Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 2 - The Modern Party System

By John Ross

The reality that in the 1983 election we are considering only one link of a far longer and more fundamental political process becomes still clearer if we now take a longer time-scale than the one we have so far considered. Most modern British political analysis commences at the Second World War. However, post-war trends form only a small, if coherent, part of the 130-year development which in its totality forms the modern British party system. If we want to see clearly the whole development of this system, and the place of each party within it, then we must not start not with the post-war period but with the origins of this entire process.

The reality of this long-term party development becomes clearer if it is recalled that the two modern British capitalist parties - the Conservatives and the Liberals - were not formed separately. Both were the product of one single great political crisis - the 1846 split in the old Tory Party between Robert Peel and forces organised by Benjamin Disraeli (see Chapter 7 below). The Conservatives and Liberals are simply, so to speak, the two sides of the coin of the original crisis- the Conservatives constituting directly the continuity of the majority of the Tory Party and the Liberals being formed through the fusion of the 'Peelites' with the old Whig Party. Both parties came to be led by the two components of the original Tory split - Disraeli giving political coherence and leadership to the Conservatives and Peel's old lieutenant, Gladstone, becoming the great formative leader of the Liberal Party. The Labour Party, as we will see, was a later development emerging directly as a consequence of the great crisis of the Liberal Party which became acute in the 1880s and reached its head in 1886 with the split between Gladstone and Joseph Chamberlain over Irish Home Rule.

The Tory Party

If we take first the Conservatives then Figure 2 shows the proportion of the votes won by the Tory Party in every election since 1859 - the year generally taken as marking the fusion of the 'Liberal-
Conservative' supporters of Peel with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party.

Figure 2

The fundamental curve of Conservative support is clear. Despite changes in the franchise, and inevitable short-term fluctuations, the Tory percentage of the vote rose remorselessly through all short-term shifts to reach a peak in 1931. Each peak of its support progressively moved higher than the one before in a cumulative chain - an equivalent graph for seats would show the Tory position rising in a similar way from immediately after the creation of the modern Conservative Party in 1846.
From 1931, the trend of Conservative support relentlessly falls. Each peak is lower than the preceding one, and the successive declines see the Tory vote falling to lower levels. The 50-year fall of the Tory vote we saw in Chapter 1 is simply the descending part of this 130-year curve of Tory development. All short-term fluctuations due to political crises, specific events, changes in the right to vote, etc., are merely superimposed on that 80-year curve of rising support followed by 50 years of decline. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more clear-cut development.

The Liberal Party

The Liberal Party's development represents, so to speak, the mirror-image of that of the Conservatives. Figure 3 shows the percentage of the vote gained by the Liberal Party in every general election since 1859 - the 1983 figures, of course, being those for the SDP-Liberal Alliance.

Figure 3
Once more it can be seen that despite all changes in the right to vote, and all short-term shifts, support for the Liberal Party follows a perfectly clear trend of development. For 92 years - from its creation in 1859 up to 1951 - support for the Liberal Party declined. Old British Liberalism was, so to speak, dying before it was born. The Liberal Party received its highest-ever share of the vote in the year of its creation - 1859. After that the story was downhill for almost a century.

It is worth noting that within this decline 1886 represented a clear turning-point. From 1859 to 1885 the Liberal Party defeated the Conservatives in the vote in six general elections out of six - in fact, the Tories were defeated in the vote by the Liberals or their predecessors the Whigs in twelve out of the thirteen general elections between 1832 an1885. From 1886 onwards, in contrast, the Tories beat the Liberals m the vote in twenty-five general elections out of twenty-six - the sole exception being 1906. In short, the split of the Liberal Party over Irish Home Rule in 1886 altered the entire historical balance between the Liberal and Tory Parties and represents one of the great earthquakes of British political history.

