The Sordid Story of the Most Successful Political Party in the World

On
December 13, 2019, Britain’s newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson
welcomed “a new dawn.” The Conservative Party had secured its largest
parliamentary majority since 1987. Almost 50 new seats had swung the
Conservatives’ way, including many in the so-called “red wall”: working-class
constituencies in north and middle England traditionally considered Labour
strongholds. Johnson and his fellow Tories were jubilant. “Rejoice!” the front page
of the conservative Daily Mail sang.
In all
the excitement, it was easy to forget that this was the Conservative Party’s
fourth election win in a row—its second such sequence in the last 40 years.
Johnson simply did what the vast majority of Conservative leaders do: win
elections. Of the party’s 21 different leaders, spread out across its long, winding 200-year-odd history, 19 have contested elections, and only four have failed to win at least one—a record of victory
that has earned the Conservatives the moniker of “the most successful political
party in the world.”*The
Conservative Party’s main opposition, meanwhile, spends most of its time as
just that: the opposition. Since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900—a
source of existential anxiety for Conservatives at the time—only four of
Labour’s 19 leaders have won an election. In the last 40 years, that number
falls to one: Tony Blair, both Labour’s most successful leader and its most conservative.
“The best centre-right option there is,” as The Economist quipped
in 2005, as Blair accomplished his third straight win. Take away Blair’s victories,
and Labour has only been in power for 18 of the last 100 years. The Tories,
either alone or in coalition, have ruled for the rest.Such
single-party dominance might well alarm the citizenry of a proud, liberal
democracy—especially one where well-funded public services and wealth
redistribution, not Conservative strong points, consistently poll as very popular policies. Yet the party’s
remarkable record of victory—eight of the last 11 elections—is rarely scrutinized
as a source of fundamental concern. Each Conservative win is explained away
either by the contingencies of time and place—a strong or weak economy, a
particularly canny Conservative leader or campaign, a weak Labour candidate—or
by supposedly “innate” Conservative Party qualities like “competence,”
“flexibility,” or “unity.” It is often said that Tories simply “know how to win
elections.” Even
now, after a brutal plague year in which Johnson has led Britain to one of the
highest death rates per capita in the world, the Conservatives are still
comfortable favorites to win the next election. Britain has lost nearly 120,000
lives to the virus so far, is currently eight weeks into a national lockdown that will last until at least April, and faces the worst economic forecasts of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development bar Argentina. The government’s blunders have
been blatant, repetitive, and devastating. And yet, mirroring government
messaging, a majority of people say that the public, rather than politicians,
are to blame. The Conservative Party marches on.The
enduring popularity of the Conservatives amid the pandemic does thus point to
at least one secret of its success: the party’s ability to disassociate itself
from the consequences of its own actions. Rarely has a political party wielded
so much power, for so long, with so little accountability. If elections in
Britain tend to take one of two forms, “kick them out” or “let’s keep going,”
the Conservative Party’s trick is to appear as the answer to both, as it suits:
the brave challengers of the status quo and its brave defenders, always
rescuing the nation from a Labour threat that never quite materializes.Despite botching Britain’s pandemic response, Boris Johnson is riding high.Geoff Caddick/WPA Pool/Getty ImagesJohnson’s
resounding win in December 2019 was a textbook example. Having overseen a
decade of domestic turmoil and a stark coarsening of living conditions, the
Conservative Party then presented itself as the panacea to the problems that it
had created. Johnson promised to “Get Brexit Done,” as per his election slogan,
ending a four-year battle over European Union membership initiated by his
party, and to reinvest in public services after 10 years of Tory-imposed
austerity. “Our country has now embarked on a wonderful adventure,” Johnson
declared upon victory. This
power of disassociation is at the heart of the Conservative Party’s unrivalled
record of victory. Britain’s departure from the EU—finally “done” on January 1—has been a huge asset. Its “Year Zero” effect, as one Conservative
minister put it, has allowed the party to pretend it has taken on a new
incarnation, untarnished by the past; that it’s a different beast from the party that has
been in power for the best part of the last 200 years; a “new dawn” is always rising.
