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A strange rebirth of Tory England?

Over the centuries, one party has adapted to survive like no other. But on the cusp, potentially, of its greatest modern triumph, is that all-important flexibility still there?

Election 2017

One of the curiosities of our political history is that both of the largest parties might well bear different names from their present ones. From time to time there has been talk of renaming Labour, most recently when Tony Blair’s cabal wondered if it could be improved on, although as someone noted at the time, “Centrica” had already been taken. That cabal was perhaps unaware that in the early 1920s, a previous leader had thought of re-branding Labour as the People’s Party: if they had heard of Arthur Henderson’s idea, it might have fitted in with their babble about “a people’s Wimbledon” and “the people’s princess.”

Although Winston Churchill was brought up as a Conservative, he was never much blessed with the quality Polish Communists used to call “partyness,” or any very lively sense of loyalty, as he demonstrated by deserting to the Liberals in 1904 shortly before that party won a landslide, and then awkwardly returning to the Tory fold 20 years later. He became prime minister in the supreme crisis of 1940, and five months later—when Neville Chamberlain was mortally ill—he became Tory leader as well, something he could never possibly have achieved except in that unique combination of circumstances. In 1951, Churchill returned to Downing Street for a rather eerie second innings, and it was at this time that he toyed with the idea of renaming the Conservatives the Union Party, whatever that may have meant.

Conservatives or Union Party or what you will, one name has persisted, and its story has no parallel in European political history. A party called Tory was born in the reign of King Charles II; three and a half centuries later in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II we are still governed by a party we call the Tories. Derived from a term for Irish marauders, Tory was originally an insult hurled by opponents, and for the left it remains a snappy term of abuse. But it has the convenience of brevity, and not a few have actually liked the word, certainly more than the official name, which was first used by Robert Peel. Chamberlain detested “Conservative,” which he thought a millstone round the party’s neck, and his biographer Iain Macleod always preferred Tory: his 1964 philippic denouncing the way Alec Douglas-Home had just been jobbed into the prime ministership is titled “The Tory Leadership,” and it uses the name “Conservative” only once but “Tory” 14 times.

It would take a great deal of ingenuity to discern any clear connection or succession between the first Tory Party, described in Keith Feiling’s book A History of the Tory Party 1640-1714, the old Cavaliers of the Restoration Parliament and the Anti-Exclusionists of 1679, and the present-day party we call the Tories, even if the one-time party of Church and King is now led by a vicar’s daughter who enjoys discussing church affairs with the Queen.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s June issue: Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Martha Gill and Helen Pidd examine the election chances of the three main political parties. Wheatcroft explores the Tories’ remarkable ability to rise from the ashes and assert dominance, Gill questions why the Lib Dem revival isn’t quite getting off the ground and Pidd examines Labour’s prospects after poor performances in the recent council and mayoral elections. Also in this issue: Christine Ockrent asks if France’s new President Emmanuel Macron can charm the parts of France that didn’t initially vote for him, AC Grayling assesses whether the rise and rise of drone warfare warrants a new ethical code for conflict and Francine Stock explores whether Pixar can continue to captivate modern audiences.