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Books: Champs on the ropes

Tory history is full of internecine feuds, argues Kenneth O Morgan, but the party always bounces back; The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-1997 by Alan Clark Weidenfeld, pounds 20, 416pp; An Appetite for Power: a history of the Conservative Party since 1830 by John Ramsden HarperCollins, pounds 24.99, 562pp
Like the poor, the Tories are always with us. Despite their cataclysmic defeat in May 1997, they remain the inescapable central feature of British political history since the Great Reform Act. For 80 years, they have usually been the natural party of government. It would be rash to assume that they could not be so again. But the essence of the party, apparently so obvious and uncomplicated, is remarkably hard to define. Its "vision thing" was famously seen by Gladstone as "distrust of the people qualified by fear"; yet it bred the populism which kept Margaret Thatcher in power for a decade. It has spawned both the Hotel Cecil and Essex Man.

Allegedly a party of sceptics who distrust dogma, it has been torn by ideology over much of its history. Protection, social welfare, the role of the state, the future of empire, relations with Europe: all have provoked debate quite as intense, and more vicious, than Labour rows over unilateralism or Clause Four. Supposedly armed with the secret weapon of loyalty and devoted to the commanders, Tories have been uniquely brutal in putting down leaders from Peel to Thatcher.

Their dominant instinct, so Alan Clark's preface and John Ramsden's title tell us, is "an appetite for power". Yet at key moments - the Corn Laws under Peel, tariff reform under Balfour, surrender to Ulster extremists under Bonar Law and to Europhobe extremists under John Major - the Tories have shown rather an appetite for collective suicide. Under the allegedly "open-minded" William Hague, whose poll of members has entrenched his party further in an anti-European stance, this curious characteristic still appears to be a powerful one.

The many mysteries of the Tory party in the democratic age have not always excited historians. For some decades, it was parties of the centre-left - the decline of the Liberals, the emergence and perhaps the similar decline of Old Labour - which scholars and especially political biographers found more congenial, perhaps for ideological reasons. Compared with the excitements of Asquith and Lloyd George, MacDonald and Henderson, Attlee and Bevan, even Wilson and Callaghan in Old Labour's silver age, the humdrum story of Balfour, Baldwin or Heath commonly seemed to offer at best a kind of subdued leitmotif.

But as Tory political decline has accelerated, academic interest has grown. There is a splendid six- volume official history of the party (three by John Ramsden), biographies from Lord Liverpool to Heath, important monographs, analyses and premature obituaries. Even Conservative ideas are given the odd airing. Like Ruud Gullit's footballers, the Tories have become sexy. John Major has at least done much for his party's past, even if little or nothing for its future.

These two new books offer a fascinating contrast between Sobersides and the Rake. John Ramsden has been for 20 years the laureate of British Conservatism; indeed, its outstanding active historian. His work may lack Robert Blake's incomparable feel for the Tory mentalite, or the engagement with ideas shown by younger men like Ewen Green. But as a calm and informative interpreter of events, he is hard to beat. He certainly offers here more than what Alan Clark terms "a great bank of data". There is his usual mastery of party machinery and the policy-making apparatus (notably in the lead-up to the 1997 debacle), but also more concern than hitherto with the party's social composition and definition (or invention) of its social identity.

Ramsden is a thoroughly English historian, occasionally mildly impatient with Scottish or Welsh themes, but he does some justice to Scottish unionism (which claimed a majority of Scottish seats as recently as 1955). He is quite masterly on the three great eras of Tory ascendancy: the invention of Tory Democracy under Lord Salisbury, Baldwin's prewar middle-class, middle-English ascendancy, and Macmillan's post-Suez high noon. He gives unfashionable praise to Ted Heath for largely carrying out his pledges but is severe on the late Thatcher years. Of all one-volume studies of the party, this is the one from which the student will gain most benefit.

By contrast with Ramsden's graceful adagio, Alan Clark offers predictable brio. As befits one of the most sensational diarists since Pepys, his survey of modern Toryism (that, rather than mere Conservatism) is full of colour and passion. It is most idiosyncratic, emphasising somewhat randomly themes and personalities which engage the author's attention, rather than a coherent story.

Large chunks - the 1950 and 1951 elections, the period 1964-70 - do not figure at all. But he is full of fun on the Abdication crisis, on the Profumo affair which featured "two cuties, one blonde, the other dark", on recent sleaze and the "sado-masochistic community", while also offering serious discussions on the gold standard or taxation. His captions to photos are wonderful: they include Lord Birkenhead's flaxen-haired young mistress, and a terrifying snap of Mrs Thatcher, sampling a vial of tea.

Clark's vignettes are always arresting, whether of lesser men like Hore- Belisha or leading actors like Macmillan (whose Suez manoeuvres "bordered on the treasonable") and especially Heath, derided for his "vacuity" in seeing politics as "a correspondence course in management studies". Almost all recent politicians fare badly: Kenneth Clarke "drives his party to the verge of self-destruction" while the blessed Margaret's fatal flaw is to combine autocracy with negligence.

But this is also a tract with a message. Clark is a right-wing British nationalist, hostile to the US alliance, tone-deaf on Europe. At key moments, he believes, Britain took the wrong turn. The outcome was a long process of decline for which the Tories bear much responsibility. Successive leaders went badly wrong. Baldwin rejected Empire Free Trade. Chamberlain's guarantee to Poland landed us in European war. Churchill in 1940 failed to make peace with Hitler to preserve fortress Britain. Churchill again in 1952 rejected the "Robot" scheme that would have given us "financial and economic independence".

Under Heath's mindless corporatism, the party "abandoned any attempt to call itself Conservative". Thatcher missed "an historic opportunity" through megalomania. Major, unlike Baldwin or Chamberlain, simply had "no policy objective". The party of the strong nation-state thus became its unwitting assassin.

All this may excite the Sunday supplements. But as a projected alternative policy, it is (to use a term he applies to John Redwood) more than "slightly barmy". It is based on an extraordinary diagnosis of Britain's role and resources, and the prospects for an insulated Britain. The reality, let alone the morality, of peace with Hitler and Mussolini are, wisely, not argued.

Clark is pessimistic about the Tory future as New Labour takes root. Ramsden is more measured, stressing the Tories' talent for reinvention, and rightly so. If there is to be hope and glory for Tories ever again, it is in Balfour and Baldwin's various poodles, rather than in the engaging rottweiler of Saltwood Castle, that it must surely reside.

Kenneth O Morgan's updated edition of `The People's Peace: British history since 1945' (OUP) will appear in early 1999