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

How much influence has neo-liberalism had on British politics?

This was the question asked at ‘A Permanent Revolution?’, an event organised by the Centre for British Politics and the Centre for Political Ideologies.

Most of those who have written on this subject have described the ‘capitulation’ of Britain’s political parties, portraying neo-liberalism as the ideological equivalent of a tidal wave which has swept away all of the (intellectual) obstacles in its path. They have paid particular attention to the way in which politicians of all parties have, since the beginning of the 1980s, embraced the market and competition as a means of stimulating economic growth and maximising efficiency in both the public and private sectors.

But the picture is not so clear-cut. More recent studies, including those from Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe and Rachel Turner, argue that neo-liberalism is a far more complicated intellectual beast than previous analysts have acknowledged. Neo-liberal ideology has an extensive conceptual structure that stretches beyond economics into constitutional law and theories of knowledge. It is not just about the market.

The influence of neo-liberalism on all three parties has, therefore, perhaps been rather more subtle (if just as pervasive) than has previously been suggested.

For example, in her paper at our event Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite suggested that the way in which the Thatcher-era Conservative Party sought to achieve the moral rejuvenation of society drew on a variety of sources. The restoration of ‘traditional’ values allegedly eroded by forty years of social democracy – values such as thrift and responsibility – required, to their eyes, appropriate economic and legal (i.e. market) structures. Neo-liberal measures were therefore perceived as an essential prerequisite to the reassertion of traditional, old-fashioned Conservative values.

In his discussion of the Liberal Party, Peter Sloman suggested that while many post-war Liberals regarded the neo-liberals of the Mont Pelerin Society as allies, they did not regard their work as a template for political action. While many neo-liberal ideas reinforced existing Liberal prejudices about free trade and economic management, key figures within the party recognised that many of these ideas were difficult to reconcile with their commitment to social reform. As a consequence, neo-liberal intellectuals and the Liberal Party parted company over the course of the 1960s.

My own paper, meanwhile, assessed the role that neo-liberal ideas played in New Labour’s attitude towards equality. While the party retained a commitment to the pursuit of equality (despite claims to the contrary) it did so within a distinctly neo-liberal framework. The centrepiece of New Labour’s strategy for social justice was an investment in education and training designed to offer wider opportunities to the poorest in society. It sought to do so, however, through the enhancement of labour value and developing human capital – a concept that had been borrowed from the neo-liberal economist Gary Becker.

Of course, not all of the papers at the workshop took this line. Some argued that the influence neo-liberalism has been far more prevalent than hitherto suggested, while others suggested that the influence of neo-liberalism has been overstated – a debate best illustrated by the discussion between Kevin Hickson and Matt Beech on the nature of New Labour.

While Lord Lawson, who participated in the day’s concluding roundtable, claimed not to know what was ‘neo-liberalism‘ – other than a French insult – what all of the contributions illustrated is that the influence of neo-liberalism on British politics remains a live question. Even the likes of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband are today the captives of what in the end turned out to be one of the most successful ideologies of the twentieth century – and possibly of the twenty-first.

Matthew Francis

The Conservatives: a ‘polite alternative’ to the BNP?

In an insightful piece in this blog, Matthew Goodwin reported on his research about the UKIP and the BNP, portraying the former as a ‘polite alternative’ to the latter or the ‘BNP in Blazers’. Its more civil face allows UKIP to appeal to voters repelled by the neo-fascist image of the BNP, and to acquire ‘access to mainstream media and political elites’.

Goodwin’s argument is based on an analysis of the kinds of voters attracted to UKIP, in terms of their predisposing characteristics (age, gender, region and social class), as well as their political background, economic expectations and issue preferences. From our own ongoing research on electoral competition we suggest a slightly different perspective that may also help to understand how these parties relate to voters. To achieve that, we focus on the extent to which different parties are ‘fishing in the same pond’, i.e. relying on the same group of people for their support.

