The Tories, according to Peele(89), slipped behind the Labour in three areas where they had traditionally enjoyed an advantage: they became disunited, particularly as Europe rose up the political agenda; they lost their traditional organisational advantage over Labour, who increasingly had the more professional and effective party machine; finally various embarrassing scandals and poor electoral performances resulted in a lowering of Tory morale.
"In some ways the notion of a Conservative ideology is an anomaly." (Fisher, 51) However, it is increasingly clear that there is a clash between the traditional position that "The Conservative Party is a traditionalist one." (Fisher, 52) , and the radicalism of Thatcher and the new right. A second clash between traditional and new Conservatism (and I mean that of Thatcher, not of the human embryo!!!) is on the issue of political scepticism. Traditionally Conservatives have rejected abstract theory and preferred pragmatism to dogma. However, the quasi-religious enshrining of the market in the Thatcher years, particularly when that dogmatism caused the Tories political harm (i.e. the Poll Tax) is a blatant refutation of traditional Conservative principles.
Durham (49) sees a number of key Conservative principles. Different strands of Conservatism combine these principles in different ways. Conservatives are traditionalists opposing radical change, they hold an organic view of society and believe in order; and they are political sceptics, arguing that the realities of life are too complex to be interpreted effectively by abstract theory. Nationalism is also another key element of Conservative philosophy, as Hogg hath it in The Case for Conservatism, "the underlying unity of all classes of Englishmen…The nation, not the so-called class struggle is therefore at the base of Conservative political thinking." (Cited by Durham, 51) Hogg also stressed the limited nature of politics to effect change in the world, "The Conservative does not believe that the power of politics to put things right in this world is unlimited…because man is an imperfect creature with a streak of evil in his nature as well as good." (Durham, 52)
Thatcherism differs from this insofar as it, while sharing the scepticism of the ability of the state on economic matters, upholds its right to interfere on other matters, and it positively enshrines the ability of politics to effect change, through a combination of non-intervention in the economy but a degree of authoritarianism in other spheres. "Thatcherism’s combination of libertarian and authoritarian themes has been crucial in securing support for modern conservatism." (Durham, 64)
Martin Durham (62-3) sees Thatcherism’s key pillar as that of economic liberalism, with the positive espousal of self-interest and survival of the fittest, combined with other, seemingly contradictory, traditional elements of Toryism - nation, family, authority, duty, morals - but a much lesser emphasis on class.
The Tories’ own awareness of the image problem they have is exemplified by their website, which emphasises repeatedly how much the Conservative Party wants to listen to people. Topf (cited by Fisher, 57) has analysed manifesto content over the past number of elections, and has noted while Conservative ideology has shifted notably to the right, so has that of the prevailing political culture. Manifestos overall, even by 1987, were more right-wing than the Conservative manifesto has been in 1979. One can therefore justifiably claim that Thatcherism forced a paradigm shift in British political thought, and that Thatcherism continues, through a governing Labour Party which has had its values shaped by Thatcherism, to dominate the political agenda.
Nonetheless, the Thatcherite legacy is, in my view, something that the Hague must ditch if he is to give the Conservatives a chance of regaining power. Opinion surveys show deep concern among the electorate for the future of key public services such as health and education. There is clearly no demand for an extension of Thatcherism or a further rolling back of the state. Mr Hague must learn the true philosophy of Conservatism, "The Conservative Party has but one belief…to remain in power"???? (Alan Clark) As Fisher says, "If the party has a consistent stance…it is one of governing and the ruthless pursuit of government." (Fisher, 63)
Composition of Leadership
The party’s earlier preference for patrician and even blue-blooded leaders has waned in recent decades, and every leader since Heath has been solidly middle-class, with John Major being of even humbler origins. The squirearchy has given way to the meritocracy.
Within its parliamentary Party, those from more socially advantaged backgrounds predominate. Well over half of Conservative MPs were educated at Public Schools, and over a tenth at the ‘big three’ of Eton, Harrow and Winchester (1992 Data, Fisher, 47), although these proportions are slowly declining. Just under half are Oxbridge educated. However, well under 1% of Tory parliamentary candidates in 1992 were manual workers, a proportion which is also declining. The Tories are becoming more an upper-middle class party, although one where its lower social limits tail off much more dramatically than its upper ones.
The Tories biggest worry is continuing ineffectuality. Margaret Beckett commenting on the record low poll in the European Elections said, "The people are just not frightened of the Tory party, they regard them as a busted flush."
