The party's over

14th November 1997 at 00:00
The Conservative Party: From Peel to Major By Robert Blake Heinemann #163;20

Collapse of Stout Party: The Decline and Fall of the Tories By Julian Critchley and Morrison Halcrow Gollancz #163;20

Whatever Happened to the Tories: The Conservatives since 1945 By Ian Gilmore Fourth Estate #163;25

The deluge has only just begun. Soon the bookshops will be flooded with books on the Conservative party in defeat. Some of them will analyse the causes of the Tories' biggest disaster since 1906 and allocate blame on the basis of the author's personal prejudices rather than the evidence.

Others, written on the same principle, will prescribe remedies. The silliest will predict the date of recovery. The most sensible will examine the 1997 annihilation in the knowledge that, in Lord Blake's words, "the historian's guess about the future is no better than anyone else's."

Blake's one volume history of the Conservative party from Peel to Major enjoys the advantage of long thought and careful study. However, it remains benignly biased in favour of a Tory interpretation of events. Perhaps the introduction of the poll tax was not "as is often alleged an example of the Prime Minister bullying the Cabinet". But Margaret Thatcher,who never hesitated to take credit for success, must accept responsibility for the most self-destructive policy in modern political history. Her reasons for wanting dukes and dustmen to pay the same level of local tax are accepted by the distinguished historian with an alarming lack of scepticism about why rates were unpopular:

"Non property owners, who constituted the great majority of voters, had no reason to vote, since the cost fell on the minority. Successive governments tried to alleviate the situation by grants in aid, such as the Rate Support Grant. However this did not meet the complaints. "

Putting aside the complicated argument about whether or not taxpayers should expect direct benefit from their contribution to public expenditure,Blake fails to point out that dissatisfaction with the rates only grew into bitter hostility when the Rate Support Grant was reduced, in the process of public expenditure cuts, to the point where rate payers were carrying 70 per cent of the cost of local services.

No history is wholly unprejudiced and it is the sub-text of ideological sympathy for the Conservative Party that gives Lord Blake's account, The Conservative Party, its special appeal. Blake is genuinely interested in his subject - the Conservative Party, not Conservative government. So he examines the influences on its thought and organisation from Peel's Tamworth Manifesto to the "intellectual ferment" that moved the party to the right in the 1970s. He comes to a chilling conclusion with which it is impossible to argue. "Whatever her defects, Margaret Thatcher achieved one of her objectives. She destroyed socialism. New Labour has ceased to be a socialist party."

No doubt Julian Critchley rejoices that Collapse of Stout Party: the decline and fall of the Tories does not possess the gravitas of Lord Blake's semi-official history. Morrison Halcrow, his co-author, does essay a little political analysis in two curious sections of the book. One is called "Downhill all the way?" - though the reason for the question mark is far from clear since the chapter ends with the election of May 1 this year. Unfortunately, he tells us little that we did not already know. Of course, when Harriet Harman sent her son "not to the local comprehensive but a highly regarded grammar school out on the fringes of Kent . . . the comrades were duly outraged". The interesting aspect of the incident is why the immediate outrage caused only a brief ripple on the calm surface of Labour's smooth waters. That is not the sort of complicated question which Collapse of Stout Party even tries to answer.

Clearly, Halcrow is intended to provide the substance of the book, while his co-author adds a touch of style. Unfortunately, Critchley is so anxious to construct the bon mot that some of his passages lack all meaning. His description of the Tories who retired from the House of Commons this year is built around one of the commonest of literary conceits, the comparison of each one with a year and vintage. He therefore describes John Patten - a spectacularly unsuccessful Education Secretary - as a "third growth". I am far from sure what that means, but I am certain that the rest of the vignette means nothing. "He will probably teach geography at some secondary school in a deprived area of a northern city. On the other hand, he might be appointed manager of Hartlepool United."

In the end, Critchley turns to what passes for serious analysis in another chapter with a title that carries a questionable question mark. If he is not sure whether or not the Tories' retreat from Europe is "the Great Betrayal?" he should have thought of another description. Critchley pretends to believe that the Tories began to reject the idea of European integration when they had to fly tourist to Strasbourg instead of travelling in first class luxury. One line of irony may have its attractions. A full page is too much.

The last page of Blake's history pays a handsome tribute to Ian Gilmore's Dancing with Dogma. It is well deserved and Whatever Happened to the Tories (without a question mark) is just as good - not least because Gilmore advances his elegant criticisms of the Conservative right without falling into the trap of denigrating his opponents.

He has been in head-on conflict with Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism since the day that she was elected party leader. But he still gives credit where it is due. "The assassination of Airey Neave . . . was a terrible personal blow . . . Mrs Thatcher's dignified reaction showed the public that her Iron Lady image was based on more than rhetoric."

Gilmore is as objective about his natural allies as he is about his traditional enemies. No doubt he voted for Edward Heath when Margaret Thatcher successfully challenged the former prime minister for the leadership of the Tory Party. But he does not hesitate to write that his favoured candidate "did not help his own case (by giving) the impression of resenting the contest". On the other hand,

Margaret Thatcher "launched a successful attack on the Chancellor, Denis Healey, a formidable Commons performer himself".

His basic argument against Thatcherism is not so much that its proponents propounded the wrong ideology as that they believed ideology to be respectable. Gilmore belongs to the old school of Conservatives - men of ability and integrity doing their best in the national interest. I suspect that the New Labour government is doing very little with which he disagrees.

Perhaps, despite his long and successful parliamentary career, Gilmore was never a real politician. He writes of Keith Joseph insisting on delivering a speech which "colleagues begged him not to make" because of the help it would give the Labour Party. "His insistence on going ahead suggested that he wanted Labour to win the election. Otherwise there was no point in making such a speech just before an election instead of after it."

Oh yes there was! He made it in order to enhance his own position with one section of the party and because, at the time, advancing his ideas seemed the most important thing in the world. It may be because Gilmore is above such considerations that he never quite made it to the top of politics - and is able to write with such admirable objectivity.

Roy Hattersley's Fifty Years on: A Prejudiced History of Britain Since the War is published by Little,Brown (#163;20)

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