Lecturer’s book charts fall and rise of ‘new Tories’
University of Sussex politics lecturer Dr Tim Bale’s eagerly anticipated new book – an assessment of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party and its wilderness years – will be formally launched with a public lecture in London.
Tim Bale, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and a member of the University’s Sussex European Institute (SEI), specialises in party politics in the UK and in Europe.
His critically acclaimed book, The Conservative Party, from Thatcher to Cameron, is based on interviews with some of the key players in Tory politics during the past two decades. The book offers political analysis alongside portraits of some of Westminster’s larger-than-life personalities, as well as often brutally honest – and sometimes deliciously funny – quotes from interviews with Tory politicians and advisors.
To launch the book, Dr Bale will give a lecture – ‘Doldrums to Downing Street? The Conservative Party's long journey from opposition to the brink of office’ – and answer questions at a special event at the London School of Economics on Wednesday 3 February.
As the parties draw battle lines for this year’s General Election, Tim Bale takes time out here to talk about his book and the prospects for David Cameron and his party.
What’s your book about?
I've tried to provide the first definitive account of the years between the departure of Mrs Thatcher and the coming to power of David Cameron at the same time as producing a book that someone from any party, in Britain and beyond, can learn something from, even if it's what not to do!
I tell the story of how a party, famous for so long for holding together and bouncing back, fell apart and seemed simply unable to sort itself out. The book then examines why it took the Tories so long to do what was necessary to put them once again within touching distance of electoral victory – and why David Cameron was able to bring about that change.
Who is your book aimed at?
At anyone who takes an interest in politics. They don’t have to have studied it at school or university. It’s for people who take politics seriously but can see its funny side as well.
How did you gather research for the book?
I interviewed around 50 MPs and party staffers, and read virtually everything that anyone had ever written about the party since 1990 in books, academic journals and newspapers and political magazines.
What prompted your choice of subject?
On balance, the Conservative Party has always been of less interest to political scientists than its Labour opponent. I wanted to help redress that balance but to do it in a way that would interest both academics and more general readers. And I've tried to do it in such a way that readers will not only want to turn the pages but even, on occasion, laugh out loud. I had a lot of fun researching and writing the book: I want people to have at least as much fun reading it.
One can hardly blame Britain's Conservatives for wanting to put the period they spent in opposition after 1997 behind them, but it would be a mistake to forget all about the wilderness years, if only to avoid making the same mistakes in office that tipped them into opposition.
What sort of mistakes?
Part of the Tories' problem under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major was that they began to believe their own propaganda, ascribing their election successes to some sort of ideological victory in the battle of ideas. But by the 1990s the British public were looking for a Government that would invest more in health and education.
By 1997, after the internal disunity and sleaze of the John Major years, the Tories reacted to the New Labour landslide by choosing a succession of leaders (Hague, Duncan Smith, who, for various reasons, simply weren't up to the job. The resulting leadership challenges led to division and derision and prevented a proper post-mortem from taking place. Meanwhile, Blair and Brown continued to deliver what for a long time anyway was a vote-winning combination of social justice and economic dynamism.
Who were the really enjoyable interviewees, and why?
The best interviewees were those who were prepared to be reflective – not just about themselves but also about their colleagues. I wouldn’t want to pick out a particular person because I think I got something valuable out of each and every interview I did. What I would say is that politicians are generally much more ‘human’ – by which I mean warm and engaging – than many people suppose.
What did David Cameron bring to the Conservative Party?
Cameron's success, of course, has a lot to do with the eventual implosion of New Labour under a man who probably should never have been Prime Minister. But we should not allow this to obscure the achievements of the man who looks ever more likely to replace him in Number Ten. Cameron has not necessarily re-engineered his party, but he has re-styled it. In so doing he has displayed a pragmatism, a message-discipline and an ability to communicate with the public that puts him head and shoulders above his immediate predecessors - and of course above Gordon Brown, who he comprehensively outplayed over the recent expenses scandals at Westminster.
Without trashing the Party's supposedly glorious past, Cameron has effectively distanced himself from it. And, while avoiding out-and-out clashes with the Thatcherite hotheads in his party, and by refusing simply to do the bidding of some of their cheerleaders in the media, he has managed to convey the impression that he leads an organisation which is at last fit for purpose for the 21st century.
Cameron is in some ways an old-school Tory: economically orthodox and pretty Eurosceptic. But he’s also a pragmatist who realises that there are limits in how far a mainstream outfit such as the Conservatives can go in making this country more like the United States of America. He goes with the grain of public opinion. He hasn't so much ditched Thatcherism as consigned it to its proper time and place.
The Conservative Party takes its cue from its leader – a trait which has worked well for Cameron. He hit the ground running and made eye-catching but fairly cost-free changes, such as emphasising his green credentials, dumping unpopular policies and signalling his intention to widen candidate selection, early on. For the most part he has avoided pointless confrontation with his critics just for the sake of looking tough, and he remains pretty firmly in control of the Conservative Party.
What challenges lie ahead for the Conservatives in their election battle?
Cameron's fortunes will also depend on how Labour handles the collapse of its own governing project and its near-certain passage into opposition. Labour might be making things fairly easy for the Tories right now, but Cameron still has to persuade the voters that they can mix competence with caring: people know there need to be spending reductions but they want to be able to feel that any new government is going to protect and, when it becomes possible, promote the core public services they rely on. Key groups of voters, particularly the better educated and better off, also want to feel they're not voting for an illiberal party that's uncomfortable with 21st-century Britain.
Can Labour learn anything from the Tory experience?
While Labour MPs and activists would argue, quite rightly, that their party differs in many important ways from the Conservatives, they - and their counterparts in many other parties all over Europe - might learn some valuable lessons from the Tory experience. The list is a long one; but above all – and this couldn't be said of the Conservatives until Cameron came along – they need truly to appreciate the difference between tactics and strategy.
Is Europe – one of the Conservatives’ stumbling blocks – still a key issue?
Yes – but not because the party is divided on it anymore. The Tories are now thorough-going Eurosceptical from top to bottom. The crunch is going to come not in opposition but in office: how are they going to square their Euroscepticism – and the desire for greater distance that so many of their activists think is so important – with the responsibility any British government has to ensure the country as a whole maintains good and prosperous relations with its EU partners.
So, is David Cameron Prime Minister material?
Whether, of course, Cameron makes an effective Prime Minister remains to be seen. After all he has to win the election with a clear working majority, which even now can't be guaranteed. And even if that does happen, the Tories' assumption (still dominant despite their apparent move to the centre) that reigning in public spending is the key to economic wellbeing may get them into trouble. So too might their handling of the UK's relationship with the European Union.
Cameron may not be everyone's cup of tea - and he's certainly too much of a toff for some, but he is a brilliant communicator (he’s a former PR man) and a very decisive (and, where necessary, even pretty ruthless) CEO..
Cameron has been dubbed (and maybe even once called himself) 'the heir to Blair' but this is misleading. Unlike Blair, he also does ‘boring', but not so much so that he is likely to suffer, like Brown, from 'paralysis by analysis.' He might well make a very good Prime Minister, especially in these very difficult times.
Believe it or not, another book on the Conservatives, but this time taking the story back to 1945 and looking at how well political science explanations of how and why parties change help us understand the Tories since 1945.
Notes for Editors
Notes for Editors
Tim Bale is a Senior Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.
Dr Bale will be launching his book at a public lecture at the LSE on Wednesday 3 February 2010.
See LSE for further details.
Podcast of Tim Bale's book launch lecture here
For recent appraisals of Dr Bale’s book, see:
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