The illusion of a two-party state: Despite Maastricht and the coal fiasco, history suggests the pendulum of power will not swing away from the Tories, says Linda Colley

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Is Her Majesty's real Opposition the 1922 Committee? And is the leader of the Opposition - in fact, if not in name - Sir Marcus Fox?

In the crisis over the miners, the Government was swayed more by pressure from its own supporters than by the predictable protests of those on the other side of the House of Commons. This was widely viewed as something novel and quite remarkable. Yet, from a historical perspective, what was really surprising was that so many people should have been taken aback by it.

Behind all this is the continuing potency of the myth of the British two-party system. It is the kind of politics that the very shape of Parliament is designed to suggest. Other countries have semicircular legislative chambers; but ours is rectangular, forcing MPs to sit on one side or the other. The impression - which is deliberate - is that there is a straightforward dualism in British politics. One is either in or out, government or opposition:

. . . every boy and every gal

That's born into the world alive,

Is either a little Liberal,

Or else a little Conservative]

As W S Gilbert acknowledged, the idea of a two-party system is inherently ridiculous. It has endured for so long not because it provides a valid way of looking at our past and present politics, but because it is flattering. Since the 19th century, historians and political commentators have claimed that the two-party system is the secret of Britain's unique parliamentary stability.

In Britain, it is argued, power swings from one party to another with the smooth and reliable regularity of a pendulum, and strictly in accordance with each party's competence and popularity with the electorate. Thus 18th-century politics turned on the struggle between Whigs and Tories; in the 19th century Conservatives and Liberals competed for office; and in our own day Labour battles gamely with the Conservatives. Or does it?

The Conservatives have monopolised power for the past 13 years - and, historically speaking, such longevity is the norm not the exception. What has really characterised British politics over the past three centuries is not the much-vaunted two-party system, but recurrent and prolonged periods of single-party dominance.

During the reign of Queen Anne the Tories were by far the most successful group. But when she died in 1714 there was an extraordinary, if peaceful, coup d'etat. The Whigs seized power, by foul means as well as fair, and kept it without a break until 1760. The succession of George III and the American Revolution disturbed this tidy arrangement for a couple of decades, but from 1783 until 1830, the Tory party was in power for all but a year. Then the pendulum of power did swing again, but - as so often - it swung only to become stuck, in this case for more than half a century. Between 1830 and 1886 Whigs, and later Liberals, dominated government for all but some dozen years.

In the past, as now, each political party that succeeded in sitting on power for a long period attributed this success to the fact that it was in tune with the country's deepest instincts whereas its opponents were not. There was often some truth in this. But just as important in cementing parties into office have been calculated adjustments to the electoral system.

When the Whigs came to power in 1714, they soon passed a law allowing general elections to be held every seven years instead of every three years as before. This led to increased electoral bribery - which suited the party of government, since it could afford the biggest bribes.

By the same token, the stunning success of the Whig-Liberals in the mid-19th century was not unconnected with the fact that they had reconstructed the electoral system by the Reform Act of 1832. The changes in electoral boundaries which are expected to win the Conservatives more seats at the next general election are part of a long tradition of electoral tinkering by the party in power.

But even dominant parties do not have things all their own way for very long. One of the natural consequences of prolonged one- party rule - as we are seeing now - is that the party becomes divided within itself.

The most dangerous parliamentary opponents of the Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole by the 1730s were disaffected politicians from his own party, the so-called Patriot Whigs. The long period of Liberal predominance in the 19th century was brought to an end when the party split over Irish home rule in 1886. And though the Conservatives were easily the dominant party in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a Conservative MP who emerged as the fiercest critic of the Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain - Winston Churchill.

History suggests that it requires a severe party split to bring a prolonged period of one-party rule to an end, or else some major change in the political landscape which is beyond a party's control. It took the convulsions of the Second World War to shatter Conservative hegemony, at least for a while, and give Labour its first overall parliamentary majority.

Is it possible that the current divisions within Conservative ranks, combined with circumstances beyond the Government's control - Maastricht and the parlous state of the world economy - will bring this latest period of one-party rule to an end? It seems unlikely.

The Conservative Party's dominance in the 20th century has been a long-standing phenomenom, although it took the force of Margaret Thatcher's personality to make many people aware of it. Britain belonged to the Conservatives long before the advent of Mrs Thatcher - indeed, since 1885 the Conservatives have been the single dominant party for 58 years. By contrast, in only 18 of these 107 years has a single party other than the Conservatives had a clear Commons majority. In other words, the one-party dominance that characterised British politics so often in the 18th and 19th centuries has become if anything still more pronounced in this century. Why?

It may be that it was easier for power to fluctuate before this century (though never, as we have seen, easy) because the major parties that existed then all had similar bases: landowners with some merchants, bankers and lawyers thrown in. The 20th century, however, has seen a party that consciously celebrates individual property - the Conservatives - in rivalry with a Labour Party that has usually seemed to champion the less propertied. So a majority of the rich and powerful in British society have been far more likely to back just one party than their equivalents were in earlier times.

Orthodox Conservatives can also take comfort from another long- term change in the nature of British parliamentary politics. Earlier Tory administrations certainly foundered because of internal divisions.

In 1714 the Tories lost control in part because a minority of them opted for Jacobitism rather than the new Hanoverian dynasty. In 1829-30 the Tories split again over Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. And in 1846 they shut themselves out of power for almost two decades by splitting over the Corn Laws. But Tories then were almost without exception men of independent means who did not rely on Parliament and government office for either status or income.

Today the majority of Tories are not men and women of property and broad acres. They are payroll MPs, and most of them want the plums that government can distribute. Consequently - and as the fiasco over the miners has demonstrated - while large numbers of Tories may grumble about their leaders' policies, in the end the majority of them are likely to snap back into line. They want their perks and their salaries too much to do otherwise.

Of course, all this may change. Maastricht may be one bridge too far for an already disgruntled party to cross intact. But we should not hold our breath, nor be too much distracted by the journalistic hype over the Euro- sceptics. Instead it may be worth recognising that our so-called two- party system is now, as so often in the past, a one-party system in fact, and asking ourselves whether this is really the kind of political system that we want.

The writer is professor of history at Yale.

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