But this power of disassociation cannot be accomplished alone: It requires a
compliant media, a believing public, and an electoral opponent that cannot help
but play along. The story of Conservative success is, to a remarkable extent,
the story of Britain itself: a nation where, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s
famous refrain, everything changes, so long as everything stays the same.British
conservatism has often praised itself for an adaptable nature: a thought and
practice rooted not in ideology but in pragmatism, tradition, and “common
sense.” Yet beneath a veneer of amenable moderation, the Conservative Party’s
aims have been clear and constant: maintaining power, resisting the
redistribution of wealth, and safeguarding the legitimacy—the ascendancy—of the
nation’s elites. “Hostility
to radicalism, incessant, implacable hostility, is the essential definition of
Conservatism,” as former Conservative leader and three-times Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wrote in 1859. “The fear that the radicals may triumph is the
only final cause that the Conservative Party can plead for its own existence.” Rarely has a political party wielded
so much power, for so long, with so little accountability.Over
150 years later, this central Conservative plea against radicalism—aimed at the
left, at least—remains persuasive, even if the fear has never been realized.
Unlike other countries, Britain has witnessed no revolution or serious
political rupture in its modern history. Old elites are not overthrown but
absorbed—above all, into the Conservative Party. The
result has been a remarkable continuity, and closeness, in the upper echelons
of British society. In the 1930s, the Conservative Party was still nicknamed
“the cousinhood” for being such a family affair. About a third of its 429 members of Parliament could be
placed on the same family tree, and two in every five belonged to the
aristocracy. In 1951, when a 76-year-old Winston Churchill returned as prime
minister, a quarter of his M.P.s were alumni of the same tiny school:
Eton, the elite institution for boys founded in 1440, and the playground of 20
future prime ministers.* Today,
the Conservative elite is more diverse and democratic. The landed gentry hold
hands with bankers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the nouveaux riches. The number
of Etonian M.P.s is down to 11 (although in the House of Lords, Britain’s
unelected second chamber, there are still over 80); the proportion of
Conservative M.P.s who received a state education is up to 59 percent, a record
high, albeit well below the national average of 93 percent. But very British
inequalities still endure, such as the fact that about half the land in England
is owned by less than 1 percent of the population, with a small set of old
aristocratic families accounting for a third of it.The Conservative
Party is doing its best to modernize its image, if not the country. Since the
aristocrat Alec Douglas-Home, or “the fourteenth Earl of Home,” stepped
down as prime minister in 1964, the Conservatives have experimented with
leaders from more humble backgrounds—most famously Margaret Thatcher, the
grocer’s daughter, winner of three elections between 1979 and 1990, and the
longest-serving prime minister since Salisbury at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thatcher’s mere presence, as a state-educated woman, seemed to signal
a new age of Conservative meritocracy and ideology: The party’s “traditional
values” would now be shielded by the radical doctrines of the Chicago School. Margaret Thatcher famously described the ascendance of Tony Blair as one of her greatest achievements.JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty ImagesThatcher
changed the Conservatives—and Britain, and Labour—forever. Yet even when the
old guard was in retreat, it never really disappeared—91 percent of Thatcher’s Cabinet were privately educated, and more than a quarter were from Eton. Lately they have resumed
the reins. Two of the last three Conservative leaders have been Old Etonians—first
David Cameron and now Johnson. Both are distant relatives of the royal family
(as was Johnson’s rival for the leadership in 2019, Jeremy Hunt). Despite more
