Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
On Sunday 6 December, David Cameron celebrated ten years as leader of the Conservative Party and thereby joined a fairly select historical club. His predecessors to have ridden the tiger for this length of time are few in number: Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, Lord Salisbury and Benjamin Disraeli; before Disraeli the definition of a party is a bit fuzzy but Lord Derby and Robert Peel would both be reputable claimants to this mantle in the mid-19th Century. Edward Heath and Arthur Balfour fell a few months before their ten years were up, in each case largely because they had lost two general elections in the preceding year. For this essay I thought I might look at the political context and personal standing of each of Cameron’s five predecessor Conservative leaders at the moment they celebrated their tenth year at the top.
Lord Beaconsfield, 1878
Benjamin Disraeli first became party leader and Prime Minister in February 1868, and after a spell of opposition won the 1874 election with the first Conservative overall majority since 1841. The first two years of government saw a torrent of reforming domestic legislation, but after 1876 the Prime Minister’s attention was focused on imperial and foreign affairs. Disraeli was translated to the House of Lords in August 1876, to become Lord Beaconsfield. The combination of jingoistic imperial policy, currying favour with Queen Victoria, cynical diplomacy abroad and social reform at home became known as ‘Beaconsfieldism’ (most of the long-service leaders acquired an ‘ism’ by their tenth year).
The politics of 1878 was dominated by the clash between Russia and Turkey, and the extent to which the British should get involved in the affairs of the Near East and South East Europe. Russia had invaded and occupied Ottoman territories in Europe and the Caucasus, advancing close to the capital at Constantinople by early 1878. British public opinion was divided. Gladstone had energised Liberal opinion against the Turks and there were pro-Russian elements in Disraeli’s government including his Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby. However, British policy had always been to avoid Russia taking control of the straits around Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean. In February the Disraeli government asked parliament to increase army and navy spending by £6 million (2015 equivalent: about £500m) to confront the Russian advance. The vote was divisive, with Cabinet resignations and a Liberal split in which Gladstone could not carry the majority of his party. The British and Russian governments managed to cool the tensions between them diplomatically, with mutual promises not to land troops around Gallipoli.
The Congress of Berlin in summer 1878 was the high point of ‘Beaconsfieldism’ in foreign affairs. He had made arrangements in advance with Turkey and Austria-Hungary to trade objectives in the peace settlement, with the result that Russian influence was forced back in the Balkans and Britain acquired a new imperial possession – Cyprus. Its strategic importance was so great that the Sovereign Bases are one of the few fragments that remain of the British Empire to this day. Berlin went down well with British opinion at the time but stored up problems for the future. It was Disraeli, not Chamberlain, who was first to proclaim ‘peace with honour’ on returning from Germany.
From the zenith of 1878, the fortunes of the Conservative government declined, with setbacks in Afghanistan and South Africa and economic recession at home. Unwilling to raise taxes, Disraeli’s government adopted deficit spending – to the horror of austere Mr Gladstone from the Liberal benches. Disraeli lost the premiership again to Gladstone in 1880.
Lord Salisbury, 1891
After Disraeli’s death in April 1881 there was no clear leadership succession, although Lord Salisbury gradually assumed the role and functions of party leader. We can place his ten-year anniversary somewhere around May 1891, but it went little-noted. He was suffering from a spell of bad health, the pain from neuralgia keeping him awake at nights and making him even more gloomy and lethargic than usual. Parliament was sparsely attended because of a recurrence of the influenza epidemic. Gladstone, vulnerable at the age of 81, spent a few days in isolation after succumbing to the illness.
Much of the politics of the 1890s revolved around the growing working class movement; both Tories and Liberals legislated in its shadow. In May 1891 the new Pope, Leo XIII, issued the encyclical Rerum novarum, a founding text of Catholic social teaching which supported limited working hours and the payment of a living wage. The British press also noted the increasing harshness of anti-Semitic oppression in Tsarist Russia and the flow of dispossessed Jewish refugees towards western Europe.
The short-term political position in May 1891 was uncertain. Some Unionists pondered calling an election, on the back of relatively benign foreign, Irish, colonial and economic conditions, and the government’s popular introduction of free elementary education. However, the Liberal opposition was doing well in by-elections, gaining Stowmarket and holding Buckingham. The latter was a particular achievement because the seat had only been gained in another by-election in 1889, and the 1891 vacancy arose from the imprisonment of the Liberal MP for ‘procuring for immoral purposes’ a young woman named Nellie Maud Baskett.
Salisbury’s government went down to defeat in the 1892 General Election, but did not endure opposition for very long. Salisbury was not even halfway through his terms as party leader and Prime Minister in May 1891.
