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?!