The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron

Bale, Tim
Polity Press, Cambridge
2010
9780745648576 (hb)

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Cover of book The Conservative Party. From Thatcher to Cameron' is certain to become the main authority on the Conservative Party's time in opposition from 1997 to 2010. Bale presents an extremely thorough study of the Party during that time and a detailed account of the Party's involvement with the media, the nature of Party discipline and the recent shift in Conservative thought. The reader is led to an understanding from the inside how Conservatives think about their Party, themselves and their country. This is a major accomplishment per se and a rare one as well, and since Bale has a fine sense of humour and a good turn of phrase the book is a rewarding read in more than one way. Prior knowledge of party politics as well as also a good portion of interest in the Conservative Party are prerequisites, however.

As Bale points out in the Introduction, it is not only the fact that the people who are the Party elite today are to a large extent the same as they were in 1997 which makes this a must-read (and 'easy-to-read' even non-initiates already know all the dramatis personae in it), it is also the fact that the right wing of the Party has continued to be a dominant force. Hague's announcement in 1998 in front of the 1922 Committee that 'we will always be proud of Margaret Thatcher and we will always be champions of the free market' (p. 93) is a poignant example. The question Bale seeks to answer is this: Why and how did the Conservative Party prove unwilling or unable to change and to gain public support ever since the ousting of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and how and why did it 'suddenly decide[] to do things different from 2005 onwards' (p. 6)? Running through the succession of Party leaders, Bale shows that one of the main obstacles for the Party was that it did not actually realise the 'widespread unpopularity of the policies the Party had pursued since the 1980s' (p. 80). David Cameron's predecessors (William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard) were unreconstructed Thatcherites for whom more Thatcherism was the solution to problems. David Cameron, being a different type of leader, outperformed Hague, Duncan Smith and (especially) Howard by a huge margin even before his meteoric rise to No. 10. The Party image as well as its rating in the polls improved almost immediately after Cameron's ascension to Party leadership in 2005. Cameron pursued new ideas 'with a consistency and a coherence, with a will and a wider message discipline, that none of the[] [others] came even close to matching' (p. 381). Ironically, ideas just as personnel had in fact not changed very much since 1997; by 2001, Duncan Smith had realised that 'there needed to be a closing of the ideological as well as the image gap between the Tories and Labour' (p. 149). In the event, this unfortunately meant more 'knuckle-headed, bovine right-wingery' (p. 193) and focusing on the 'Tebbit trinity' 'Europe, taxes and immigration' (p. 101); the 'bread-and-butter issues' that win elections such as health-education and the economy (p. 373) were considered Labour territory. Michael Howard then continued this lop-sided attempt at 'decontaminating' the brand-name 'Tory' (p.157), also overlooking the fact that the party needed to change in substance rather than just putting on a compassionate veneer (p. 253).

The big turn-around for the Conservatives after 2005 became possible on the basis of David Cameron's new Conservative vision of 'un-broken Britain'. In light of the points mentioned above, however, the reader wonders (or at least I did) what to make of Cameron's progressive Conservatism and what to expect of the new government under his leadership.

In the last chapter, Bale offers an analysis of how the Party's disconnect with public opinion came about, and it is in this discussion where the Political Sociologist will probably feel most at home. The role of ideological conviction is particularly salient here and one that is not often understood by left-leaning Sociologists (pp. 367-377): In the late 1990s, being a true-blue Tory did not mean modernisation and it did not mean adjusting to public opinion; on the contrary, the Party leadership 'believed that politics was about giving people what they supposedly need rather than what they say they want' (p. 367). This is a motif that is easily recognised in other parties, as well as elsewhere; ideological outlook shapes perception and can thus work as an impediment to a realistic evaluation of a situation. Again, this is a fact of wider significance and application, both of which I think Bale's book has.

Antje Bednarek
University of Aberdeen