We draw our information from a 2009 survey of the adult population in which respondents were asked not only to state which party they would vote for in the case of a general election, but also how probable it was that they would ever vote for each of the parties standing for election. The answers reflect all the electoral preferences that people have for the various parties without constraining them to a single party. Combining all people that express a preference for a particular party yields an estimate of that party’s aggregate appeal to voters, i.e., its potential support. This potential support will rarely be fully fulfilled at any particular election largely because these pools of support overlap so that gains for one party translate into losses for the others that rely on the same potential electorate. Those overlaps are the consequence of people expressing high preferences for more than only one party.

We can display respondents’ preferences in a figure in which UKIP, the BNP and the Conservatives are represented by circles, the sizes of which correspond to their electoral potential. By drawing the circles somewhat on top of each other, we can also represent the size of the groups expressing simultaneous preferences for two, or even for all three of these parties. Doing so yields the figure presented above.

Goodwin and his colleagues are, indeed, correct in suggesting that UKIP can be seen as ‘a polite alternative’ to the BNP: a very large part of the BNP circle overlaps with the UKIP circle. But this also holds for the Conservative party: almost half of BNP supporters express high preferences for the Tories.  So, there happens to be more than one ‘polite alternative’ for BNP supporters. Indeed, this extends even further, as more than 40% of BNP supporters also express strong preferences for the Greens, and little under a quarter of them expressed similar preferences for the Labour party (not pictured here to avoid clutter).

What this research shows therefore is that the Conservatives are – roughly to the same degree as UKIP – the ‘polite alternative’ to the BNP. Put differently, the BNP is the ‘ugly face’ of the other two right-wing parties.

Cees van der Eijk and Eliyahu V. Sapir

Elections: nothing new under the sun

Despite our politicians’ constant clamour for novelty and their wish to appear as pretty modern kind of guys, nothing is truly new in politics.

I am currently researching the history of party posters since the Liberal landslide of 1906 and my analysis of their role in the 2010 campaign has just been published in the latest account of the election, Political Communication in Britain.

During the last election, Labour did something that seemed very innovative. The party called out to the public for poster designs to help it better attack the Conservatives. Labour wanted to uncover an image as memorable as the Hope poster that had proved such a potent visual symbol for the Obama Presidential campaign by tapping into the talents of those amateur designers who had so successfully parodied Conservative posters through the website mydavidcameron.com.

The winner, Don’t let him take Britain back to the 1980s, was designed by Jacob Quagliozzi a 24 year old Labour activist from St Albans. It played on the popularity of the BBC television series Ashes to Ashes, presenting David Cameron as the throwback no-nonsense tough guy character Gene Hunt.

The Conservatives returned the compliment by immediately releasing their own version of the poster, with a new tagline, Fire up the Quattro. It’s time for change. Labour’s poster had sought to damage Cameron by associating him with the 1980s, and therefore Thatcherism, something from which he had spent most of his time as Conservative leader disassociating himself. But Labour had overlooked the fact that Hunt was an extremely popular character – and their poster had inadvertently done the impossible: it had made Cameron seem almost cool.

This was however not the first time Labour had asked members of the public to produce poster designs: it did it in 1908 and then again in 1921.

The poster that came second in 1921 had a better fate than the one that won in 2010. For, Greet the Dawn (featured at the top of this post) was so effective it was used in the 1923 and 1929 elections and has subsequently achieved an almost iconic status within the party.

The prize for coming was second was £7. 10s – not bad for 1921 – but you would have thought someone might have spotted the designer’s grammatical error, which survived both elections. Can you spot it?

Demonstrating the continued popularity of the imagery contained in Greet The Dawn, Labour’s 2010 election manifesto cover also used the rising sun to invest the party’s doomed campaign with some optimism.

However, despite appearances, the cover was actually inspired by a Lemon Jelly album cover. Even so, what the 2010 campaign showed is that despite the increasing use of the internet for campaigning (it’s now the place where ‘posters’ appear most frequently) within politics there is very little new under the sun.

Chris Burgess