"much of what divides the party concerns style or approach rather than explicit policy or ideology." (Peele, 102) Gillian Peele goes on to note four distinct factions in the Tory Party: the populists, perhaps exemplified by ‘Lord’ Tebbit; the intellectual right, best associated with Lilley or Portillo; the remnants of the ‘wets’ or progressives, of whom Ken Clarke is probably the best known opponent; and finally, those in the centre of the Tory Party, the pragmatists such as Douglas Hurd or Tom King. As traditional in the Conservative Party, discourse within the Parliamentary Party has revolved around a number of informal groups such as the ‘No Turning Back’ (Thatcherite) or Ever Closer Union (Euro-federalist) groups (Peele, 104); while many of these groups are relatively new, they have a long pedigree within the Conservative Party. These resulted in a much less friendly atmosphere within the Parliamentary Party during the ‘92 Parliament, which was cited by some as a major reason for the high turnover of Conservative MPs in the 1997 General Election. (loc. Cit.) Julian Critchley MP, commented that "what is so remarkable about the Conservative Party is the extent to which we hate each other." (The Times, 16 November 1996, cited by Peele, 105) This has not particularly lessened since the election of Hague as leader. Clarke and Heseltine had refused to serve under him, and Hague’s Eurosceptic moves have increasingly alienated Europhiles. Labour tried to make capital out of this with an end of campaign poster showing a gagged Heseltine and Clarke.
The divisions within the Conservative Party were a key factor in their election defeat. The internecine war on Europe is in many senses a recapitulation of the themes of the disputes over free trade in 1906. "British public opinion has a normal ‘resting state’ which is to be Euro critical…But on the only three occasions where the major parties have offered British voters the chance to opt out of Europe, the outcome has always swung heavily in favour of retaining British membership." (Dunleavy, 10) Baker, Gamble and Ludlam (cited in Peele, 100) note that at the start of the 1992 Parliament, the majority of Tory MPs were relatively centrist on the European issue; by the end, divisions were rife as Europe became a weathervane issue for the Conservative Party. Awareness, not only of the major impact on UK domestic politics of EMU proposals, but also of existing arrangements such as the European Court of Justice strengthened Tory opposition. As the ideological space between Labour and Tory decreased, so did the importance of Europe as a means of ensuring differentiation from the more popular Labour Party increase for Tory MPs.
"The Conservative Party is a hierarchical party, All efforts are directed towards the assistance of the parliamentary party, and more especially the leader." (Fisher, 33/35) While the Conservatives’ local associations have considerable, and jealously guarded, independence, the flip side of this is that the parliamentary party, and especially the leader, have almost complete autonomy. "The leader has sole responsibility for the drafting of the election manifesto and has direct control over Conservative Central Office." (Fisher, 35) This is not to say that Central Office will blindly serve the leader. Alan Clark notes that Thatcher, in particular, was mistrusted by the full time officials in Smith Square. This lack of dependence of one section of the party on the other is one of the reasons why membership has dropped so drastically. Some have challenged this thesis of hierarchical dominance. Kelly (cited by Fisher, 37), claimed that the membership, through various regional and sectional conferences, were able to exert considerable influence on the decision making process, although this position has been strenuously challenged by others.
The Conservatives’ grass-roots organisation is in crisis, with surveys by Patrick Seyd showing a membership which is both older and less well educated than Labour’s. (cited in Peele, 107) Although historically, Conservative Associations have had more autonomy than Labour or Liberal Democrat ones, the lack of even a centralised membership database made the task of communicating with the grass-roots membership very difficult. After the decimation of the ranks of Tory MPs at the 1997 General Election, most Conservative members had been left without any means of influencing party policy.
A revival of the grass-roots party has been Hague’s major project and may well end up being his major testimony to the party. The Tory website leads with a contact number of joining the Party, and its appearance is obviously designed with a much greater emphasis on being ‘pro-member’ than that of the other two. It even has party reform as a main subject header on the homepage. Perhaps most importantly, Hague has reformed the system whereby the Tory leader is elected to a college system similar to that of the Labour Party.
Fund-raising is the obvious mainstay of constituency associations. Here,
the Conservatives are less reliant on big business, and more reliant on
their own membership than is commonly perceived. While corporate donors
still contributed 37.3% of Central Office Income in 1992-3, this was a
massive drop from the 67.4% estimated by Pinto-Duschinsky in the ‘50s and
‘60s. (Fisher, 48-9) This may well have declined even further as big business
has become more estranged from the Conservatives, particularly over Europe.