Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005 by Richard Ritchie

Anyone interested in the history of the Conservative Party over the last three-quarters of a century should get this book. For it offers a remarkable insight into the mentality of some of the most meritorious and dutiful, but never well-known and now almost entirely forgotten, members of the parliamentary party.

The Progress Trust was set up by a group of influential Tory MPs who, as Richard Ritchie puts it, “sensed in 1943 that all was not well for their side, and that the tide of public opinion was moving against them”. Labour was preparing energetically for the political battles which would resume once the war was won. The Conservatives under Winston Churchill were focussed on winning the war.

There is a kind of poetry in the list of MPs who met to set up the Progress Trust:

Sir Alexander Galloway Erskine-Hill, MP, Chairman

Lieut. Comm. Rupert Brabner, DSO, MP

Mr Henry Brooke, MP

Captain Edward Charles Cobb, DSO, MP

Col. Harold Paton Mitchell, MP

Mr Spencer Summers, MP

Sir Douglas Thomson, Bart., MP

Mr Henry Urmston Willink, MC, KC, MP

Ritchie remarks that for many of these individuals, “their military service was probably more important than their involvement in politics”. They disagreed sometimes about policy, but their patriotism united them, as did their instinctive sense of loyalty to party as well as nation.

The moving spirit was Alex Erskine-Hill, who was also Chairman of the 1922 Committee. For its first two decades, when it was at the height of its influence, the Progress Trust numbered about half the officers of the ’22 among its small and select membership, to which entry was by invitation only.

In the histories of this period, the Trust is seldom mentioned, and then most often with inaccuracies. For it had no public profile at all. Its discussions never leaked to the press. When it was worried about something – and MPs almost always are worried about something – its Chairman had direct access to the Chief Whip, to whom representations would be made.

At its start, it sought to foster closer links between industry and Parliament. The name Progress Trust is unmemorable, and may to some seem inappropriate, to describe a group with a patrician flavour, who were commonly, though neither fairly nor correctly, described by the tiresome, but hard to replace, term “right-wing”.

Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947) suggested in his Notebooks:

“Conservative ideal of freedom and progress: everyone to have an unfettered opportunity of remaining exactly where they are.”

But Madan was a witty observer, not a practical politician. Conservatives have always recognised that nothing can be preserved without changing it, and that when Tories oppose reform, they condemn themselves to irrelevance, and become an anachronism.

In 1945, the Labour Party won a landslide victory and began a sweeping programme of change. The enemy, socialism, was not just in view but in power, and the shattered remnants of the Conservative Party had to work out how to fight it.

This was a very difficult question to answer. Anyone who imagines that the Conservatives’ perplexities only began with Brexit should read this book. Ritchie chronicles the enormous difficulties which intelligent and serious-minded Tories had in coping not only with socialism but with the decline and fall of the British Empire including the Suez debacle; immigration; the alarming weaknesses of the British economy including low productivity, a profusion of strikes and an increasing problem with inflation; and, of course, Europe.

What, for example, were the Tories to say about the large-scale programme of nationalisation embarked on by the post-war Labour Government? Here is a note of a Progress Trust discussion in 1946:

“Although no member was able to accept any form of Nationalisation so far put forward, the general sense of the meeting was that it could not definitively oppose the principle as being entirely detrimental to the public interest as to do so would be to fall into the Socialist error of theorising.”

The Progress Trust was never doctrinaire. This meant it could be criticised for lack of principle and backbone, especially once Margaret Thatcher became leader. It was “uneasy from the start” about her, uneasy too about the Falklands War, though once that campaign had ended in victory, her position within the party became much stronger.

But as Ritchie says, the Progress Trust was “too broad a church for enthusiasts of any persuasion”, and harboured a fundamental suspicion “of any Conservative who might allow his principles to bring down, or make less likely, a Conservative Government”.

Political history tends to be dominated by the leaders who struggled with the issues of the day, and took the credit for solving them or the blame for failing to do so. We have had 14 Prime Ministers since the war, nine of them Conservative: Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Heath, Thatcher, Major, Cameron and May.

Two of these, Douglas-Home and Cameron, belonged to the Progress Trust. The first of these records, in his memoirs, The Way The Wind Blows, being asked by Central Office, before the 1964 general election, “to try to distil on a few sheets of paper something of my political philosophy”, and goes on:

“In any political office which I had held I had always tried to keep open as many policy options as possible, and that is why I like the definition of Conservatism as ‘doing the right thing at the right time’.”

Most members of the Progress Trust would have agreed with that. Ritchie, who produced a weekly “Research Note” for the Trust from 1982 until it was wound up in 2005, observes that its members had no desire to dazzle by producing original ideas, and would greet with unreceptive politeness anything with “a libertarian or anarchic streak” which he “mischievously proposed” to them.

A few Conservatives in each generation possess the urge, and the intellect, to try to identify and expound the principles on which Conservative policies should rest. Enoch Powell, for whom Ritchie also worked, was one such figure, and Keith Joseph another.

But for most Conservatives, politics is more a matter of a constantly evolving tradition of behaviour, and it is here that Ritchie’s unsensational, quietly amusing work is so enlightening. We are reminded that it is quite usual in politics to be baffled and indecisive, and that what leaders can do depends not merely on their own abilities, but on what their followers will bear.

And some questions, such as Britain’s relations with the continent of Europe, take a very long time to resolve, or perhaps can never be resolved, and are only susceptible to better and worse forms of handling. On 20th May 1970, members of the Progress Trust held a meeting at which, according to the minutes,

“The idea of a referendum on the Common Market was discussed. It was agreed that it would be very difficult to compose the questions, and that it was against the Constitution…the best compromise would be for Members to hold consultations with their constituents and then to have a Free Vote in Parliament.”