Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s historian. This article draws on an interview with Tony Garner which he recorded ten years ago and deposited in the Party’s Archive at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Last week saw the death of a great unsung hero, Tony Garner (Sir Anthony on formal occasions), at the age of 88 – touched on by Iain Dale in his diary a week ago today on this site. He served the Party for 40 years outside Parliament; he was rather more important to it than many of its MPs.
At the outset of his political career in the late 1940s he was a central figure in the extraordinarily rapid expansion of the newly formed Young Conservatives (YCs), who furnished the Party with a mass of eager constituency volunteers – and, famously, tended to marry each other.
Called into existence immediately after the war over 2,000 branches were established within three years, covering almost every constituency, with Young Unionists taking up the baton in Scotland.
Garner recognised that, in that more innocent and rather bleak era, the enthusiasm of the young for the Tory cause would be strengthened by the provision of simple fun and games. As the YC organiser in Yorkshire (1948-51) he masterminded the first YC holiday week at Butlins in Filey in 1949.
Over 1,600 enrolled – at £5 a throw – for seven days of ballroom dancing, knobbly knees competitions, and mock parliaments, with visiting MPs taking turns as Mr Speaker.
It set a trend for the 1950s and a tradition – of displaying chamber pots on the roofs of the chalets. Garner also organised more serious leadership courses which included chapel services with Ted Heath at the organ.
He went on to become the Young Conservatives’ national organiser (1956-61), earning the gratitude of Anthony Eden by laying on a demonstration by 3,000 YCs at the Royal Festival Hall on the day that troops landed in Suez in 1956. He recalled later that “community singing and a parade of banners” created an “electric atmosphere” for the arrival of Eden which was accompanied by “the organ playing Land of Hope and Glory and the waving of red, white and blue programmes”.
Outside the hall, Young Communists gathered and a strong police presence was needed to prevent the two sides coming to blows.
Garner embodied the proud professionalism which Party agents had acquired at the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of three-year training courses and written examinations. They established their own National Society to maintain high standards. By the 1950s, two-thirds of constituencies had full-time, professional agents.
After becoming agent in Labour Halifax in 1951, Garner formed branches in all 15 wards of the constituency backed by flying columns of YCs. The Conservative association itself included some 50 trade unionists. The candidate was Harold Macmillan’s son, Maurice, whom Garner found “very highly strung and temperamental”.
Nevertheless, he trounced Labour at the 1955 election. Garner’s effective organisation was the foundation of victory.
Garner had no reservations about Harold Macmillan, regarding him as a “wonderful man”. In the run-up to the 1959 election he was given the sensitive task of ensuring that regional tours undertaken by Macmillan in his capacity as Prime Minister and paid for the state just happened to end up in Tory marginal seats.
In Newcastle, then packed with marginals, Macmillan spoke to First World War veterans. Garner recalled:“the Chairman brought him a pint and he spoke for about 20 minutes. If at the end he had asked them to march with him on Moscow that night, they would have been with him to a man.”
Throughout Garner’s career Conservative Central Office divided constituencies into large territorial groups, and delivered services to their agents and elected officers through twelve Area Offices that went back to the 1880s. The 78 seats in the North West were put in Garner’s charge in 1966.
Born and bred in Liverpool (where at the 1970 election the Party retained two seats),he brought shrewd local knowledge to bear on his work. He was particularly skilled in guiding selection committees in their choice of new candidates:
“They’d be faced with a hundred-odd unknown names and when discussing the short list with them I’d suggest that they might like to add one or two others. There was a chance sometimes to introduce in a slightly subtle way other alternatives and sometimes that paid off.”
This long record of success in a variety of posts brought him to the top of the Party organisation under Margaret Thatcher. In 1976 he became Director of Organisation at Central Office, responsible for its largest department and for relations with Party agents throughout the country.
Mrs Thatcher approved of her most senior official. He possessed the qualities that were essential for winning her regard: immense calmness, complete professionalism and suave good looks. He hardly batted an eyelid when during election campaigns she flew into a rage, often over trivialities.
She gave him a large share of the credit for her first election victory in 1979. praising him in her memoirs for being “always cheerful, optimistic and dapper” as he carried out his wide-ranging duties directing the campaign organisation throughout the country.
Garner also worked well with her favourite Party Chairman, Cecil Parkinson, at the 1983 election. The organisation was given the facelift it needed with the recruitment of a pack of new young agents, and constituency activists – many of them Garner YCs now in their later years – were equipped with modern technology to produce snappy local newsletters for the first time, often to see off challenges from the Liberals as they developed their pervasive brand of pavement politics.
Garner knew how to keep abreast of change while preserving the traditions of the Party organisation; they were to be gradually lost in the years that followed his departure in 1988, after receiving a knighthood four years earlier.
Little now remains of the once impressive nationwide Party organisation that Tony Garner served so well. Few constituencies have qualified agents and without them membership, which reached over three million in Garner’s early career, continues its downward spiral . The Area Offices have been swept away. The enthusiasm of youth for the Party is but a distant, post-war memory.
This year’s election campaign is being directed, not by an experienced and respected Party professional like Garner, but by an amiable Australian with an eye-watering salary, who has probably never darkened the door of a constituency office.
In the era of Lynton Crosby, the Party at the centre does not lack significant funds. It spends them on its own activities (and on Mr Crosby) rather than drawing on them to undertake the most urgent task facing it: rebuilding an effective organisation in those parts of the nation – such as the northern cities – where the Party must regain the strength it once possessed.
The main reason why the Conservative Party today has difficulty in winning elections is the leadership’s indifference to the loss of its nationwide organisation.