An Appetite for Power: The History of the Conservative Party Since 1830
By John Ramsden
Trafalgar Square, 1998, 573 pp.
The Politics of Nationhood: Sovereignty, Britishness, and Conservative Politics
By Philip Lynch
St. Martin's, 1999, 224 pp.
An expert on the British Conservative Party, Ramsden has written a new history of the Tories focusing on the party's changing electoral fortunes since 1830. He tells his story with skill and balance -- but not without occasional opinionated barbs. He defends Chamberlain from his more vehement critics and debunks the view that the Conservative Party unnecessarily dragged Britain through depression and deprivation in the 1920s and 1930s. Sharply critical of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and especially John Major, Ramsden concludes that politicians groomed for party leadership have tended to be ineffective once in power, whereas those whose chances had been deemed poor did better. He also shows how the party has successfully reinvented itself time and again. Whether it can do so now by shedding its Euroskepticism, however, he does not say.
In contrast, Lynch emphasizes the Conservative approach to nationhood and national identity. The Tory Party traditionally championed Burkean themes of national cohesion, imperialism, and the defense of the Union -- a strategy that ran aground in the 1950s. Since then, periodic attempts to revive the politics of nationhood have often been divisive and unsuccessful, split apart by the internal contradictions represented by Edward Heath and Enoch Powell. Heath's flawed strategy in the 1970s ultimately allowed Powell to influence Thatcherite statecraft, with its populist language and hostility toward European integration. But British membership in the European Community, the development of a multicultural society, and tensions between neoliberals and cultural conservatives blurred the Thatcherite agenda. Today, the issue of Europe has proven especially troublesome and divisive for the Conservatives. A party riddled with inconsistencies, the Tories can claim only England as their base, and their policies on immigration remain deeply marked by Powell's racist strategy. They offer only two approaches to national identity: a political one based on state patriotism, and a cultural one opposed to multiculturalism. Lynch finds the latter thoroughly inadequate and the former hobbled by shrinking state power and hostility toward European integration. This book helps explain why, in the politics of nationhood, the Labour Party now holds the advantage.