Robin Harris has written an entertaining and informative history of the Conservative party. His style is light and engaging, and his pithy character portraits of successive leaders are likely to be of interest to armchair enthusiasts everywhere. As a former head of the Conservative Research Department and a No 10 adviser to Margaret Thatcher, he brings the affection of an insider to his tale. This frequently adds colour, though sometimes at the cost of historical credibility. Even the poll tax, we are told, was a worthwhile reform sabotaged by a few self-interested Labour councils – a strikingly revisionist claim, which deserves rather more explanation than it receives here.
Insofar as Harris’ work attempts any sort of analytical explanation for Conservative electoral success, it lies in the creative tension between ‘philosophical’ conservatism – a universal, subrational commitment to what is familiar – and the party’s institutionalised determination to rule. Harris’ history is of a constant internal struggle between ‘pragmatic’ tactical responses to a changing society, and a philosophical attachment to tradition. As such, Conservatives only do what is ‘pragmatically’ necessary in government, in sharp contradistinction to violent, utopian or sectional alternatives: Chartists, radical Liberals, trade unions, the Labour party. They are therefore free from the taints of enthusiasm, sectionalism and hypocrisy.
This is a dangerously incomplete account. We might observe, for instance, that the modern Conservative party’s reverence for established institutions does not extend to the NHS or the BBC. Harris finds the latter to be an agent of Labour subversion even during the second world war. His account of the 1930s, meanwhile, fails to mention mass unemployment. This is an extraordinary omission by any standards. It is nonetheless a telling one. The ‘pragmatic’-traditional tension is used to shroud an important revealed preference. Conservative governments often increase inequality and tolerate high levels of unemployment, thus the polling evidence suggesting that the public view the party as favouring the interests of the wealthy few. Tim Bale’s hard-headed recent analysis suggests the failure to address this public perception of the Conservatives cost David Cameron the 2010 election. Conservatives should read Bale alongside Harris’ sympathetic history. Labour readers, however, will find this book a useful guide to how their adversaries past and present see themselves.
The Conservatives: A History
Robin Harris | Transworld | 640pp | £30
Gregg McClymont is MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.