Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 10 - The Break-up of the Party System

By John Ross

Having shown the social dynamics of the rise and decline of the Conservative Party, let us look at this process within the overall modern British political system. To do so we must go back to the origins of the party system itself. Modern British politics, just as much as the Conservative Party, may be described as the disintegration of stability 'from the edges' - provided it is remembered that the edges referred to are social and not geo­graphical.

If we summarise this development, and at the risk of taking only the chief features of what was a continuous process, then the development of the modern party system may be divided into four periods. These may be characterised, after the initial formative period, as: (1) 1865-85, the loss of Ireland; (2) 1885-1914, the loss of Wales; (3) 1914-45, the great Labour breakthrough; (4) 1945-83, the failure of Toryism. We will take each in turn.

1865-85: The loss of Ireland

The zenith of political stability achieved by modern British capitalism was in the late 1850s and early 1860s. By 1859 both Conservative and Liberal Parties had been created. Chartism had totally disappeared and the chief organisations of the working class, extremely restricted in their numbers, were explicitly reformist skilled workers' unions, tied for the most part to the Liberal Party. Mass independent political parties in Ireland had been eliminated after 1848. From 1859 until 1874 the Conservative and Liberal Parties between them won every single seat in every general election in England, Wales, Scot land and Ireland. The domination of British politics by a two­ party British capitalist system was complete.

This monopoly lasted less than a decade. The earthquake which shattered Victorian political stability was the 1867 Irish Fenian uprising. Although the rebellion was itself easily crushed, its political consequences could not be. In 1869 a leading Fenian prisoner, Jeremiah O'Donovan 'Rossa', was elected MP in the by-election for County Tipperary. Attempts to control the situation through measures such as the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland failed completely. By 1874 the position of the British capitalist parties in Ireland was rapidly disintegrating and in the general election of that year forces demanding Home Rule won 40 per cent of the vote and 59 per cent of the Irish seats. By 1885 the gap had widened to the point where Home Rule candidates won 68 per cent of the vote in Ireland and 84 per cent of the Irish seats. In a mere 7 years, 1867-74, the entire backbone of the position of the British capitalist parties in Ireland had been broken. It was the first great breach in the British two-capitalist-party system - and one that has never been mended.

The loss of votes to the British capitalist parties after 1874 was not vast in terms of absolute size - by 1885 it amounted to a loss of only 7 per cent of the vote in Britain to Irish Home Rulers and 2 per cent to others. But the concentration of the break with the Tory and Liberal Parties in one nation made it decisive. By 1885 the British capitalist parties in Ireland were in a hopeless minority position - a totally illegitimate political force. Their combined share of the vote had dropped from 100 per cent in 1868 to no more than 32 per cent by 1885. Furthermore, by 1885 the disintegrative processes were beginning to spread from Ireland into the British 'mainland' itself - in particular into Scotland (where the combined Tory and Liberal share of the vote had dropped from 100 to 88 per cent).

Indeed, this 'mini-crisis' of 1885 in Britain shows very clearly the social forces that were developing and explains the back­ ground of the great split of the Liberal Party in 1886. The most serious challenge to the Tory-Liberal domination outside Ireland was in Scotland. Here opposition to the Tories and Liberals centred on the Highland Land League - an organisation consciously modelled on the Irish Land League. In 1885 the League supported 'Crofters' as candidates against the Liberals and in five cases defeated them - accounting for most of the Tory-Liberal loss of votes in Scotland in this period. New developments in Wales were centred on the Rhondda, where the miner W.Abraham was elected. In England the break-up of the two-capitalist-party system was also in a mining constituency - Camborne in Cornwall. Here C. Conybeare, a radical politician, was elected- officially as an 'Independent Liberal'.

In short, by 1885 it was clear that the two British capitalist parties had completely lost majority support in Ireland and the first small cracks in their domination were beginning to appear in Scotland and the mining areas of Wales and England. Given these facts, it is also clear why it was the Liberal Party which progressively disintegrated under the strain - leading to the emergence of the Conservatives as the new dominant party of British capitalism. Those areas in which the hold of the British capitalist party system was being embryonically or actually threatened – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, mining areas – were precisely those where the Liberal Party had been dominant. The major crisis in Ireland, and the minor one spreading into the rest of Britain, showed that the Liberal Party was no longer an adequate instrument for integrating social support for the British capitalist parties.

The social and economic strain was dissolving the links between the Liberal Party and its mass base.
Of the two choices proposed in that situation - Gladstone's to go further 'to the left' and Chamberlain's to move to fusion with the Conservatives - there is no doubt that Chamberlain's was the only effective one. Gladstone's orientation was to attempt to reabsorb and co-opt the rising discontent through a more radical path. This was symbolised in his adoption of support for Home Rule in Ireland and for new positions on land and a general 'radicalisation' of the Liberal Party after 1885. This policy finally culminated in the 1905 Liberal government and Lloyd George's 'People's Budget' of 1909. There were certain immediate tactical successes along this road - by 1892, for example, the Crofters' Party had been reabsorbed - but fundamentally it was a dead end. Social strains were radically decomposing the Liberal Party. Chamberlain's policy, to make social concessions but above all to build up a solid reactionary front to weather the coming storm, was the only practical one. The proof came with the First World War. Conservatism survived the impact both of war and of the rise of Labour. The Liberal Party fell to pieces. The supremacy of the Conservative Party was its ability to weather all these social and political storms.

1886-1914: The loss of Wales

The fact that the 'mini-crisis' of 1885 was the harbinger of things to come was confirmed very rapidly. In 1888 Keir Hardie fought the famous mid-Lanarkshire by-election against the Liberals. In 1892 Hardie and J.W. Burn were elected as Independent Labour candidates. By 1900, in an evident continuation of these trends, the Labour Party was formed and the pre-First World War Labour vote peaked at 7 per cent in January 1910. A second qualitative breach had been opened in the British two-party system to add to that created by the Irish Nationalists. Once more it was areas of Liberal, and not Tory, support which crumbled under the strain. The Tory and Liberal Parties together held up relatively well in England and Scotland prior to the First World War - between them losing only 7 per cent of the vote in England and 4 per cent of the vote in Scotland in the last pre-war election in December 1910. In Wales, however, support for the Tory and Liberal Parties fell by 18 per cent between 1892 and December 1910.

This unevenness of development in Wales compared to England and Scotland can be seen yet more clearly by giving the reverse of the decline of the Tory and Liberal votes, i.e. the increase in support for the Labour Party.

Before the First World War, Labour still remained an extreme minority force in England and Scotland, its share of the vote rising from 1 per cent in 1900 to only 6 and 4 per cent of the vote respectively. Furthermore, the Labour vote actually fell in England and Scotland between the last two pre-war elections (i.e. between January and December 1910) – marginally in England and by almost a third in Scotland. In Wales, however Labour was already becoming a mass party, with 18 per cent of the vote, even prior to the First World War. Far from falling between the two elections of 1910 Labour’s vote in Wales continued to advance significantly - from 15 to 18 per cent. In short the success of Labour, and the break-up of the two-party capitalist system, were qualitatively greater in Wales than in England or Scotland prior to the First World War- justifying the characterisation of the period from 1885 t1914 as that of the 'loss of Wales' in the same way that the period from 1867 to 1885 was that of the destruction of the hegemony of the Tory and Liberal Parties in Ireland. The fact that the 'Irish infection' should spread first into Wales is natural given the social features we discussed in the last chapter.

1914-45: The great Labour breakthrough

In the periods so far considered, the disintegrative processes in the British two-party capitalist system were already clearly beginning to unfold. However, they were still relatively localised phenomena which had acquired a mass character in only two of the nations of the British state. The distinctive characteristic of the period after 1914 was the general weakening of the grip of the British capitalist parties – and the first fracturing of the British state with the gaining of independence of the 26 southern counties of Ireland. The motor forces of these processes were the huge election victory of Sinn Fein in Ireland in 1918 followed by the Irish war of independence and Labour's simultaneous breakthrough.

