In the wake of election defeats in 1970, 1974 and 1979 both the Labour Party and the Conservatives held prolonged inquests into the reasons for their apparent failures in office. The 1975 Conservative leadership contest, in which Edward Heath was defeated by Margaret Thatcher, took place against a background of fierce ideological conflict between what came to be known as economic 'wets' and 'dries'. The nature of British conservatism has been vigorously contested for much of the post-war period, and after the electoral meltdown of 1997 it was reasonable to expect a flurry of impassioned speeches and pamphlets, setting out rival interpretations. Conservative Party practice after 1979 supports the view that electoral recovery need not bear any relation to ideological clarity, or even unity.
Writing in 1977, Conservative MP Nigel Fisher identified 'two qualifying conditions' for Tory leaders: 'a lengthy spell in Parliament and considerable Cabinet experience'. Before the advent of economic liberalism the Tory Party believed in hierarchy, so it was hardly a surprise that its members should place special emphasis on the leadership role. William Hague had good reason to be petrified of Margaret Thatcher, who during the leadership campaign had saddled him with what was perhaps the least welcome endorsement in British political history. John Redwood's supporters underlined the resemblance during the leadership campaign, referring to Hague as 'John Major with A levels'. Lord Parkinson rightly praises Hague's reorganisation of his party. No one can argue that Hague was an electoral asset to his party.
The Conservative Party's survival as a significant political force was now open to serious question for the first time since the crisis over the Corn Laws. The Labour Party has commanded a fairly consistent level of attention, whether in office or in opposition. But it seems that the Conservatives are fated to be regarded either as unavoidable or irrelevant. This book presents an analysis that suggests that the party leader plays a less important role in Conservative recoveries than a distinctive policy programme and an effective party organization. It examines the Conservative position on a series of key issues, highlighting the difficult dilemmas which confronted the party after 1997, notably on economic policy. New Labour's acceptance of much of the main thrust of Thatcherite economic policy threw the Conservatives off balance. The pragmatism of this new position and the 'In Europe, not run by Europe' platform masked a significant move towards Euro-skepticism. The book also traces how the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Parties adapted to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, exploring the re-organisation of the Scottish party, its electoral fortunes and political prospects in the new Scottish politics. It examines issues of identity and nationhood in Conservative politics in the 1997-2001 period, focusing on the 'English Question' and the politics of 'race'. The predictable results of the Conservatives' failure to develop an attractive, consistent narrative are then analysed. Right-wing populist parties with charismatic leaders enjoyed some electoral success under the proportional representation systems in 2002.
The change in the fortunes of the Conservative Party since 1992 is remarkable. Holding office alone or in coalition for two-thirds of the twentieth century, the Conservatives were considered the 'natural party of government'. The Conservatives appeared to be out of tune with some prevailing cultural attitudes and attributes of contemporary British society. William Hague's warning that Britain would become a 'foreign land' under a Labour second term reinforced the caricature of an intolerant party, ironically the Conservatives already appeared 'strangers in their own land', trapped in the past. Thatcherism extolled the virtues of individual liberty, choice and consumerism in a market economy, but many Conservatives were less inclined to accept an extension of choice and diversity in the social and cultural arenas.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the Conservative Party's response to the crisis it faced after the 1997 defeat. It examines the Conservative Party leadership, parliamentary party and voluntary party in the Hague period. The book focuses on Conservative policy and ideology, and examines the party's electoral performance after 1997. It illustrates the predictable results of the Conservatives' failure to develop an attractive and consistent narrative. The book suggests that the party leader plays a less important role in Conservative recoveries than a distinctive policy programme and an effective party organisation. It highlights the difficult dilemmas, which confronted the party after 1997, notably on economic policy where the urge to promise tax cuts conflicted with voters' demands for public spending on essential services.