For a hundred years and more the British Conservative Party has been the most successful political party of the modern era, winning 16 of the 28 general elections held between 1881 and 1990.

But with today's Tories riven by internal divisions and facing probable defeat at the hands of a dangerously united opposition, it is instructive to look back at an earlier era when things were not going so well. E H H Green's The Crisis of Conservatism: The politics, economics and ideology of the Brltish Conservative party, 1880-1914 (Routledge Pounds 16.99) is an absorbing and intelligent analysis of the slump in fortunes of the Edwardian Conservative Party, and an attempt to explain why the Tories staked everything on the electorally unpopular policy of Tariff Reform.

It was soon after their victory in the "Khaki" election of September 1900 that things began to go wrong for the Tories. A series of by-election defeats led to their drubbing at the hands of the Liberals in the January 1906 general election. Further election defeats followed in l910, and E H H Green argues that it was only the First World War that saved the Conservatives from a much longer period in the political wilderness. But he is sympathetic to the problems and dilemmas faced by the Conservatives, and takes seriously the intellectual arguments put forward for protectionism.

One hurrah-word that will be much touted by both sides in the coming election will be "the family". The family, so the story goes, is the key to social cohesion and economic prosperity. Francis Fukuyama, who provoked considerable controversy with his last book, The End of History and the Last Man, now presents a sweeping challenge to this simplistic view in his Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (Penguin Pounds 12.50).

Unabashed advocate of capitalism though he is, Fukuyama sees unquantifiable cultural and civic values as being as important for economic prosperity as profit margins and deregulation. And central to these are ideals of broad sociability and reciprocity that he gathers under the term "trust". The controversial part of his lucidly presented thesis comes when he starts comparing different societies and the forces that have furthered and retarded that social trust. An all-powerful influence of the family - for example in strongly catholic countries - can atomise society and lead to an economic structure dominated on the one hand by small, stagnant family businesses and on the other by state enterprises.

Another economist for whom supporting capitalism does not necessarily mean buying into right-wing political prejudices is Samuel Brittan, assistant editor of the Financial Times. Capitalism with a Human Face (Fontana Pounds 8. 99), his latest collection of essays, moves with great skill between analysis of the recent performance of the British economy and wider questions of the relationship between free markets and morality and democracy and economic management. Above all, Samuel Brittan shows that it is possible to write about economics without resorting to either desiccated academic jargon or party political sloganeering.

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