The Good Tory

In a footnote in Representative Government, John Stuart Mill described the Tory party as the ‘stupid party’, providing a handy insult for its opponents. Not that such a charge did the Party’s electoral success much harm during the twentieth century. It was to be another soubriquet, popularised at the beginning of the next century, that of ‘nasty party’ that seemed to give the Conservatives more cause for concern and one it has fought very hard to shake off.

As someone interested in the connections between real and fictional politics, I know that stupid or nasty (or both) have usually been the keynotes of fictional representations of the Conservatives as well. Tories were either buffoons or weasels in a series of novels, plays and films. To pick some emblematic examples, in the buffoon camp we have Ian Carmichael’s chumpish candidate in the 1959 film Left, Right & Centre and in the weasel camp, the louche and mercenary figure of Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945).

However alongside the rise and rise of Margaret Thatcher, and moving into the Major years, it is noticeable that the loveable Tory fool was being overwhelmingly usurped by the terrifying Tory villain. Prime examples include Michael Dobbs’ Machivellian Francis Urquart in his House of Cards Trilogy, and Rik Mayall as the unconscionable Alan B’stard in television’s The New Statesman. But these were supplemented by, among others, John Mortimer’s Leslie Titmuss, David Hare’s murderous Claire Paige (from Paris by Night (1988)) and self-centred Marion French in The Secret Rapture (1993), as well as Harry Enfield’s obnoxious comic caricature ‘Tory Boy’.

However, in more recent years, another sort of fictional Conservative has made an appearance: The Good Tory. The trend can be traced back to Hugh Whitemore’s play A Letter of Resignation (1997) and on through to Howard Brenton’s 2008 play Never So Good, both of which focus on Harold Macmillan. It is also identifiable in various ‘oppositional’ principled Tories who appear in the currently burgeoning field of Lady Thatcher bio-pics (one thinks of John Session’s Geoffrey Howe in the BBC’s 2010 drama Margaret for instance). What these fictional depictions seem to share and what they appear to promulgate is not so much a clearly defined political philosophy but a sense of a political style, a different, and preferable, way of being a Tory. What is operating in these works is a nostalgia for a model of Conservatism concerned as much with questions of elegant deportment as economic doctrine, for diffuse notions of fair play and gentlemanliness; it’s no accident that Brenton’s play has such a plaintive, yearning title, Never So Good.

In fact, there is a good case to be made for considering political style as a useful prism through which to view the real divisions in the Conservative Party during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. Fiction (particularly visual media such as film and drama) has shed most light on these nuanced and emotive aspects of political debate. When the dramatist Trevor Griffiths – more at home with the discursive, theoretical arguments of the Left – began an attempt to chart the course of post-war Conservatism in his TV play Country (1981), both he and the critics noted that due to its subject matter this had been his most ‘cinematic’ script. The implication is that the nature of Conservatism (and conservatism) was to be conveyed not through intellectual argument but, as Mike Poole and John Wyver note, in ‘gesture, glances and movement’.

Country, which was designed to be part of a larger project (the BBC pulled the plug on the other five parts), is set at the end of the Second World War as the inhabitants of a large country estate come to grips with Labour’s election landslide. Griffiths shares a political outlook comparable to Howard Brenton, but whereas the latter’s Harold Macmillan is a highly sympathetic portrait, Griffiths’ work is truer to its moment of production and no Good Tories are to be found.

Nonetheless, Country’s stately home setting brings to mind another example of the trope of ‘conservatism and big country houses’ in the shape of the hugely popular ITV drama Downton Abbey. In Downton, it is a particular style of conservatism, the noble bearing and noblesse oblige of the Earl of Grantham (pictured above for the few that have not seen the series), which audiences are being asked to – and seemingly do – admire. To consolidate the point (as Jonathan Freedland has noted) we are also presented with another potential man of authority, the boorish and determinedly ‘non-U’ press baron Sir Richard Carlisle, a kind of updated Rex Mottrum. There is little doubt that the politics of Downton’s writer, Julian Fellowes (now a Conservative peer) diverge totally from those of Howard Brenton. Yet Brenton and Fellowes, along with other writers, have nonetheless both concluded that, given the unappetising alternatives available, their audiences are in need of the comforts of the Good Tory.

Cue Safety First!, a musical comedy based on the life of Stanley Baldwin?!

Matthew Bailey

Big Society, big mistake?

In reacting to the recent riots, David Cameron claimed that they reflected a widespread ‘moral collapse’ afflicting society. What is needed, according to the Prime Minister, is to rebuild our broken society. This is a recurring theme in Cameron’s rhetoric over recent years and it lies at the heart of his much-hyped ‘Big Society’ project, something designed to underpin the government’s public sector reforms.

