Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy by Daniel Ziblatt.

Conservatives who are alarmed, in the age of Donald Trump, by the vulnerability of democracy to demagogic outsiders who trample over existing parties, should get hold of this book.

For it contains a wealth of evidence about the essential role which Conservative parties play not just in the birth of democracy, but in determining whether it is kept alive or destroyed. Democracy is always vulnerable to disruption of one kind or another:

“Assume that a Riot takes place in one of the polling districts of a County Constituency in the evening of the polling day, and that the ballot box and contents are burnt, what effect would this event have on the election return?”

This question (to which I do not know the answer) was put in an exam which Conservative Party Agents were required to take in May 1894, in order to gain the status of “Associate”. Daniel Ziblatt quotes eleven such questions in Appendix A of his book, in order to demonstrate “the degree of professionalisation within the organisational apparatus of the British Conservative Party in the late 19th century”.

That might sound rather a dry subject, of interest to many readers of ConHome, but not perhaps to the wider public. Yet Ziblatt draws from his work on the development of Conservative parties over the past two centuries, chiefly in Britain and Germany but touching on many other countries too, a proposition which matters to everyone who cares about the maintenance of democratic government, and the prevention of authoritarianism.

He contends that democracy only endures when those who stand to lose from it – the elite which ruled the country before the introduction of universal suffrage – have already organised themselves into a political party which can win elections.

In a country such as Britain, where the landowning classes possessed enormous political power, it was found necessary, from the first widening of the franchise in 1832, to start creating the Conservative Party, which is what Sir Robert Peel began to do.

Ziblatt, who is Professor of Government at Harvard, experienced a kind of epiphany while working in the archives at Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire:

“I wandered down a long hallway with marble floors and high ceilings, the walls lined with oversized oil portraits depicting four centuries of ancestors. These were the Cecils, who had helped rule England since at least the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. There, standing amid the trappings of immense social power, I asked myself: How  did the historical owners of this home and others like them, who had so much to lose and so much power at their disposal, ever come to terms with political democracy without fatally preventing its birth in the first place?”

Hatfield is a highly suitable place to ask that question, for Ziblatt soon finds himself quoting Lord Robert Cecil (1830-1903), writing as a pessimistic young Tory in 1860:

“The mists of mere political theory are clearing away… The struggle between the English constitution on the one hand and the democratic forces that are labouring to subvert it on the other, is in reality, when reduced to its simplest elements and stated in its most prosaic form, a struggle between those who have, to keep what they have got, and those to have not, to get it.”

Ziblatt wonders whether Lord Robert, who on the death of his father in 1868 became Lord Salisbury, was really as worried as he says he was. In search of an indicator of panic (or its absence) the author examines fluctuations in the bond market: an ingenious and industrious piece of research, but in my view a superfluous one, for one has only to read what Salisbury and others were writing to see they were deeply perturbed by the spread of democracy, and thought it could easily mean the rich paid all the taxes while the poor made all the laws.

They responded by playing “the numbers game” better than their opponents. Ziblatt is very good on this. Between 1885 and 1902, Salisbury served for a total of almost 14 years as prime minister, longer than anyone has managed since (Margaret Thatcher came closest with almost 12 years).

The 1884 Reform Act had increased the size of the still exclusively male electorate by 1,762,087, far more than the more famous reforms of 1832, when it rose by 217,386, and 1867, when the increase was 938,087. Yet thanks in large part to Lord Salisbury, 1884 worked out very much to the Conservatives’ advantage.

For they organised themselves much better than Gladstone’s Liberals. Salisbury took a keen and perceptive interest in the details of how this was done. It is easy, when looking at the statesmen of the past, to slip into the lazy error of imagining they were uninterested in detail. They were not: they took as close an interest in how things could actually be made to work as any modern policy wonk.

In 1887, so only three years after the 1884 Act, Salisbury was able to say to a meeting of the Primrose League:

“[Gladstone] had forgotten that we were an unorganised body but are an organised body now [cheers]…[We] have an organisation with which no party in any country would be able to offer any comparison.”

This was true: the Primrose League – founded in 1883 by Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, when the statue commemorating Disraeli was unveiled in Parliament Square – soon had a membership that ran into the millions, who acted with enormous enthusiasm as the “boots on the ground” which the Conservatives so signally lacked at the general election of 2017.

Ziblatt takes us through the innovations which had already occurred: the creation of the position of “party agent” in the 1830s; the proliferation of local associations from the 1830s to the 1870s; the creation in the late 1860s of an umbrella organisation, the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations; and the increasing use of full-time professionals to run the party organisation.

He does not, however, capture the high spirits which infused the Primrose League: the mixture of seriousness and frivolity which characterised this astonishing organisation: an aspect much better conveyed by Alistair Cooke, now Lord Lexden, in A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League 1883-2004.

The indefatigable Ziblatt proceeds to cover the German example, where the old elites failed to establish a Conservative Party to represent their interests: a fatal weakness during the Weimar Republic.

For German conservatives were terrified of universal franchise, and inveighed against it in a paranoid and hysterical manner. As one of them put it in 1912: “Rule by the undifferentiated masses…is an attack against the basic laws of nature!”

During the First World War, General von Ludendorff went further: “With the equal franchise we cannot live…I would rather an end with terror than a terror without end…it would be worse than a lost war.”

The train of thought running through these researches is thoroughly refreshing, and comes better from an American scholar than it would from a British Conservative. For he shows that the modest Conservative impulse, to form a party which can limit the damage done by radical opponents, is even more valuable than might have been thought.

And he also shows that maintaining the Conservative Party in a competitive state is a means of preserving democracy itself.

David Frum has written in praise of this volume, and has observed its application to the present state of American politics.

The one reservation which has to be entered is that Ziblatt, while endlessly scrupulous from an academic point of view, is not the man to make a sentence sing. He is capable of writing: “However, very quickly, as economic crisis wracked the globe, democracies quickly unravelled.” His stylistic limitations prevent him being another Alexis de Tocqueville.

But his history of the last two centuries is remarkably up to date. Here is another question which Conservative Agents were expected to answer in 1894:

“What would you consider the most successful method of organising Ward Committees in a Borough constituency and how would you keep up the interest and enthusiasm of the workers from one election to another?”