Friday, 6 October 2017

Conservative disloyalty

Challenged on cix to define the term "the Establishment" which I had off-handedly tossed into an argument, I consulted Anthony Sampson's analyses of modern Britain which I felt sure contained a snappy definition. (For the record, even Sampson reckoned it was more of a perception than a defined entity; it seems that the closest one can get is "the closed circle of interlocking families and interests which are perceived to run the country" [my gloss].) At the time of writing his first analysis, The Anatomy of Britain, it was natural to link the Establishment with the Conservative party. In the pages on the latter I was struck by this observation:

Who really runs the Conservative party? The question is carefully shrouded in mystery: 'Loyalty,' said Lord  Kilmuir, 'is the Tory's secret weapon'

That rang true in 1962, before Heath, Thatcher and finally Hague democratised the selection of leader, and they and John Major broke the stranglehold which old Etonians had on the party. The annual conference is even more tightly controlled now (thanks largely to Lord Bell) than it was then - I remember actual debate in the 1960s and 1970s - and the press (TV was rather more restrained then) would run conspiracy stories, but today's open gang warfare would not have been permitted.

Another worry for the Conservatives must be their dependence on outside finance. In the late 1990s through the early years of this century, the Conservatives must have lost half the money from industry and the City, which they traditionally counted on, to the finance-friendly New Labour of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. However, they still had their base of around 400,000 members (estimate in "The Conservatives in Crisis", Manchester University Press). So, the party remained viable and was able to mount slick (and arguably dishonest) campaigns in 2010 and 2015, especially as commercial interests deserted Labour in the light of the mishandling of the economy. However, the returning money was predicated on the Cameron manifesto of continued membership of a reformed EU. Only those interests which will clearly benefit from Brexit will keep contributing to Tory coffers. Meanwhile, membership has plunged.

The last time that the Conservatives reported their membership was in 2013, when the total was said to be 149,800. Since then, the party has remained silent on the subject, but there are reports that the total had fallen to 100,000 this year and was on a downward trend. This week's conference will not have helped recruitment.

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