Books: Not waving, but drowning

Whatever Happened to the Tories by Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett, Fourth Estate, pounds 25 Collapse of Stout Party by Julian Critchley and Morris on Halcrow, Gollancz, pounds 17.99,; Why did the Conservative Party get things so wrong for so long? As the first post-debacle conference ends, John Biffen assesses two inquests by his former parliamentary colleagues

In May the Conservative Party suffered a shattering defeat. The inevitable inquest has begun with these two well-timed books. Ian Gilmour's ranges widely, and traces Conservative fortunes since 1945. He writes with authority and style on the period preceding Heath's leadership. In particular, he underlines the devious role of Macmillan in the Suez crisis and the quiet but highly professional way in which Home promoted his own chances for the Premiership in 1963.

These episodes demonstrate that, in terms of policies and personalities, the Tories could be ruthless. They also had a cohesion enabling the party to govern effectively despite unpopularity. Gilmour fears these qualities have been lost because the party has been driven into a cul-de-sac by the ideological policies of Thatcherism, particularly where they concern Europe.

Julian Critchley joins Gilmour in this view. His contribution is more acerbic, but both authors proclaim themselves - and their current hero, Kenneth Clarke - to be one-nation Conservatives. Wisely, they do not explain the details of this political hallmark, knowing its value as an imprecise word bite.

A more realistic view is struck by Morrison Halcrow, Critchley's journalist co-author. He makes a good analysis of the government's agonies after 1992. The cabinet had misjudged the pace of economic recovery which - with the ERM debacle - led to a crucial loss of confidence. This was compounded by a policy of income tax cuts which contrasted perversely with restrictions on social spending. The absence of a reliable majority limited any scope for a Tory initiative through legislation. Westminster became a shouting ring and not a workplace.

Halcrow rightly underlines the corrosive impact of ministerial resignations and the findings of the Scott and Nolan reports. These did not reveal merely a little moral difficulty; they reinforced the public unease that the long Conservative rule had resulted in a fatal lowering of standards. This chimed with the a general view that after unbroken Tory office since 1979 it was now "time for a change". Such a view was powerfully reinforced by the skill with which Tony Blair presented a revised Labour policy.

Quite early in the 1992 Parliament, there was a widespread Tory anxiety that Labour would win the next election. It was felt that the political agenda should be rewritten to sharpen the political divide. Hence the talk of "clear blue water". Many Tories felt the European issue would provide the chance to develop a new and compelling debate. The opportunity was provided by the Maastricht treaty and its subsequent passage through Parliament, protracted by the determination of Labour to offer no assistance to the government in voting down its Euro sceptics. Once Maastricht was concluded, the Conservative party became locked in a continuing acrid debate about monetary union and the single currency. Labour sat happily on the sidelines.

Tory Eurosceptics who believed that Europe could dominate the election were mistaken. There was a Tory sceptic tide in both the country and Westminster, but it would never have compelled John Major to dispense with many key members of his government. Secondly, the referendum policy adopted by Labour and the Liberals put them in a good tactical position as they could decline to make Europe an election issue. Tony Blair had an election agenda which suited him, and he was not going to widen it. He was totally successful. As Gilmour observes: "For the voters, Europe was not an important issue."

Europe was a central issue for the Conservatives, and the divisions it engendered were to some extent damaging. Gilmour and Critchley, in sharp personal comments, make clear how embittered was the clash of views. Inevitably, Major is blamed for weak leadership. On Critchley's analysis: "The party was split over Europe from top to bottom." That being so, is it realistic to suppose that Major could have muzzled his dissidents? His policy of trimming and compromise was designed to hold the party together. It was damage limitation, and whilst it may not have been heroic, at least there was no major split.

The European argument will continue. Gilmour and particularly Critchley make reasoned arguments favouring monetary union. Both concede that the objectives are political rather than economic. This is not a novel argument, but the political and economic cases need to be more clearly defined and clinically assessed. They are too important for wordbites. Critchley expresses concern lest anyone would "fudge" entry into EMU, but a cadre of continental creative statisticians is doing just that.

It is nothing extraordinary for Tory pragmatists to fear that European political unity is racing ahead of economic judgment. There has never been any British euphoria about the creation of large-scale political institutions. As Critchley observes, even Winston Churchill "was a nationalist who saw a united Europe in terms of British leadership". So the debate will continue, and I hope it will observe Ian Gilmour's dictum that "all political theories are at best inadequate, at worst false".

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Sport
sport
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

    £550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

    Data Insight Manager - Marketing

    £32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

    Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

    £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

    .NET Developer

    £600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape