Dr. Brian Milne, looks at the British Conservative Party and asks if today’s leadership has forsaken its history in favour of a more populist stance, when compared to its history of ‘democratic conservatism’.
One of the home truths that came with the Brexit campaign and since the referendum is how divided the Conservative Party is. It is by its nature a right leaning party. but one that held democratic principles close to its collective chest, albeit its own interpretation. In real terms, at least certainly since the end of WW2, the difference between political parties has always been no more than an ideological hair’s breadth. There have been disputes and rivalry over policy and the apparent ideology of parties but nothing one might call extreme. Yet at present the Tory right wing is moving further right to the point of becoming reactionary.
A long history of reform
It was the Tories who sowed the seeds of human rights and labour reforms, things they appear to be reversing at present. The party has a democratic tradition that essentially began with William Pitt ‘the Younger’ who became prime minister in 1783. He attempted to kill off the so-called rotten boroughs, was opposed to the slave trade and introduced income tax. He resigned in 1801 because of King George III opposing Catholic emancipation. He was re-elected in 1804 but died in office in 1806.
Then there was Charles Grey, Earl Grey, in office from 1830 to 1834, who had employment of children restricted, reformed the Poor Laws and abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Sir Robert Peel’s second term, 1841 to 1846, saw the introduction of the Mines Act 1842, reintroduction of income tax that was abolished under Henry Addington in 1802, the Factories Act 1844, led the repeal of the Corn Laws during the Great Irish Potato Famine and other tariffs that affected those in great need. Benjamin Disraeli, Earl Beaconsfield, in his second term 1874 to 1880, introduced social reforms including the Climbing Boys Act 1875 ending use of boys and youth under age 21 as chimneysweeps, the Public Health Act 1875 to combat filthy urban living conditions, which caused public health threats including diseases like cholera and typhus, and the Artisans’ Dwellings Act 1875.
Whenever political history is recalled, one or more of these names is mentioned and particularly so by right leaning Tories who are proud of conservative tradition. Thus, whilst having a royalist and largely aristocratic history, the tendency was never to allow capitalism to dominate the lives of the UK population, especially not those with electoral franchise. Each was, however, loyal to the Crown, despite some conflicts, and great believers in the mighty British Empire.
Now we take a considerable leap forward to 1945 and Winston Churchill who left office that year until regaining it in 1951. He is remembered as the great war leader from 1940 to 1945 who raised morale, mustered patriotism where resignation may have seen surrender to the Third Reich and maintained a highly patriotic Tory stance. His political origins were Liberal leaning although he was a ‘Democratic Conservative’. His wartime leadership made a great icon of Toryism. Yet he was as much a great internationalist as an inward looking British patriot. As early as 1941, just two years into the war, he said: “It will not be by German hands that the structure of Europe will be rebuilt or union of the European family achieved.” in a speech to allied delegates at St. James’s Palace.
It was in substance not prejudicial against the German people, since he also said that National Socialists had: “…reduced the Germans themselves to abject docility”. When Germany fell in 1945, Churchill entirely disapproved of the actions of the Soviet army turning a blind eye to what their soldiers were doing that included rape, pillage and indiscriminate murder of civilians. His vision was to repair Europe and prevent wars between nations on the continent ever happening again.
United States of Europe
Thus in 1946 he delivered a now famous speech at the University of Zurich that September in which he called on European countries, including Germany, to form a regional organisation for security and cooperation. He called it a future ‘United States of Europe’. He said: “What is this plight to which Europe has been reduced? Some of the smaller states have indeed made a good recovery, but over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror. Among the victors there is a Babel of voices, among the vanquished the sullen silence of despair. That is all that Europeans, grouped in so many ancient states and nations, and that is all that the Germanic races have got by tearing each other to pieces and spreading havoc far and wide.” A few sentences on he suggested: “What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong and to gain as their reward blessing instead of cursing.” He did not explicitly exclude the UK. He was, by then, acutely aware of the impending decline of the Empire.
He reiterated that speech in The Hague on 7 May 1948 from which one might appropriately cite “The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law. It is impossible to separate economics and defence from the general political structure. Mutual aid in the economic field and joint military defence must inevitably be accompanied step by step with a parallel policy of closer political unity” as carefully chosen words describing his vision. Two days later at the European rally in Amsterdam on 9 May he said, “…we hope that there will soon be formed a Council of Europe which will comprise the governments and peoples of as many European states as hold our convictions and accept the broad freedoms of democratic life established on the freely-expressed will of the people in many places, though we make great allowances for difficulties in great populations acting through Parliamentary institutions. This is the Europe which we wish to see arise in so great a strength as to be safe from internal disruption or foreign inroads. We hope to reach again a Europe united but purged of the slavery of ancient, classical times, a Europe in which men will be proud to say, “I am a European”.”