Finally, from these figures it can also be seen that there was no 'Strange Death of Liberal England' during or just before the First World War - as George Dangerfield suggested in his famous book of that title. The Liberal Party had been in decline for 57 years before the split of 1916 between Asquith and Lloyd George. The First World War was merely the kick that knocked down the entire rotting structure of the old Liberal Party. The famous period of Liberal government of 1906-15 was the dying spasm of an already mortally wounded beast.

After 1951 a new cycle of Liberal development began. After 92 years of decline the Liberal Party vote turned upwards and has continued to rise for 32 years. The Liberal-SOP vote of 1983 is just a continuation of that trend.

The Labour Party
The beneficiary of the great crisis of the Liberals after 1886 was of course the Labour Party. However, it is not true, as is sometimes claimed, that the rise of the Labour Party was the cause of the crisis of the Liberals. The Liberal Party was already in profound decline before the Labour Party ever came into existence. The backbone of the Liberal Party was already smashed in 1886 - 14 years before the Labour Party was formed.

What is evident, however, is that the same processes that were destroying Liberalism also created the Labour Party. In essence, as we shall see, the Labour Party replaced the Liberals in their chief social and geographical areas of strength.

Finally the politics of the Labour Party also grew up in the shadow of the Liberals. Those who laugh at Lenin's famous description of Labour as a 'Liberal-Labour Party' should in reality take it a little more literally at least as far as Labour's high-level practical policies are concerned. In 1900 the first act of the leadership of the new Labour Party was to enter into a secret electoral agreement with the Liberal Party. The last major act of what may transpire to have been the last majority Labour government of the old style - the 1974-79 Wilson/Callaghan administration - was to enter into a parliamentary pact with the Liberal Party. The great gods of post-war Labour policy - William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes - were both to become Liberals. The split from Labour, both of personnel and votes, to form the SDP went on to form a bloc with the Liberals.

In its political and social base, the Labour Party had in a sense always contained two rather different components. One was the element of a mass independent working-class and at least vaguely socialist party. The other was the residue of the old Liberal Party when the latter was no longer a viable political instrument. Subject that combination to a major crisis and it would inevitably tend to dissolve into its constituent parts - precisely as happened in 1981 with the SDP split.

Figure 4 gives the percentage of the vote for the Labour Party in every general election since its foundation in 1900.

Figure 4

With inevitable short-term fluctuations Labour Party support rose progressively from the foundation of the party in 1900 until 1951. There was then no fundamental decline between the two peak Labour votes of 48.8 per cent in 1951 and 48.0 per cent in 1966, but after 1966 the move of the Labour vote is remorselessly downwards.

As with the Tories and Liberals, any serious study of the Labour Party must account not merely for short-term shifts, but also for that long curve of development.

Finally, to summarise these developments, it is clear that the chief trends of the 1983 election were in no real sense determined by short-term factors. All the events to which the press gives such importance - the personality of the leaders, particular manifestos, great 'crises' - had very little to do with its chief features. These explain perhaps fluctuations of a few per cent in either direction. But they cannot even remotely explain the enormous historical curves of support, operating over a 137-year period, which we have looked at and of which the1983 election is a coherent part.

The Conservative Party, as we have seen, has a perfectly clear path of development. The modern Conservative Party was formed as the majority of the split of the old Tory Party in 1846. The Conservative Party's support rose, through inevitable short-term fluctuations, for 80 years up to 1931. It achieved a position as the pre-eminent capitalist party through the split of the Liberal Party in 1886. Its support has progressively declined since 1931 and Margaret Thatcher, oil revenues, Falklands factors, hysterical press campaigns, etc., have proved quite unable to halt that underlying decline - nor would we of course expect such superficial elements of the situation to reverse a process which has been going on for over 130 years. This Tory development in turn forms part of an immense party political system which has been in existence as long as the Conservative Party itself.

What then is the nature of this Conservative Party, its 137-year development, and the party political system of which it is such an integral part? This forms the subject of the rest of the book.

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