Review of EHH Green Ideologies of Conservatism (Oxford University Press), written for Socialist Review but not published.
One of Blair’s greatest assets over the last few years has been the total disarray of the Conservative Party. But are the Tories, who were in government for sixty-eight years in the last century, finally doomed?
For those who want to know the alternative enemy, Green’s book contains some useful material. It is not an introductory work, and assumes some knowledge of Tory history. Green takes several episodes from twentieth century history and shows the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the Conservative Party, stressing the rôle of ideas. Though Tories often indulge in anti-intellectualism, they would not have survived if they had all been stupid – and as Orwell warned, when you meet an intelligent Tory you should check your pockets.
Green digs up some forgotten thinkers like Boutwood and Steel-Maitland, tells the story of the Right Book Club (devised to counter the ideas of the Left Book Club), and recounts the curious story of Harold Macmillan, advocate of a ‘middle way’ between socialism and the market, involving Keynesianism and state intervention to reorganise industry.
Green retains an academic detachment towards his subject, but does not fail to show the monstrous logical contradictions at the heart of conservative ideology. Thatcher denounced state involvement in the economy – yet at the same advocated a ‘strong state’ (Green could have quoted the massive deployment of police in the miners’ strike as an example). According to the theory of the free market, it should be quite legitimate for employees to organise to sell their ability to labour at the best price. But Heath unsuccessfully, then Thatcher successfully, launched a massive legal attack on trade union rights. Allegedly unions were ‘selfish’ and too ‘political’, yet those criteria were never applied to the Tories’ business friends.
But despite its contradictions the Conservative Party survived, because of its ability to adapt to changed circumstances. A Tory pamphlet of the 1950s (partly written by Enoch Powell) was called Change is our Ally. Now Green thinks we may be at the end of the road – after Thatcher ‘if the Conservative Party had survived, Conservatism had not’. He believes Thatcher’s radical individualism undermined conservatism’s traditional ‘organicism’ – the view that different groups in society are not equal, but interdependent, like the organs of a living body.
Green has read a great deal about British conservatism, but he might have understood his subject better if had consulted the opening section of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx stresses the ‘constant revolutionising’ at the heart of capitalism. Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin may have rambled on about ‘the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy’, but it is capitalism which undermines traditional ways of life, violates the countryside in pursuit of profit and desecrates institutions like the monarchy in order to sell more newspapers. Evelyn Waugh lamented that the Conservative Party had never ‘conserved’ anything, but a party wedded to capitalism cannot preserve the past, whatever the rhetoric about ‘Victorian values’
If the Tory Party continues to make itself the champion of the pound and fox‑hunting, it is indeed doomed to die. But it would be premature to dance on the grave.