Stanley Baldwin, 1933
Stanley Baldwin’s electoral scorecard at his tenth anniversary stood at four elections fought: two triumphs (1924 and 1931), one loss (1929) and one peculiar half-loss (1923). Despite having led the Tories to their biggest ever landslide, Baldwin in 1933 did not have the formal position of Prime Minister but was the power behind the increasingly decrepit figurehead of Ramsay MacDonald in the National Government. Also, despite the huge win less than two years previously and the weak opposition from a Labour Party led from the pacifist far left, the government was not in a happy position. It was suffering huge swings in by-elections in seats such as Rotherham and Hitchin and while the economic slump had bottomed out and unemployment had started falling, there were few signs of robust recovery. Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement seemed to be gathering strength in this impatient climate.
Baldwinism was not so much an ideology as a style and a mood; a calm, reflective way of doing politics, on the surface harking back to a pastoral, hierarchical golden age while Britain changed towards new industries and social patterns like those ‘invincible green suburbs’. But a placid, reactive mood was ill-fitted to the very harsh world that was developing outside. China had become a maelstrom of violence. Books were being publicly burned in the streets of the new Nazi Germany in May 1933, and Soviet Ukraine was suffering its terrifying famine.
Baldwin resumed his position as Prime Minister two years later, and led his party to one more great election victory before standing down in 1937.
Winston Churchill, 1950
Winston Churchill, alone of the decennials, marked his tenth anniversary (9 October) as Conservative leader from the Opposition front bench. Dominating his attention at the time was the Korean War, which was reaching one of its most dangerous points. By October the initial North Korean invasion had been thrown back, and the UN forces (including the British) had invaded the North and reached the Chinese border; the Americans mistakenly believed that China would not intervene, but Mao’s forces were building up for an offensive in November 1950 and many feared that the situation would deteriorate into nuclear war.
In domestic politics, opinion seemed not to have moved much since Labour won a narrow majority in the February general election. The Conservatives successfully defended their marginal seat of Glasgow Scotstoun in an October by-election, but Labour remained a couple of points ahead in the polls and was able to implement its policies such as iron and steel nationalisation. But the tight situation in Parliament was already grinding the government’s morale down. Stafford Cripps resigned, replaced as Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell and as MP for Bristol South East by Tony Benn.
Churchill had a year left before returning to power in October 1951, although his principal achievements were behind him.
Margaret Thatcher, 1985
Margaret Thatcher’s tenth anniversary as Conservative leader, 11 February 1985, was not a very happy one for her, with continuing controversy over the sinking of the Belgrano following that day’s acquittal of Clive Ponting on official secrets charges. The government was not popular; the Conservatives were a couple of points ahead in the polls in February but dropped behind Labour in March and suffered some poor county council election results in May; it was the start of the mid-term trough of the 1983-87 government. Conflict ground on in Northern Ireland, with a devastating IRA attack on a police station in Newry killing nine officers on 28 February; memories were fresh of the bombing of the party conference in Brighton the previous autumn.
Unemployment was at historic highs, but the pound was at historic lows on the international markets, touching $1.05 in early March, but the stock market was soaring and there was a vigorous market in newly privatised (November 1984) BT shares, the first big creation of mass share ownership through privatisation under ‘popular capitalism’. Buses outside London were deregulated later in 1985. Spring 1985 was also the painful, bitter end of the year-long miners’ strike – the lights had stayed on all winter and hardship led inexorably to the return to work in March. Teachers were also striking against Keith Joseph’s policies, an industrial conflict that was not so conclusively ended as the miners’ strike.
Thatcher had nearly six more years left as party leader and Prime Minister, and another large election win, in February 1985. Her agenda was nowhere near complete.
Most of the decennial club can claim lasting achievements by this stage of their leaderships, and an epic quality about their careers, even if not so varied and improbable as those of Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, the two pirate adventurers turned captains of the Tory ship. Disraeli reinvented the Conservatives as a party of government and saw how the party might prosper even in a mass working class electorate with social reform and popular imperialism Baldwin had reconciled the country to tariff reform, established Conservative electoral dominance, and defeated the General Strike. Churchill had won a war and led the party to a rapid recovery from its drubbing in 1945. Thatcher had already drastically reduced the power of the unions and was about to defeat the miners; she had won the Falklands War, hit upon popular capitalism through privatisation and renewed the Conservatives as a party of the aspirational working class.
Three of the decennials unquestionably have greatness about them – Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher – while the other two led in a less demonstrative, quieter fashion while still stamping their personal imprint on a long era. Salisbury lacks an ‘-ism’ – for a Tory of his stripe, the very concept is undesirable – but he reflects the pessimistic twilight of the Victorian era well. He, unlike the others, had little life outside politics even though there was no burning political vision that drove him into public life. Might Cameron at 10 be, rather than the heir to Blair, the heir to Salisbury?