Patriarch of the Tory party: Liberal MP Joseph Chamberlain's sons, Austen and Neville, both led the Conservatives
Does the Conservative Party have a heart, a soul, a conscience, or is it just a remarkably efficient machine for winning elections, with no pretensions to organic life? That is the central question posed by Lady Thatcher's former speechwriter and special adviser Robin Harris, who has reinvented himself with excellent books on Talleyrand and Dubrovnik as a first-class historian. Soon after John Major led the Tories to their worst defeat since the days of the Duke of Wellington, three big histories of the party were published in quick succession, written by Robert Blake, Alan Clark and John Ramsden, but since then there has been little of significance. Robin Harris has now not merely updated the story to the present day, but has overhauled all three previous books, making this the standard work on the subject. It is also replete with historical analogies for the situation in which the party finds itself today.
This is an unashamedly intellectual history, as interested in the thinking behind Toryism as in its electoral consequences and political practice; it draws on the works of historians such as Maurice Cowling, J.C.D. Clark, John Barnes, Roger Scruton, Alistair Cooke, Keith Feiling, Richard Shannon, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Norman Gash and many others. It therefore accords space to conservative-minded thinkers such as Samuel Johnson, Keith Joseph, Michael Oakeshott and Enoch Powell that other histories have reserved for the pushier cabinet ministers of the past. The result is that we not only learn what the party did, how and when, but also why. Harris also avoids the obvious pitfall of turning his book into a general history of Britain.
"In general," the author states, "the Tories as a party have probably benefited from coalition, whereas the Liberals have not." This has been because in the 60 years between the mid-1880s and 1945 Britain was consistently, with the exception of a mere decade or so, governed by a Conservative-led (or Conservative-dominated) coalition of one kind or another, while the Liberals were in overall decline despite their 1906 and 1910 election victories. It was Lord Salisbury-the central occupier of Harris's pantheon-who drew the Liberal Unionists into the anti-Home Rule movement that allowed the British Empire to be ruled almost continually from 1885 to 1905 by the Conservatives in coalition with their Whig and Radical Unionist partners, led by Joseph Chamberlain. So close did that coalition become that not one but two sons of Joe Chamberlain-Austen and Neville-came to lead the Conservative Party in the 20th century. Consider the likelihood of Nick Clegg's children leading the post-Cameron Tories and you'll appreciate the splendour of Salisbury's uniting legacy.