The Tories: a photographic histroy

Political Editor Graham Dines reviews the latest addition to the library delving into the personalities who have shaped of the Conservative Party over the centuries.

Political Editor Graham Dines reviews the latest addition to the library delving into the personalities who have shaped of the Conservative Party over the centuries.

WHATEVER the current state of the Tory Party, there can be no denying the dominant role it played in the life of this country in the late 18th and the 19th and 20th centuries.

The party of Pitt the Younger, Liverpool, Wellington, Peel, Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan, Thatcher and the Cecils is entwined in the fabric of our society to such an extend that more books have been written about its history - and the characters who made it the greatest political machine in the western world - than of any other.

To a long list of distinguished titles can be added The Conservative Party: An Illustrated History.** The authors, Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, argue that the party, constantly changing and adapting to suit the political landscape of the day, has survived until now because it aligned itself with the powerful interests of the nation and matured into a party of the masses in the 1920s.

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That was helped in no small measure by the defining event of the last century, the momentous meeting at the Carlton Club on October 19 1922 when MPs decided to split from Lloyd George's Liberal-led wartime coalition to fight alone under Andrew Bonar Law.

To this day, the back bench group of Tory MPs, whether in government or opposition, is called the 1922 Committee. Sir Gervais Rentoul, MP for Lowestoft, founded it from 1922 to 1934, as a conduit between MPs and the leadership.

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The book, as its title suggests, is more of a pictorial anthology than a weighty tome. Nostalgia for the golden age of Conservatism exudes from its 260 pages.

Here we find not only the great statesman of British history but also the men and women, largely unknown to the general public, who helped create a fearsome election machine and organised the voluntary section of the Conservatives. National conferences which shaped not only the party but also the country are recalled.

The lampoons and cartoons of the 19th century are reproduced, as are some of the highly effective election posters designed to get the message across that only the Tories could be trusted in war and peace to get the economy right and maintain full employment.

For instance, one shows Margaret Thatcher's beaming face, is the slogan that gave the Conservatives their 1979 victory as the nation reeled from soaring inflation and the Labour government's inability and lack of political will to deal with the Winter of discontent: "Don't just hope for a better life. Vote for One. Vote Conservative."

We come across pages devoted to some of the great Tory characters, Enoch Powell, Dame Irene Ward, Bob Boothby, Lord Beaverbrook, and Alan Clark, and also those whose influence the party would rather forget - Christine Keeler, John Profumo, Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton

Then there are the Chief Whips who kept fractious MPs in order, such as Aretas Akers-Douglas (1885-95), Bolton Byres-Monsell (1923-31) and David Margesson (1931-41).

During its history, the party has seen some great victories, and some humiliating reverses. The 1930s represented the high point of the Tories' electoral fortunes in terms of the share of the vote, winning 47.8% of the popular vote. The 1959 and 1983 elections were two of the most emphatic of the postwar era, but the authors argue that the most important of the 20th century were 1924 and 1979.

Having lost to Labour in the first election of 1924, Stanley Baldwin regrouped the Tories to win the second with an overall majority of 199 - the largest any party has achieved since the introduction of the mass franchise in 1918.

Thatcher's 1979 victory was the largest swing to the Tories from Labour since 1945, taking the lion's share of the nation's middle class vote.

The Tories survived three massive election defeats - 1832, 1906 and 1945 - and two huge splits - over repeal of the Corn Laws and then Tariff Reform in the early 20th century- to emerge as the one party capable of embracing the interests of the entire kingdom. It became known as One Nation Conservatism.

But the crushing defeats in 1997 and 2001 on the back of the great schism over Europe now threatens its very survival.

My one criticism of an other excellent record and social commentary is that it dwells too much on the post-Black Wednesday era under John Major. Although the slide in the party's fortunes can be traced back to two years earlier and the coup which dethroned Margaret Thatcher in 1990, now is not the time to judge the decline and further decline of the Tory Party - that should be left to a future generation.

A history of more than 200 years should not devote so much space to the past 10 years. It should be left until either the Tory Party manages to survive, re-invent itself and forms another Government, or until the undertakers have disposed of its withered corpse.

Michael Howard, writing the forward to the publication, says the party has prospered because "time and again, it showed its clear understanding of peoples' real wishes and needs."

How true. Mr Howard should reflect that it is the failure in Tory policies today to understand the aspirations and wants of the voters which has caused the Conservative Party to reach one of the lowest points in its illustrious history.

** The Conservative Party: An Illustrated History by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, published by Sutton Publishng, price £25.

ISBN 0-7509-3535-9.

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