Reflections on the Tory Party Revolution – part two

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Part 2: from the 1940’s generational change to the growing hostility to Europe
Reading Alan Clark’s history of the Tories 1922-1997 (Phoenix/Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), and Alan Sked and Chris Cooks “Post-War Britain” (Penguin, London, 4th. ed., 1993), you see how in 1940-51, while party leader Churchill was concentrating on foreign affairs (winning a war until ’45, then uniting Europe in his “interlocking circles”: Europe, the Commonwealth, and NATO), the other parts of the Tory party reacted to more domestic modernising trends and proposals. (See about Churchill’s priorities: Clark, Tories, p. 321-22; Sked & Cook, Post-War, p. 77-78).

Alongside the “Post-War Problems Central Committee” (PWPCC) formed at Tory party HQ in 1941 under Education Secretary “Rab” Butler, there emerged a progressive “Tory Reform Group” (TRG) of “Young Turks”. Clark says Food minister Lord Woolton (Tory from 1945) was the only Cabinet minister caring about “Post-War Problems”.

When liberal Beveridge presented his report in November 1942, the Tories hurriedly assembled a committee to formulate a response under minister Ralph Assheton, which was very critical of the collectivist aspects of it (they half supported the NHS and unemployment assistance); while the TRG minority was more positive. But in post El Alamein optimism, Beveridge became the tastemaker of future-planners, and the TRG came to the fore as the Tory variant. TRG authors could write some of the Tory “Signpost” books on postwar policy from 1943. The voting down by a Tory revolt of Bevin’s Catering Wages Bill showed Tory resistance could block reform; but negative public reaction to that vote moderated the Tory public response to Beveridge, which was “neutral” (see: Clark, Tories, p. 284-96,299-300; Sked & Cook, Post-War, p. 19-20).

The Labour 1945 landslide eliminated many Beveridge-resistant Tory MP’s; and stimulated TRG Tories getting into Rab Butler’s Conservative Research Department (restarted late 1945); Woolton became party president in ’46. They could argue that their new thinking was in line with Disraeli’s “One Nation” social consciousness (as Macmillan did), and Churchill’s “Tory democracy” with a paternalistic but magnanimous state.

The hard winter of 1947 showed (according to Clark) the limits of Labour redistribution; and the Tory “Industrial Charter” showed a social face of Toryism, working for full employment while rejecting the closed shop; rejecting both privatisation and further nationalisation. Butler made Eden, popular for launching the phrase “Property-owning democracy” in 1946, sell this to the Tory conference, which accepted it gladly (see: Clark, Tories, p. 319, 320, 323-6, 327; Sked & Cook, Post-War, p. 80-81).

Churchill ordered that the Tory February 1950 election campaign would support the existing employers’ offensive against further nationalisation, but leave Beveridge and the NHS alone (appearing moderate and conciliatory against Labours class war rhetoric). The Tories won (from 213 to 298 seats), Labour lost (393 to 315). Seen against the Tory conversion to Beveridge and NHS in 1943-‘7, the “educating the platform”-episode at the Tory autumn conference was a result of the TRG and Butler programmatic updates, and less surprising than the BBC paints it. What could play a role was that Churchill, by now over 75 years old, would suffer four strokes in 1949-‘51; King George VI was worried enough about his slowing down to consider advising retirement. (see: Sked & Cook, Post-War, p. 81-50, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill ).

Labour didn’t have much of a government program in 1950; and collapsed October 1951. With the Korea War, Churchill pointed to his war leadership, while the Labour top was exhausted. The Tories continued their 1950 line: anti-socialism and the 300,000 houses pledge. The Tories won: from 298 to 320; Labour lost: 315 to 295.

For a parallel to post-1975 Britain: whereas anti-Europeanism was always strong inside the TUC and Labour party, it was less prominent in Churchill’s Tories (1945-’52), and both Macmillan and Eurosceptic Wilson applied for EEC membership in the 1960’s; mostly out of economic and political necessity.

With Edward Heath, Britain experienced a brief encounter with European idealism (even Thatcher voted yes in ’75). But after 1975, both Labour and the Tories soured on Europe (pro-Europeans crossing over to the Alliance and LibDems).

Just as the TRG and Butler slowly converted the Tories back to Tamworth modernizing pragmatism, so the Thatcherite Euroscepticism first led to massive parliamentary resistance against Maastricht; and in the period from 2013 (Camerons referendum promise) to 2016, Tory and Labour Euroscepticism combined proved too much for the “Establishment” Blair-Cameron consensus that remaining in the EU would prove best for Britain.

Part one is here

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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One Comment

  • It is interesting to read how the Conservatives after 1945 adapted like they did after 1852. Indeed the Labour Party was anti-EU membership after 1980 and this contributed to the formation of the SDP. However by 1987 the Labour Party supported membership of the EU. At the same time Thatcher moved the Conservatives away from total support for the EU into the Eurosceptic camp. Most national newspapers were also Eurosceptic. Under Cameron the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives was under control, while in government because of the number of Lib Dem MPs they had little influence. However, the rise of UKIP especially gaining the largest number of votes in the 2014 EU election and the Conservatives falling from first place to third, led Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership. A stupid policy first adopted by our MPs in 2007 or 2008.

    Wondering how the Conservative Party might split up is an interesting game. Could Theresa May de-select her anti EU deal MPs and replace them with pro deal ones and then fight a general election? It is unlikely. The question of how the Conservative Party might split rests really on who will be their next party leader. A hard-liner no deal leader might mean that some Conservatives MPs would join Change UK. A deal leader could result in the leadership taking control of who can stand as an MP and might lead to the no dealers leaving along with many members.

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