diversity in Parliament, private-schoolers dominate Johnson’s Cabinet, making
up 69 percent of members—a 30-year high. The
mystery is what makes this most unsubtle of elites so electable. The Tory’s
well-earned reputation as toffs has belied a surprisingly broad appeal. At
least one in three working-class voters typically support the Conservatives,
and recently this number has risen much higher. As the historian and Tory peer Lord
Blake suggested, in 1968, from the outset of democracy, the Conservatives’
“greatest success” has been “to convince a large section of the working class
that the class struggle was irrelevant and that they were a safer bet than the
Left.” How have they done it?Some argue
that, either as a consequence or a cause of experiencing no political
revolution, British people themselves are inherently (or “instinctively”)
conservative. The monarchy remains an object of veneration for a majority of
the public, and there is scant appetite for abolishing—or even reforming—the
House of Lords, parliament’s anachronistic second chamber, where membership only
ceased to be hereditary in 1999 under Blair. (It’s now the preserve of the
major parties to appoint legislators for life, allowing the parties to curry
favor with friends and flunkies, with no cap on numbers: It’s already eight
times the size of the U.S. Senate, with nearly 800 peers, and the second-biggest legislative body in the world.)The
country’s cultural tastes clearly have a conservative bent, as well. Popular
television series are often period dramas that offer pleasing escapes into
quaint hierarchies—Downtown Abbey, Poldark, The Crown, and
so on. In May last year, Dame Vera Lynn, a singer during the Second World War,
returned to the charts for the second time in three years. The nation’s most
popular prime minister is also revealing: Churchill, the hero of Britain’s “finest
hour,” persists in the national imagination as a kind of ur-statesman, wedding
an upper-class aesthetic to the plucky stoicism of the everyman. Yet
such cultural and political tastes don’t arise from the soil—they are the
products of a broader culture. Here, the nation’s media surely plays its part. Of
Britain’s 11 major newspapers, six make up the so-called “Tory press”: The
Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, The
Daily Express, and the Evening Standard. These vastly outnumber the
two newspapers in Labour’s corner, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror.
(The
other three, the i, the Daily Star, and the Financial Times,
lean right but aren’t loyal to either party.) Almost all are owned by billionaires with
close ties to the Conservative Party, namely Rupert Murdoch, Lord
Rothermere, Lord Evgeny Lebedev, and the Barclay family.Even as
print numbers nose-dive, the chasm in readership and influence is huge. The
Tory press’s combined daily circulation is 6.8 million copies, over seven times
the sum of The Guardian and Daily Mirror’s. The disparity narrows a
bit on the internet, but it’s still pronounced: 131 million online monthly reads
versus 61 million. And
even these figures don’t reflect their different abilities to set the political
weather. In the name of neutrality, the BBC’s news content is largely based on
what the national press reports, and so its agenda is then reflected in the
BBC’s own coverage, which filters down to its massive monthly online readership,
peaking at 1.5 billion views in March, and flagship television and radio broadcasts.
The
“Tory press” moniker is quite literal. Editors and leading writers are often close
friends (or more) with Conservative M.P.s; or future party advisers; or, like
Johnson (who has worked at the Times, the Telegraph, and The Spectator),
future M.P.s themselves. They make no secret of their loyalties—during the 1979
election, for example, the Daily Mail splashed a front-page story
written by Thatcher’s own spin doctor while, in 2015, the Daily Telegraph
breached
privacy regulations by sending hundreds of thousands of registered readers an
email urging
everyone to vote Conservative. The papers are rewarded for their fidelity not
only with access and favorable policies but also knighthoods and peerages.
