FROM THE GRASS ROOTS
By a Conservative
(This is the personal view of a member of the Conservative Party and does not necessarily reflect the views of COPOV or of its members)
Last month the writer attended a COPOV meeting held in Gerrard’s Cross and he now wishes to expand on some of the comments he made at that meeting.
I am a child of Harold Macmillan. He was the Prime Minister at the time and it was in my teenage years that I first became interested in politics. I vaguely remember the 1959 General Election but clearly remember Hugh Gaitskell’s forlorn look as he realised that, even after the Suez debacle, the Conservatives had not only been returned to power but for the third time in a row had increased its parliamentary majority from 58 to 100. How was it possible that a party, born from the aristocracy, the landed gentry and the Church of England could remain not only one of the great parties of the state for over 200 years but hold on to power either alone or in coalition for nearly two thirds of the twentieth century ?
When I am asked what party do I support and I reply ‘The Conservatives’ I invariably get the response: ‘You must be rich then’ or ‘What public school did you attend?’. And those at the top of our party who are generally well off financially and have been educated privately have, sadly, allowed that myth to grow and fester. The Conservative party would NEVER have been returned to power (certainly in the second half of the twentieth century) had it not been for the support of a quarter to one third of the so called ‘working class’ and their families including thousands of trade unionists. The electoral arithmetic simply would not have been there.
We glibly talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘modernisation’. That Conservative supporting electorate of the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties could not have been more diverse. Men and women of all ages, shopkeepers, farmers, businessmen, teachers, doctors, seaside landladies, farm labourers, engineers, yes even the odd miner. It was a formidable coalition all contributing to the cause. And in the parliaments of those days (where 95% of the Conservative members were male and 75% educated at a public school) there were MP s from all parts of the country, the suburbs, the shires, the seaside towns, the large cities of the north, the smaller towns like Bury and Preston in northern England, Scottish MPs both rural and urban, six or seven MP s from Wales and about ten Ulster Unionists. And as for female Members of Parliament, admittedly not many of them but there on merit not as a result of some ill defined ‘quota’. Irene Ward who was MP for Tynemouth having previously sat for Wallsend on Tyne, Joan Vickers, who beat Michael Foot twice in Plymouth Devenport, Florence Horsborough, Churchill’s Minister for Education, Pat Hornsby Smith and, of course, from 1959 Margaret Thatcher are names that immediately come to mind.
Party Conferences were the times when ministers and members of parliament mingled and talked to their own grass roots supporters about what particular concerns they had. Nowadays it is a media circus financed in the main by special interest groups. At one conference in the nineteen sixties (held incidentally in those days in Conservative supporting Blackpool, Brighton or Scarborough) a chap named Fred Hardman (who fought Flint East three times, losing by only 75 votes in the 1959 election) got up to speak. The only words the writer can recall him saying during his speech were these: ‘These hands which have hewn coal’. And the writer remembers thinking to himself: ‘If he can vote Conservative, I can vote Conservative’.
Fifty and more years have elapsed since those elections of the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties.
There have, of course, been many changes during those years not only in the composition of the electorate (and let us remember we have only been a full democracy since 1929 when everyone over a certain age was entitled to vote) but in the way the United Kingdom is governed. For better or worse we are now a multi party democracy in which various strands of nationalism flourish. (And the rise of UKIP the writer contends is a form of English nationalism). After the great defeat in 1945 the Conservative Party under the chairmanship of Lord Woolton made important changes in its constitution and financial structure. That, together with the work of Conservative Research Department under the chairmanship of R A Butler, reaped dividends for it not only led to the election in the 1950 parliament of people like Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling, Enoch Powell and Angus Maude but paved the way for thirteen years of Conservative government. The writer believes that until the lessons of those long ago years are learnt and adopted and until the party rediscovers its’ ‘raison d’être’ (why it is here) it will continue to poll between 30% to 35% and to be just one of five or six parties in a possible coalition.
7 March 2015