. For this presumption implied that for an English Tory it is not necessary to do, it is only necessary to be. The complacency bred of this view was what led to the do-nothing policies of the 50's and the 1964 defeat. The Tory party, no doubt, will know how to reform itself and will regain power under altered conditions. But the assumption that Conservative government in Britain is “natural,” and that periods of non-Conservative government are sad lapses from national orthodoxy and good sense, is not likely to survive. In this sense, “Tory England” may well have come to an end once and for all—with a remarkable lack of fuss—in the election of October 1964. The passing of Liberal England, also, was a quiet and unspectacular affair. That, they say, is the way the English prefer their revolutions. The style has its disadvantages: but political verdicts of this kind are not necessarily less final for being quiet and unspectacular.

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