Churchill was a doggedly right wing Tory; yet a European visionary. Today some people hold Churchill in high esteem, referring to his patriotism as a banner under which to march toward Brexit.
That is the exact opposite of his vision. It was in part cooperation with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt that gave birth to the United Nations.
During Churchill’s visit to the White House in December 1941, Roosevelt suggested the name as an alternative to ‘Associated Powers’, the term the USA had used in the WW1 when never actually part of the alliance. This was followed by a ‘Declaration by United Nations’ of 1 January 1942 when 26 nations pledged to continue fighting together against the Axis powers. In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organisation to draw up the UN Charter. Delegates deliberated on the basis of proposals by representatives of China, the Soviet Union, UK and USA at Dumbarton Oaks, between August and October 1944. Churchill was one of the most pro-active participants. In chain he was prime initiator of setting up the Council of Europe as an international organisation focused on promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe in 1949. He was very much behind the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as a treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe, drafted in 1950 by the newly formed Council of Europe, entering into force in 1953. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was established on 21 January 1959 on the basis of Article 19 of the ECHR when members were elected by the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. When Churchill died in January 1965 he had seen many of his internationalist ideas fulfilled.
In 1958 one of his visions for Europe came into being, the European Economic Community (EEC) aimed to bring about economic integration among member states. It was created by the Treaty of Rome of 1957. French president Charles de Gaulle considered British membership a Trojan horse for USA influence, thus vetoed membership.
When Georges Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle in 1969 the veto was lifted. Negotiations began in 1970 under the pro-European government of Edward Heath, despite disagreements about the Common Agricultural Policy and the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth. Two years later accession treaties were signed so that Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined as of 1 January 1973. In 1975 the UK held a referendum on staying in the EEC with 67.2% approving. Upon formation of the European Union (EU) in 1993, the EEC was incorporated and renamed the European Community (EC). In 2009 EC institutions were absorbed into the EU’s wider framework and the community ceased to exist.
We may now briefly move on to another icon of ‘Britishness’, Margaret Thatcher. She was one of the ‘architects’ of the Single European Act 1986, which brought the single market significantly forward, also embedding qualified majority voting in EU lawmaking although in Bruges in 1988 she outlined her opposition to proposals for a federal structure and increased centralisation of decision making.
Once Heath took the UK into the EEC, through the 1975 referendum to the time that Thatcher opposed those proposals, it is very unlikely that any prime minister was unaware of the first three principles of the Treaty of Rome:
‘DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe,
RESOLVED to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe,
AFFIRMING as the essential objective of their efforts the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples,’
Thus, she set a trend for successors to follow or overturn, to inject into constant negotiations in the EU Commission and Parliament that use vigorous argument or veto where necessary, a solution could have been found. It is highly unlikely that with (at present) 28 member states with own constitutional and legal structures this could be easily achieved, if indeed ever. If anything, the Churchillian vision of a United States of Europe is less likely now than, perhaps, in the 1950s. It is something that can only be negotiated from within. In the political classes the concept of ‘ever-closer union’ has been a stumbling block, which because it is difficult to explain was supplanted with a notion of the UK regaining ‘sovereignty’, something not lost and was unlikely ever to lose. By drawing attention to immigrants at a time when they are in the public eye because of high numbers of refugees in Western Europe, an old political gripe was revived, close to one Adolf Hitler used to shake his fist at treaties protecting neighbouring states, particularly where the Prussian state once extended. His immigrants included Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the disabled. As with the present obsession with Islam, his regime persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and other less mainstream sects but also less than at peace with Catholicism.
It may seem disingenuous to use these comparisons with the present UK government as they attempt to take the entire UK out of the EU. When Cameron resigned and we saw Theresa May become his successor without noticeable opposition; many of us forgot her track record as Home Secretary. It was, in modern political terms, abysmal. She had proposed taking the UK out of human rights treaties, one of her main missions at the Home Office. Some legislation she led has moved in the exact opposite to what the Tory heroes at the beginning of this essay sowed the seeds of. She now heads a government in which she has adopted an autocratic stance, refusing to negotiate with parts of the UK whose future she considers to be in her hands, she chooses not to mention the 48% of referendum turnout who chose to stay in the EU, appears to refuse to acknowledge the dishonesty of campaigning that puts the provenance of the referendum in serious doubt, appointed people whose track records and approval abroad are at best questionable and will in no way compromise.
Above all else, she is not allowing parliament to debate and vote on key issues or indeed give information or notice of events to them. The question arises, what is it with May and her government that they cannot see what their predecessors gave us and now they and an increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic following wish to take away? She has all but erased her party’s history, no longer respects its heroes and is not leading but dictating. Ironically, part of it is in order that the UK gets back democracy that, some effectively claim, the EU has ‘stolen’. The great reformers and visionaries of Toryism have been sold out, discarded and dishonoured in the name of restoring the ‘great’ to Great Britain which people forget is the name of an island but not based on any historic events.