Such a view resonates with the notion of ‘social capital’ being at the heart of a well-ordered and functioning polity. The Harvard academic Robert Putnam, is most closely associated with this concept but has rightly observed that the ‘Big Society’ sets the idea of society against the state, whereas he sees the state as crucial to underpinning voluntary activity.  Nonetheless, both approaches see social networking and associational activity as fundamental to generating trust.  And trust – particularly that invested in public institutions – is increasingly seen as a crucial factor in promoting political stability, as well as enhanced economic performance.

Trust in public institutions, it is claimed, has declined over recent years throughout all western democracies, and that is often seen as linked to a parallel decline in social capital.  One of the main reasons for such a decline in trust has been the seemingly endless stories of corruption involving public figures, on which I have posted previously.

In a recent piece published in Developments in European Politics 2, Chris Wood and I explore the arguments about the links between social capital, trust and corruption.  We found that political – not social – factors hold the key to public trust in institutions. How the public judges the performance of institutions, which in turn appears to be linked to institutional design, plays the critical role in determining levels of political trust. In other words, the quality and effectiveness of democratic institutions is a better predictor of support for democracy than the extent and nature of bonds between citizens.

Across Europe, citizens feel that their governments and the political class in general are unresponsive to their demands and generally unable to deliver on the promises they make.  While this trend is visible across the continent, there remains a clear divide between the newer and older democracies. As well as lower levels of political participation, the newer democracies have less social involvement, with people less civically minded and showing lower levels of social trust. This does not mean that the relationship works the other way around, however: in specific studies of these countries, even less support has been found for social capital theory.  A more plausible explanation for low levels of civic engagement is that it is the lack of genuinely effective, accountable and fair democratic institutions, procedures and politicians, which has caused difficulties, along with the fact that civic political cultures take time to become established.

We believe therefore that the performance of democratic institutions is more of a cause than a consequence of an effectively engaged citizenship. This means that the recent decline in political trust may be reversed by ensuring that institutions are perceived to be more effective, fair and accountable.  As Bo Rothstein has argued in his important new book, The Quality of Government, impartiality in the exercise of power lies at the heart of good quality government, which in turn provides the basis for generating public trust in institutions.  It also suggests that attempts to mend Britain’s supposedly broken society by focusing on the Big Society mistakes cause for effect.

Paul M Heywood

Downton Abbey: just a bit of fun?

Downton Abbey is that very rare thing – an ITV series popular enough to be commissioned for a second season. It also seems to appeal to middle-class viewers – when was the last time the Daily Telegraph put together a readers’ quiz about an ITV series? –  so watch out for lots of adverts for expensive German cars.

Such is its popularity, the Today programme interviewed A.N. Wilson and Alison Light about Downton Abbey’s ‘significance’. Wilson’s use of ‘bollocks’ to characterise claims the series was anything other than a ‘sanitised version of the past’ briefly sent ripples through Twitter. You can hear Wilson dropping the B bomb here.

Wilson’s potty mouth distracted attention from his serious point – but John Humphrys constant ho-ho-ing suggested that Today’s producers looked on the segment as just a bit of fun. After all, a period drama with lots of posh people lolling about in nice dresses and dashing uniforms can’t be ‘political’ (dread word) can it? The essential academic consensus however is: yes, it can. But Anthony Trollope put it better than might any social scientist: ‘The writer of stories must please’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no.’

As I suggested in an earlier post, Downton Abbey is part of a new wave of period dramas, one that has gathered force, tsunami-like, over the past year or so. Like the poor, period dramas have always been with us, but Downton Abbey’s popularity, the success of The King’s Speech, the revival of Upstairs Downstairs (of which Downton Abbey is, let us say, an effusive ‘tribute’) and a new television adaptation of South Riding suggests that something significant is going on.

It would be too crude to link too straightforwardly the renewed popularity of period drama with the return of the Conservative party to office, and impossible to prove which one is the cause of which. But Julian Fellowes, who created the series, was recently translated into a Conservative peer: make of that what you will. Moreover, A.N. Wilson, who seems to be on a bit of mission here, certainly thinks the series reinforces old-fashioned class prejudice.

The last time Britain was in the grips of an economic crisis – the 1970s – was also the last time period dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and When the Boat Comes In ruled the roost. As I pointed out in a paper last year, in the face of this crisis, these dramas tapped into an undoubted popular desire to return to a past world of (invented) certainty. Yet, they also tackled many live political issues while, arguably, promoting class consensus (in Upstairs Downstairs) and individualism (in When the Boat Comes In).

What lessons will the second season of Downton Abbey teach its viewers? We’ll have to see – but as it is set during the Great War I predict an emphasis on pulling together in the face of adversity. After all, as the Prime Minister reminded us recently, we’re all in this together.

Anyone for Economic Downturn Abbey?

Steven Fielding