Among Johnson’s appointments to the Lords, so far, have been two editors, two columnists, and
a press baron—and they join more than 30 other members of the trade.The Tories have benefited immensely from their close relationship with Britain’s right-wing tabloids.Arthur Edwards/News International/Getty ImagesDuring Jeremy
Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, between 2015 and 2020, anti-Labour
tirades reached unprecedented heights, according to research by Loughborough
University. But the reality is perhaps more banal: A daily drip-feed of
Toryphilia, xenophobia, left-baiting, and jingoism that, even if not always
believed by readers, lets the Conservative Party convincingly claim to reflect—rather
than shape—the national mood. Laying blame for society’s ills elsewhere—immigrants,
minorities, welfare cheats, the unpatriotic left—is a shared passion and
serves a common purpose: stopping “the radicals” from taking power, as
expressed by Salisbury over 150 years ago.In 2001,
the mood among Conservatives was rather different than today: The radicals
weren’t in power, but the Labour Party was. Blair had won his second election on
the trot. As the godfather-to-be of Murdoch’s child, happy to let anyone become
“filthy rich,” he had almost the whole stable of newspapers on his side. The
Tory press had become the Tony press. Blair’s
“New Labour” had found a winning formula: Privatize state services, set the
financial sector free, drum up patriotic feeling, tack right in the culture
war, and boost public spending to reduce poverty levels—“a spoonful of sugar
helps it all go down,” as Blair memorably put it. Even The Economist,
which had backed “the real Tories rather than possible Tories” in 1997, was
impressed, conceding that Blair was “the only credible conservative currently
available.”The Conservatives
were in a rut, divided over a fringe obsession—Britain’s then-uncontroversial
membership of the European Union—and unsettled by their own admiration for
Blair. “I can’t fight my feelings anymore,” the journalist Michael Gove, who
is now Johnson’s most senior minister, wrote in The Times in 2003. “I love
Tony.” (Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, is star columnist at the Daily Mail.)But
Blair’s sudden dominance was misleading. Not only did Britain’s capture by the
Labour Party reflect, in a deeper sense, Labour’s own capture by the
Conservatives—Thatcher famously called Blair and New Labour her greatest
achievements—Labour’s election wins were also less convincing than they looked.
“The mood of excitement … began to wane a long time ago,” Gove later wrote in The Spectator, then edited by Johnson.
In 2001, voter turnout had fallen to a record low of 59 percent, after never
having dropped below 70 percent since World War I. By 2005, when Labour was
reelected on a similarly low turnout, the party had shed more than four million
supporters, mostly among the working classes in the north of England. These
shifts laid the ground for future Labour defeats. But the nature and extent of
the Conservatives’ renaissance could not yet be foreseen, least of all by
Conservatives: They were still in thrall to Blair. In December 2005, they found
a Blair of their own to lead them, the “modernizing” David Cameron—an old
Etonian, married to the daughter of a Baronet, who was young, lived in West London, and was similarly
cozy with the press. Cameron told his party to “stop banging on about Europe,”
committed to matching Labour’s levels of public spending, and vowed to end the
Conservatives’ “nasty party” image. But after the 2008 economic crash, the
atmosphere changed, and the Conservatives could attack Labour’s “lax” border
control and “reckless” spending with renewed glee. In 2010, with the Tory press
back on their side, the Conservatives returned to power in coalition with the
Liberal Democrats. Cameron
heralded “a new age of austerity.” Under the guise of cleaning up Labour’s
mess, the government slashed public spending and ramped up anti-immigration
legislation and rhetoric. The then–Home Secretary Theresa May announced a new “hostile
environment” for illegal immigration, and the same harsh spirit seemed to
suffuse society as a whole, as state welfare was dramatically rolled back. Media
reports about “welfare cheats,” “benefit scroungers,” and “welfare tourists”
were relentless. By 2013, a YouGov poll found that people on
average thought 41 percent of the welfare budget went on the unemployed (the
true figure was 3 percent) and that over a quarter of the welfare budget was
claimed fraudulently (the government’s own figure was 0.7 percent).Cameron
rode this wave of resentment to a clear majority in 2015. But it came with a
generation-defining concession: To quell the rise of the U.K. Independence
Party, led by Nigel Farage, and unite the Conservative vote, he had committed
to a simple remain/leave referendum on EU membership. Cameron campaigned for
