Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 11 - Party Dominance in British History

By John Ross

We are now in a position to come back and look at what underlay all the processes in the 1983 election which we considered earlier. As we have seen, they are not all random or short-term developments. They form part of an immense 137-year party political system in Britain. Once that system, and the dynamic of its break-up, is understood, then everything which has occurred in British politics in the last 30 years makes perfect sense. The driving force is not the crisis of the Labour Party, but the decline of the Conservative Party. During the period of its ascendancy the Tory Party could integrate the political fabric of British society in an immense party political dominance. Today it cannot. That underlies all the other political developments.

This is also why the fashionable comparisons which have appeared in the press, likening the present political situation to the period between the wars, miss the essential point. The most fundamental characteristic of the inter-war period was not the superficial analogies which are taken up - in particular the division between Labour and Liberals - but the authentic massive popularity of the Conservative Party itself. The votes of the Tory Party in 1931 and 1935 are easily the largest ever recorded by any party in Britain under an electoral system even remotely resembling a universal franchise. The inter-war Conservative governments did not merely defeat the General Strike of 1926, and totally marginalise the trade union movement in the 1930s, but they built themselves mass popular support - no matter how distasteful socialists may find that reality.

Thatcher has built no such authentic mass support. Her votes are not the highest but the lowest ever recorded by any Tory prime minister. Manipulations of electoral systems, divisions among opponents, feebleness of Labour opposition, are not a substitute for authentic mass popular support. These all distressingly slow down political change, but they will not halt it.

This point can be put even more simply by taking an even longer time-scale than we have done in this book. Here we have studied the rise of the Conservative Party from 1846 and the massive period of supremacy of the Tory Party from 1886 onwards. This period of Tory supremacy is only one of four distinct periods of party political dominance in English, and then British, political history since the capitalist revolutions of 1640-88. These are: (1) 1688-1783, dominance of the Whig Party; (2) 1783-1832, dominance of the Tory Party; (3) 1832-86 dominance of the Whig-Liberal Party; (4) 1886—, dominance of the Conservative Party.

Naturally there can be some argument on the dating of these periods. What is generally referred to as the Whig Party - although it was in fact a loose grouping of ruling-class factions - was in office absolutely continuously from 1715 to 1760 and this is an obvious period of supremacy. Precisely when the Tory Party's supremacy at the end of the eighteenth century should be dated from is debatable. So too is the question as to when the second complete supremacy of the Conservative Party ended. However, all these are details. Each of these political periods is constituted by a central core of almost total domination by a single party with, as one would expect, more fluctuations at the beginnings and ends of the periods. Various transitional groupings from one party to another also naturally exist at the beginnings and ends of periods. But these, too, are only details. The fundamental features of each period are clear, as are the curves of party development within them.

(1) The Whigs were already cumulatively building up their supremacy from 1688 onwards. It was they who had decisively opposed the succession of the Catholic James II to the throne and who had been the driving force of the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. The Whigs secured a permanent anti-Tory majority in the judiciary from 1696 onwards and firm control of the House of Lords from 1701. Only in the House of Commons did a fierce struggle between highly organised Tory and Whig Parties continue - in particular in the seven general elections fought between December 1701 and 1715. In 1710-14 the Tories won decisive electoral victories; in 1715 the Whigs utilised the occasion of the succession of the Hanoverian kings, and the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, to totally destroy the Tories as a governmental force. From 1715 to 1760 the Whigs were in office without a break - their domination became so great that they increasingly dissolved as an organised force into a series of loose groupings. It has been justly said of this period that the Whig supremacy was so overwhelming that they formed not merely the government, but the opposition as well. From 1760 onwards, however, amid the Seven Years' War against France, increasing turbulence unsettled Whig dominance. From 1760 to 1782 a period of political instability and factionalisation, marked by the government of Lord North, set in. This culminated in a great political crisis in 1783 - in which year there were no fewer than three governments. After 1783 a quite different period started with the more than 20-year prime ministership of William Pitt and the emergence of what became a new period of Tory supremacy.

The curve of the Whig Party is therefore a period of rise from 1688 to 1715, a period of total supremacy from 1715 to 1760, and then a period of decline from 1760 to 1783.

(2) The coalition of forces which William Pitt put together after 1783 was originally organised as an alliance of ex-Whig factions and the remnants of the old Tories, initially cemented by massive patronage from George III. Cumulatively during the 1780s, however, starting with the election of 1784, Pitt assembled these groupings into a more and more coherent force. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 formed a solid dominant bloc of the British ruling class against the threat of French capitalism externally and the threat of 'Jacobin' agitation internally. The incredible policies of repression carried out by the Pitt regime internally, and the struggle against them, are chronicled in E.P.Thompson's great The Making of the English Working Class. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is still the best single exposition of Tory-Conservative philosophy of the old school. This savage repression was continued into the nineteenth century and the decade after the end of the Napoleonic wars - by which period the forces put together by Pitt had become in name as well as reality the old Tory Party. We have already (in Chapter 7) looked at the disintegration of the Tory domination amid the great crisis of the late 1820s.

The curve of development of the Tory Party in this period is therefore one of increasing influence from 1760 to 1783, the establishment of Tory dominance and increasing homogenisation of Tory forces from 1783 onwards, essentially total dominance from 1789 until the 1820s, and then Tory crisis and decline from the mid/late 1820s. In the entire period from 1783 to 1832 the Tories were in office for 45 out of the 49 years.

