Whatever happened to Tory Glasgow? It now seems absurd to the point of unthinkable, but in the 1920s the constituency of Glasgow Central was represented by a Tory Prime Minister, Bonar Law. When Winston Churchill’s party was drowned by the Labour tide that swept Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War, stubborn old Glasgow Central opted for the Tories’ sister party, the Unionists. Even a third of the impoverished residents of Glasgow’s Gorbals were voting blue in the mid-1950s. Arch-Thatcherite Teddy Taylor – who once declared that Nelson Mandela “should be shot” – represented Glasgow Carthcart as late as 1979. In the mid-1950s, most Scots were voting for candidates with blue rosettes – an even higher proportion than the English. Scotland was once a Tory heartland, and within living memory too.
Any Tory with a trace of survival instinct should listen to Nick Boles’ warning that his tribe are seen as “the party of the rich” and face being driven to a southern English hinterland. It is hardly prophetic: it just describes a long-standing process. In their old Glasgow Central stronghold, the Tories only just avoided losing their deposit at the last election. They are all but a fringe party north of the border, winning just over 16 per cent in 2010 in what was once one nation under Toryism. No wonder so many of Cameron’s colleagues secretly hope Scotland will cut the Union cords next year.
They better start hoping that the North declares unilateral independence, too. When a poll revealed that nearly four out of 10 Northerners would never consider voting Tory, Thatcher’s former press supremo Bernard Ingham slammed them as “demented” and conveying “an image of bovine stupidity”. How he must mourn what now seems a distant age. Liverpool, to take one example, was once a hotbed of Conservatism. The constituency of Liverpool West Derby may now weigh the Labour vote, but it did not even return a candidate with a red rosette until the 1960s. In Liverpool Walton, Tory candidates used to win over half the vote; today they scrape just 6.5 per cent. Liverpool is perhaps a unique example, because working-class Toryism was fuelled by rampant religious sectarianism. But it is a similar tale across the North. Until 1987, Manchester Withington almost always voted Tory: it can now count on the support of about one in 10 local voters. Not one Tory sits in the council chambers of Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool.
Nick Boles is an optimistic man: the implication seems to be that it is an image problem, a superficial consequence of the pampered and the privileged sitting on the Tory frontbenches. Uncomfortable to remember, then, that the post-war heyday of Toryism was under those patrician Old Etonians, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. But back then, the Tory leaders were staunch defenders of the post-war social democratic consensus, rather than ruthless slashers of taxes on the wealthy and hammers of the welfare state, so their background was less of an issue. Since then, it has been a story of long, protracted decline. Without exception, every time the Tory party has triumphed at the polls since 1955 it has had a lower share of the vote than the time before.
It is not because Northerners have become “demented” or been infected with “bovine stupidity”. As the old industrial communities disintegrated at an unprecedented rate under Tory rule, the anger and bitterness was passed from generation to generation. The recession of the 1990s reinforced the ugly memories of a decade earlier; today’s unprecedented fall in living standards conjures up what is – in large swathes of the country – almost an anti-Tory folklore. No wonder they haven’t won a general election for more than two decades.
The Tories obsessively bait Labour over its links with trade unions, the biggest democratic movement in the country. It is alarming how little scrutiny the Tories’ own funders get. They are, after all, bankrolled by bankers, hedge funds and legal loan sharks. Wonga investor and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft was commissioned by the party to draw up a report eliminating some of our remaining workers’ rights. Andrew Lansley, who set in motion the wholesale privatisation of the NHS, once received £20,000 for his personal office from the former chairman of private health care firm Care UK. Two private health companies who donated to the Tories have been handed lucrative NHS contracts. Forget which schools the Tory frontbench attended: it is their donors’ list that reveal the Tories’ historic mission as the political wing of wealth and power, or Boles “party of the rich”.
To escape their desperate plight, the Tories hired Lynton Crosby and an election formula that can be summed up as: “Skivers! Immigrants! Union barons! Marxists!” Unable to win the support of working-class people on the basis of hope, the Tories resort to the politics of envy: that struggling voters should resent the luxurious conditions supposedly enjoyed by their unemployed or immigrant neighbours.
It is an age-old Tory strategy: at the start of the last century, the party assiduously courted fear of Jewish and Irish immigrants. There is always a rich vein of prejudice to tap. But whether or not the Tories heed Boles’s warning, what was once the most successful political force on the earth faces looming disaster, and neither inflaming resentment or another rebrand are likely to avert it.