By the end of the war the tremendous fall in support for the Tory and Liberal Parties in Britain as a whole was self-evident - their share of the vote falling from 91 per cent in 1910 to 6 per cent in 1918. Contrary to popular mythology no recomposition of the grip of the capitalist parties took place during the inter-war period. The peak combined Tory-Liberal share of the vote in 1931 was 68 per cent – not essentially higher than their 66 per cent in 1918. The peak Tory vote of 1931 (which we have already looked at) represented a new concentration of forces within the ruling class but not a surge of support for the two British capitalist parties as such. Indeed, by 1935, the vote of the Tory and Liberal Parties was in significant decline again and the seeds of 1945 were already appearing even before the Second World War.

The more detailed trends can be seen in the vote for the Labour Party in this period (see Table 13).

Table 13
Labour's advance continued to be more developed in Wales than England or Scotland during the inter-war period – continuing the pre-First World War trend. By 1935 Labour had 45 per cent of the vote in Wales, compared to 34 per cent for the Tories and 18 per cent for the Liberals, making it the overwhelmingly dominant party of the Welsh nation. In England, in contrast, Labour never gained 40 per cent of the vote prior to the Second World War and its 39 per cent in 1935 was massively below the 55 per cent for the Tories. The vote for the British capitalist parties in Scotland was marginally lower than their vote in Britain as a whole. In short, the generalised breakthrough of the Labour Party exacerbated and did not overcome the uneven processes within the British state.

1945-83: The failure of Toryism

The immediate effect of the Second World War was of course a further fall in support for the two British capitalist parties and a great leap in support for the Labour Party. The percentage of votes for the Tory and Liberal Parties combined fell from 60 per cent in 1935 to 49 per cent in 1945. The task for the British capitalist class was to rebuild its position from that newly weakened situation. Given that Britain is still a major imperialist power, and not a relatively small Scandinavian country, ruling class interests cannot be adequately safeguarded through long-term social democratic domination. This has necessarily meant rebuilding the position of capitalist parties.

The progress in this task has been considerable: the Tories, Liberals, and now the SDP have in combination succeeded in rebuilding their position in Britain overall since the Second World War. The 70 per cent of the votes in Britain gained by the Conservative and Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1983 is 21 per cent above the capitalist parties' vote for 1945 and even 10 per cent above the pre-war level in the 1935 election. It is roughly comparable to the situation following the First World War.

However, what is clear is that this recovery since 1945 is not due to the Conservative Party. On the contrary. The Conservative Party, even in average terms, today is almost as weak as it was in 1945; in real social terms, as we have already noted it is much weaker. We can see this in Table 14, which show the Tory percentage of the vote in England, Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland since the last pre-war election of 1935.

Table 14
The significance of these figures becomes even clearer if we look at the change in the Tory percentage of the vote compared to the last pre-war election of 1935, the change compared to the Tory defeat of 1945, and the change compared to the post-war Tory peak vote in each nation of the British stat (1955, except for Wales when the Tory peak vote was 1959).

The reality of these figures is quite clear. Thatcher's 'triumph' of 1983 is in fact only 2 per cent - 2.4 per cent on more detailed figures - above the level of the Tories' landslide defeat of 1945. This figure, as we have already seen, is on a descending curve. In every part of Britain the Tory vote is already significantly lower than its post-war peak - 2 per cent lower in Wales, 4 per cent lower in England, and 22 per cent lower in Scotland. Furthermore, we have shown how this conceals greater falls in certain parts of England - and a total disintegration in the North of Ireland. The Conservative Party's support in the big cities is in particular decline. The Tory Party is actually today already more unpopular in Scotland and the North of Ireland than in 1945 and, given the rate of descent, the Conservative Party will evidently soon be more unpopular in the British state as a whole.

Table 15
The reality of the crisis of the Labour Party, the conjunctural revival of Toryism under Thatcher, must not blind socialists to the fact that today the Conservative Party is a party in decay - and has been so for far longer than Labour. The attempt to rebuild a mass popular Conservative Party after the Second World War has essentially failed - a failure which inevitably calls into question the entire form of the party system in which the Conservatives were born.

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