Remain, but the Leave campaign—led, opportunistically, by Johnson, Gove, and
the Tory press—edged it by four percentage points. On June 24, 2016, the day after
the vote, Cameron resigned. For a moment, it looked like the Conservative Party
might collapse, as well. But in fact the Tories were going to be much more at
home than Labour in the post-referendum world. Even
as the death toll mounts, the Conservatives have a swagger in their stride.The
high turnout of 72 percent—well above the 63 percent average of the previous four
elections—introduced, and reintroduced, many voters into the fray. The largest
rise was among the working classes, two-thirds of whom voted Leave, in regions
where disillusionment under Blair had deepened. Many of these voters had left
Labour long ago. Brexit, and its resonant “Take Back Control” slogan, was the
gateway drug they needed to finally turn Tory. At least the Tories, unlike
Labour, called the referendum, and could count a decent number of authentic
Brexiteers in their ranks (Johnson, who only decided at the last moment that he
would back Leave, is not among them). Britain
is now experiencing the aftermath of this shift. In 2017, Cameron’s successor,
Theresa May, won 44 percent of the working-class vote—a
full 14 points above the 2015 haul, and two above Corbyn’s Labour, which was
then campaigning on a manifesto accepting the Brexit vote. In 2019, when Labour
backed a second referendum and the Tories vowed to “Get Brexit Done” (“no ifs,
no buts”), Johnson won 48 percent of the working-class vote, a
full 15 points above Labour. It was a historic result, and Johnson found a
fitting place to celebrate. He delivered his victory speech in the old mining town
of Sedgefield, County Durham, which had turned Tory for the first time since 1934—and was the 24-year
parliamentary base of Tony Blair.Despite
the pandemic, Johnson ploughed on with Britain’s departure from the EU and, on December
24, finally sealed the terms of separation. Cases of coronavirus were soaring,
and Johnson’s personal promise to “save Christmas”—which saw him loosen anti-Covid
restrictions against scientific advice, only to reimpose them at the last
moment—was at least partly responsible. But Johnson could still end a grim year
with fawning praise in the press. The front page of The Sun showed a
grinning Johnson dressed as Santa Claus, dropping presents down a chimney,
celebrating “the Night Before Brexmas.” The
audit of the pandemic has offered a brutal assessment of Britain: a wealthy
nation where a quarter of the population, and one in three children, live in
poverty, after a stark rise since 2010; where state welfare is now among the stingiest in the developed world and life expectancy is in
decline. Johnson’s election promises to “level up” the country and reinvest
were always unlikely—there is a reason why, of The Sunday Times Rich
List’s top 20, only one donated to Labour (and even that donor also gave to the
Tories). But after the pandemic, the chances are even lower. A new age of
austerity looms—though Johnson will no doubt deliver it with a smile.  Johnson
has every reason to be cheerful. As the Conservatives eye an unprecedented fifth
election win in a row for the Conservatives—a feat matched only by Benjamin
Netanyahu’s Likud Party, in coalitions—the early signs are promising. Johnson
recently appointed a Tory donor as the new chairman of the BBC, while two
much-publicized right-wing television channels are on the way. In December, the
government enacted plans to redraw all 650 parliamentary constituencies—a move
that is expected to give the Tories about an extra 10 seats at the next
election. The economic forecasts are uniformly gray, but the state’s
surprisingly effective vaccine rollout, which is dramatically outpacing the
European Union’s, has brightened the nation’s horizons; Johnson is expected to
reap the rewards. So even
as the death toll mounts, the Conservatives have a swagger in their stride—spurred,
perhaps, by a justified sense that the more hostile Britain is as a place to live, the more hospitable it is to Conservative wins. On January 13,
after a campaign by professional footballer Marcus Rashford shamed
Conservatives into improving the meager food parcels they were giving to
struggling families, the prime minister thanked Rashford for holding the
government to account. Someone had to, he joked, and Rashford was doing a more
“effective job” than Labour. While Johnson’s
born-to-rule bonhomie keeps the party faithful on his side, he remains a
divisive and duplicitous figure: Only his ambition can be believed. He has
played the libertarian and the authoritarian, the wartime leader and the
classroom clown, the man of the people and the aristocrat—and he has lied,
prolifically, throughout it all. Yet in both his ability to appear as different
things at once and his undeniable success, he is a perfect embodiment of Conservatism, modern or not.

2021-02-23 | Politics, Britain, Boris Johnson | English |