The ever-cynical commentator Peter Hitchens, when attacking the idea that the Tories are a truly conservative Party, frequently states that they are merely a vehicle for ‘obtaining office for the sons of gentlemen’.
To suggest that the Conservative Party is ideologically vacuous—or for that matter that men with as different backgrounds as Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson can be both described as the sons of gentlemen—might be a serious exaggeration. However, there is no doubt that the Conservatives have been thoroughly flexible in terms of policy.
This is their key electoral strength and explains why they have remained in the dominant party of British politics for the past one hundred years.
The Coronavirus has demonstrated this remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The relatively inexperienced new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled £330 billion in loans to businesses along with £20 billion in tax breaks and other measures to protect companies and households. This level of state aid to the private sector is the equivalent of 15% of GDP.
Sunak’s statement, though delivered with characteristic confidence, was full of self-justification. It is notable that he pre-emptively batted away any suggestion that he was acting in a way antithetical to traditional Tory thinking by arguing that the onset of Coronavirus means that this is ‘not a time for ideology and orthodoxy’.
No matter how much Sunak claimed that these policies were merely a rational reaction to an ‘economic emergency’ that has never been seen ‘in peacetime’, his ability to perform an ideological volte face puts him in a long and distinguished tradition of Conservative politicians. His rhetoric may be Churchillian but his ability to win the admiration of even some of the most trenchant critics of the government’s handling of the Coronavirus puts him more in the mould of a less well-known but far more electorally successful Tory politician and eventual PM: Harold Macmillan.
The 1945 General Election was an electoral disaster for the ruling Conservative Party and marked the end of their fourteen-year dominance in the House of Commons. Labour’s thumping 393 seat victory was all the more surprising considering Churchill’s wartime leadership.
A poll taken in 1946 asking which living man or women people admired most saw 24% pick Churchill, whilst the leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee only received 4%. The Conservatives lost because they refused to adapt to the demands of the mobilised population after a devastating war.
By contrast Labour’s manifesto, ‘Let us Face the Future’, merely reoriented the wartime economy to provide universal peacetime services like healthcare which was free at the point of use. Yet by 1951 Labour’s comeback was over and the Conservatives would not be removed from office until 1964 when a new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, offered an updated version of the future centring around the ‘white heat of technology’.
The answer to how they did this is simple: they changed. The best illustration of this is through the figure of Housing Secretary Harold Macmillan who copied the mass house building policies of the 1945-51 Labour government, and in fact increased his target of building 300,000 homes a year, donned ‘houses of the people’. To illustrate how ambitious this target was, New Labour only built a total of 7870 council homes during their entire thirteen years in power.
The critical point to this story was that Macmillan could use his record as Housing Secretary to put him on the way to becoming PM. In Churchill’s own words ‘it’s a gamble, but it will make or mar your political career’.
We see history repeating itself, even before the Coronavirus outbreak, with the reactions of senior Tories to Rishi Sunak’s budget. Prominent Conservative MPs were happy to be quoted as being in support of the measures.
This even included the staunchly right-wing John Redwood who described the budget as ‘prudent’, whilst he recognised that such a view would surprise many of his colleagues who viewed him as a ‘former hawk’, on fiscal matters.
Any criticism of the Chancellor, from the right, came in the form of ‘muttering in the dark corners of Parliament’, according to one MP, meanwhile direct criticisms from Tory MPs were largely quoted anonymously to different papers. This lack of overt criticism is noteworthy because it illustrates the willingness of the Conservatives to not merely adapt to the times but also to praise those politicians who lead the way in doing so.
Whilst the ability to adapt and, perhaps most importantly, be praised for it may be the kind of attitude that makes Hitchens despise the modern Conservative Party, it is also the very same reason why they, and not Labour, are in power today.