(3) We have already considered in some detail the period from 1832 to 1885. The Whigs, and then the Liberals, won the vote in twelve out of thirteen general elections and were in office for 40 out of the 54 years between 1832 and 1885. The Tories were defeated in the vote in twelve out of thirteen general elections, suffered a catastrophic split in 1846, and by 1847 were a party essentially confined to the rural areas of the country. It took 27 years after 1847 for the Tories to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and 39 years for the Tories to win the largest share of the popular vote. There is no problem whatever in establishing the period from 1832 to 1885 as one of Whig-Liberal supremacy and Tory Party subordination.

(4) Finally, after 1886, massive Conservative supremacy was established. The Tories won the largest share of the vote in twelve out of the thirteen general elections between 1886 and 1945. After being a secondary force for half a century the Tory Party was then in office, alone or in coalition, for over 70 per cent of the time in the next 80 years. With the sole major exceptions of the pre-First World War Liberal government, and the post-Second World War Labour administration, the Tories were in office virtually continuously from 1886 to 1964.

Then, after 1964, a new Conservative crisis set in. The Tory Party was in opposition for 11 out of the next 15 years. It lost four out of five general elections. It was evidently to halt this decline that Thatcher was elected to lead the Tory Party. She has brilliantly utilised the feebleness of Labour's opposition and the undemocratic character of the British electoral system but, as we have seen, she has been incapable of halting the decline of mass support for the Conservative Party. The curve of the modern Conservative Party is therefore a preparatory period of rise from 1847 to 1886, a period of massive supremacy from 1886 to 1964, and a new period of crisis after 1964. All the features of British politics we have studied are within the framework of the break-up of that period of Tory ascendancy.

Political dominance

These facts confirm once more just how little the reality of party politics, and of British capitalist democracy, correspond to what we are taught in the press and at school. There, supposedly, we live in an alternating two-party system, dominated by 'the swing of the pendulum', the personalities of the party leaders, the 'great debates' between figures such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the 'fundamental issues' which arise about every 6 months, etc. The reality, however, is that Britain has never had a 'two-party' system in the sense of a stable, alternating, roughly ,equivalent dominance of two parties. Those periods where there has been seriously switching government between different parties have almost always been periods of transition from the domination of one party to the domination of another. They have usually culminated in the split and disintegration of one of the contending parties (e.g. the Whigs after the period of alternating governments of the 1760s and 1770s, the Tories after a period of alternation of the 1830s and 1840s, the Liberals after a period of alternation of the 1870s and again after the alternation of parties in government in the first decade of the twentieth century). A series of alternations in government, as opposed to one party being clearly dominant and the others subordinate, is a symptom of crisis in the history of the British political system and not a situation of stability. To put it in a rather sharp way, Britain's history is more accurately described as four successive periods of one-party government, with transitions between them, than as one of a real two-party system.

Cleaning-up operations

Naturally again the beginning and end of each of these four period, as they pass from one to another, is marked by hybrid formations - and we are living through such a period at present. Today's split from Labour to form the SDP the SDP­ Liberal Alliance, and the Tory wet-dry division are all in the long tradition of the disintegration of the Whigs into their different factions after 1760, the split of the Tories into supporters of Peel and supporters of Disraeli after 1846, and the formation of the Liberal Unionists from 1886. However, such fragmentation is simply one of the symptoms of a transitional period between one era of party domination and another and does not alter the essence of the matter.
No matter what Pitt called himself from 1783 onwards he was in fact creating the Tory Party. From 1846 the Peelites were going in one direction only and that was towards fusion with the Whigs. Joseph Chamberlain might have called himself a Liberal Unionist: in reality, after 1886 his split from Gladstone created the supremacy of the Conservative Party and he was one of the essential pillars of its governments. In its frivolous moods, the SDP may claim to represent the old Labour Party of Attlee: in reality it is on its way to creating a new capitalist party in Britain.

Finally, what creates these periods of dominance? The answer is simple - although it cannot be proved here but must simply be asserted. Each of these periods of 'one-party government in Britain corresponds to a specific period of the accumulation of capital. The 1688-1783 dominance of the Whigs is the original period of accumulation of landed, mercantile, and banking capital in Britain. The 1783-1832 supremacy of the Tories is the period of the Industrial Revolution itself – the period of primitive accumulation of industrial capital. The 1832-85 supremacy of the Whigs and Liberals is the period of classical laissez-faire capitalism. The period of Conservative supremacy from 1886 is the epoch of classical British imperialism based on foreign investment - with all the consequences we looked at earlier.

These developments allow the entire history of the Conservative Party to be understood. The rise and decline of the Conservative Party, and of the modern British party system, is a product of the rise and decline of the British imperialist system itself. The reason why the British party system is breaking down is that the immense complex of economic and social forces which made up classical British imperialism is also breaking down. To attempt to overcome the consequences of that, British capitalism must progressively abandon the old economic formulas created in the 1840s and link itself to new and rising forces - in particular, to the powerful European capitalisms of the EEC. This entire reorganisation of the mechanisms of the British economy in turn requires a complete change of the party system. The events of the last 30 years are simply the manifestations of this.

As to what that new party system will be, we can only outline its chief features by name: the formation of a 'Gaullist' Tory Party; the creation of the SDP-Liberal 'pro-EEC' Party; and the creation of a reformist Socialist, as opposed to Labour, Party. British capitalist politics in the next years – and in the last 30 – is precisely the struggle of that new party system to bring itself into existence. Its aim, naturally, is to forestall any socialist alternative to the long-drawn-out decline of the Conservative Party and the economic and social mechanisms that created it.

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