Falling Down shows that despite its historical dominance, the Tory Party faces long-term decline and clashing interests inside its ranks, finds Chris Bambery
Know your enemy is a good adage. For 42 of my 66 years the Tories have been in government in the UK. In his excellent book Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, Phil Burton-Cartledge makes the point that the UK is not a two party system but one in which one party dominates for considerable periods: the Whigs from 1688 to 1783, the Tories from 1783 to 1832, the Liberals from 1832 to 1886 and the modern Conservative Party from then on.
During that time Labour has held office in what the author calls ‘transitional moments from one period of dominance to the next’ (p.26). The Blair/Brown years might seem an exception but, firstly, the Tories had to undergo a long period in opposition before they were electable, just, under David Cameron, and, secondly, Blair and Brown not just accepted the Thatcherite inheritance but built on it.
However, after the 2008 financial crash Gordon Brown lost the confidence of the elite, despite bailing many of them out, and they turned to the old Etonian, David Cameron, who seemed to be ‘one of them’, sharing the social-liberal attitudes which accompany their full blooded neoliberalism (except in regard to Muslims and potential ‘others’).
Cameron was never trusted by his petty-bourgeois backbenchers who only accepted social liberalism because he promised them an electoral victory. When that did not come off in 2010 and he entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats they were incandescent. Their anger wasn’t assuaged by the overall victory in the 2015 general election, and Cameron decided, confident of victory, that a Brexit referendum would lance that boil.
The result of the referendum appalled capital at home and abroad, but also showed the disconnect between swathes of the English population and the political class. Burton-Cartledge shows that as with the pro-Union vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the Leave vote centred on the old, who are more likely to vote than younger people.
The modern Tory malaise
The Thatcher years masked a continuing decline in the party’s support. Her greatest electoral victory, in 1983 post-Falklands, was achieved on a vote just 2.4% higher than it got in 1945. In 1935 the Tories took 53.2% of the vote across Britain and in 1955, 49.3%. They have only got over 40% for the first time since 1992 in 2017 under Theresa May, with 43.4 percent, and in 2019 under Johnson, with 44.7%.
Age is something that re-occurs in Falling Down because the author shows that one description of the party membership from the 1990s, ‘that the typical Conservative Party member is retired, comes from a middle-class occupational background, is an owner-occupier, and possesses few educational qualifications’ (p.19), remains even truer today. A third of them are in London and the Southeast.
That means property is of great importance to any Conservative government, and especially so for the current one. The property boom we are witnessing, centred on London and the Southeast, is driving up house prices and creating more flats to rent, benefitting older Conservative supporters.
This comes at a cost because the vast majority of younger people, including the children of many of those Tory supporters, can no longer afford to buy property. Their accommodation is rented, their jobs increasingly precarious and life is uncertain. They may inherit property and shift right, but in many cases they won’t reap the benefits of a property market which does not provide affordable housing but only expensive rentals and property prices beyond their means.
That creates an uncertain future for the Conservatives. The party has suffered an inexorable decline since the early 1950s when it boasted 2.5 million members, had a vibrant youth wing, and an institution like the Church of England was still ‘the Tory Party at prayer’. It is difficult to take in, but in 1955 the Tory vote in Scotland topped 50% (just). Those days are long gone.
When Johnson was elected leader in 2019 on an 87.4% turnout, just 139,318 members voted, suggesting a membership of 159,403. This was way below that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party or, proportionally, the post-independence referendum Scottish National Party. Nor is the Church of England, suffering a similar decline, an ally these days.
Decline of empire
The decline in the party’s fortunes is linked to that of Britain’s own economic decline and it is important to say that since displacing the Gladstonian Liberals as the natural party of government, it has presided over imperial decline. Indeed, the British bourgeoisie shifted allegiance to it because it wanted a party which would take on the working class in order to maintain profits, and a party which was more aggressively imperialist faced with the USA and then Germany.
Here I would take issue with one argument in this book: the idea that Britain was ruled until 1964 by aristocrats is not true. Liberal prime ministers such as Gladstone and Herbert Asquith were not aristocrats. The former’s father, a Liverpool merchant, made his money from the slave trade, the latter from the Yorkshire woollen industry. In the inter-war period, the Conservative Prime ministers, Bonar Law, Baldwin and Chamberlain, had industrial backgrounds.
Seemingly under Cameron and Johnson there has been a return to power of Tory toffs but it’s much more superficial. They don’t compare with Churchill or even Eden and Macmillan (who had been united in opposing Baldwin and Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler pre-war, being more aggressively imperialist than those two).
Brexit and globalised capital
What Burton-Cartledge does touch on importantly, however, is the relative disconnect between the Johnson government and the ruling class, pointing out it is ‘increasingly in hock to certain sections of capital whose short-term interests sit uncomfortably with the collective interest of British capital as a whole’ (p.42).
He is referring to Brexit here, and there is no question the hedge funds and spiv elements which backed Leave are a minority of the ruling class. Yet, there is a wider problem. Capital in the UK is largely globalised. Even if its shareholders are largely UK-based they don’t operate simply on the interests of the British state (even though they might rely on it for orders and back-up when push comes to shove). The CEOs and senior managers might be British, but they operate at a globalised level where home could be New York or Hong Kong as much as London. The senior managers might play at being English country gentlemen or women in the Cotswolds come the weekend, but it’s a game. They have no firm attachment to the UK.
So as Johnson hits the nationalist button, not just over Brexit, it does not appeal greatly to them. Johnson’s talk of grand state investment schemes providing opportunities don’t convince (they might recall the Northern Powerhouse). His support is nationalist and right-wing, but it is very much English nationalism. Two thirds could not care if Scotland went independent. The current debacle in Afghanistan rammed home how pathetic Johnson’s attempts to portray Britain as a global power were and the obvious limits of the ‘special relationship’ with the US.
The break-up of Britain would diminish the UK’s global standing worldwide. Burton-Cartledge doesn’t dwell overlong on events in Scotland or Wales and does not point out that the Tories in Scotland have experienced a limited revival by becoming the party of the Union, overtaking hapless Scottish Labour in the process. The aging Unionist vote has its own obvious limits though.
Capital will continue to plump for the Tories come election time because they have little enthusiasm for Labour under Starmer. He is not a Blair or a Mandelson, both of whom were ‘one of theirs’. The Corbyn years frightened them too and they did not like the rise of UKIP, cheering on its fall.
This book provides an excellent account of the Thatcher and Major years, pointing out how much the latter reinforced the Thatcherite project. It’s good at recapping the years in the wilderness under Blair, the Cameron years, the way Theresa May was undermined by her own MPs and how Johnson became leader and his ‘resolution’ of Brexit.
And as I have pointed out, Burton-Cartledge points to the difficulties the Tories face with their declining support, although Johnson is only interested in the short term of getting re-elected. Nevertheless, in the absence of any viable alternative, the elite will continue to offer its backing at election time to the Tories, even when it’s inconvenient for their interests.
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