Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top 10 English Tory Leaders: 6-10

Who are the 10 greatest Tory leaders in English history? A few stipulations:

1. We're ranking them as party leaders, not as prime ministers. Some were much better at one than at the other. You could theoretically make the list even while spending your entire career as Leader of the Opposition, although the inability to win an election would leave you with some splainin' to do.

2. We are starting, essentially, with the French Revolution. We are looking at what Keith Feiling called the Second Tory Party, and we will draw a discreet veil over the miserable period between 1714 and the late 18th century, not trying to figure out where Bolingbroke fits in the great scheme of things. Modern conservatism is often said to have originated philosophically with Burke; its first great leaders are of the same period.

3. To build suspense, we list them from the bottom up, starting today with the first half of the list.

10. Lord Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby 1846-68

Who? Who? Such was the nickname of Lord Stanley's ministry, earned when the names of the newly formed Cabinet were read out to the deaf Duke of Wellington. He was the longest serving leader of the Conservative party, although his three ministries lasted only a total of four years. Rather than blame him for not winning more often, we credit him for holding the remnants of the party together in the wake of the split over the reform of the corn laws and passing it on to good hands; Derby, not Disraeli, was prime minister at the time of the 1867 Reform Act.. Famous for his oratory; could be the second best orator among party leaders. The Cup was named for his second son.

9. Harold Macmillan, 1957-63

Supermac pulled the party together after the Suez disaster, in support of which in Cabinet he had been "First in, first out", in Harold Wilson's famous phrase. Subsequent Tory generations were to blame him for his budgetary profligacy, but there was just not the support for any form of economic conservatism. Under him the British people indeed "never had it so good". Sometimes thought to have left because of the Profumo crisis, he in fact survived that, and resigned after being misdiagnosed with a terminal disease; he lived until 1986. He left the party in good shape, but loses much credit for that for foisting Alec Douglas-Home on the party as his successor because of his contempt for Rab Butler, who might have won the next election.

8. Stanley Baldwin 1923-37

The selection of Baldwin over Lord Curzon in 1923 marks the party's successful adaptation to the modern, post-World War I era. A One Nation conservative, he was the first Tory leader to shed enough of its aristocratic lineage to allow it to succeed. Assigned too much blame for the failure to arm in the 30s considering the complexion of public opinion in the period. Successfully wrestled the Government away from Labour in 1931, co-opting the sitting prime minister Ramsay MacDonald into a coalition government, eventually transmogrified into a Tory one. Keeping a party popular and in party in the Depression was no easy feat; ask R. B. Bennett, who eventually sat with Baldwin in the House of Lords late in life.

7. Sir Robert Peel 1834-46

This is a toughie; party hero or party destroyer? The corn laws had to be repealed because the Tories could not win in even the slightly democratized electorate while standing for protection on food. The truth of this is shown by the Tories' abandonment of serious support for food protection not long after repeal. On this issue, as on things like Catholic Emancipation, Peel had the sense of when to fight and when to accept the reality of defeat. It is revealing that the serious part of the party -- the part with brains -- stayed with Peel after the great party split; the stalwart landed gentry and country gentlemen may have been in some sense the backbone of the party, but they were not its future. Although the Peelites were lost to Toryism, we can be thankful that Peel himself refused to join any Whig/Radical government.

6. Winston Churchill 1940-55

Churchill 6th? Remember we are assessing him as party leader, not as prime minister. He became prime minister as leader of a coalition government; caring little about domestic politics, he let Labour ministers run loose, preparing for the post-war establishment of a welfare state. Although he made a point of securing the official party leadership so that he would never suffer the fate of other emergency coalition leaders Lloyd George and MacDonald, he never really considered himself a Conservative, and considered the conservative backbench and the "average conservative" distasteful. His wild "Gestapo" charges may have cost the party the 1945 election, in which the socialist welfare state was firmly established, never to be uprooted. He was a spent volcano in his last term, and his choice of successor was a near-disaster and could have cost the party power.
There are, of course, good things to be said for him, which is why he rates 6th.


The subject of the quote in the last post was Niccolo Machiavelli.