The Conservative party has played such a major part in public affairs during my lifetime that I need more than one post to have my say about them.
When I was little, there was a National Government, and its prime minister was Ramsay MacDonald. I didn’t understand, then, that this ‘national’ government was really an overwhelmingly Conservative one – or, indeed, that there was such a thing as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Insofar as I became aware of political things, I just took ‘the government’ for granted.
I suppose the first incident that aroused my still childish interest was the abdication of King Edward VIII which, indeed, riveted the entire country. Royalty was still widely revered in those days, and the notion that our King should want to marry a common American woman, and a divorced one at that, shocked
The next big political event to invade my budding consciousness of the wider world beyond our family life was the
Nowadays, ‘appeasement’ has a bad name and Baldwin and Chamberlain are both execrated for their foolish complacency. But there was much support for their policies at the time; the senseless bloodbath of the 1914-18 trench warfare was only a few years behind, with its tragic loss of almost a whole generation of youth, and most British people were appalled at the thought of another war. Fortunately, though, Winston Churchill was sounding the alarm throughout the 1930s. But he and his small band of supporters were in a minority although I am glad to say my family believed - however reluctantly - that he was right.
Apart from renegade kings and upstart dictators, the National Government of the pre-war decade was a far better one in many respects than it has since been given credit for. When it came into office, the country was almost bankrupt and in the grip of a severe economic depression. This was partly the result of post-war exhaustion, and more immediately a consequence of the great
My own political consciousness only blossomed [if that is the right word!] during the war, when I was a schoolboy with a fascination for history and a keen awareness of the increasingly bitter global struggle. Winston Churchill’s government was a coalition of the three main political parties, and more genuinely ‘national’ than its predecessor had been, though the majority of MPs were still Conservative. During his long political career Churchill himself had been by turns a Conservative, a Liberal, and then a Conservative again. Because of his presumed ‘disloyalty’ during the 1930s, he was disliked and mistrusted by many Conservatives, both in and outside parliament, and only became prime minister on the insistence of the Labour Party, who refused to serve under his rival Lord Halifax.
Churchill’s heroic stance as the implacable British bulldog snarling at the Nazi foe and as the prime architect of Allied victory won the bulk of his party over so that many regarded him as their main asset. When he was unexpectedly defeated in the 1945 landslide general election which swept Labour not only into office but, for the first time, into power he was solidly supported by most Conservatives in his new and unfamiliar role as leader of the opposition. [Indeed, the stalwartly Tory mother of a college friend of mine refused to recognise this unpalatable turn of affairs, and made a point of always referring to Mr Churchill as “the prime minister” throughout the six years that he wasn’t!] During my university days and for some time afterwards I was a pretty strong Churchillian Conservative, because I believed that the Tories, more than Labour, stood for the freedom of the individual to live their personal lives as they chose – something I was perhaps wrong about.
I remained a Conservative until the Suez crisis of 1956, when it became painfully apparent that Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden, had not only secretly colluded with France and Israel in attacking Egypt and attempting to seize the Suez Canal, but also had told a whole pack of lies to parliament and the country about the fiasco. At which point I ceased to be a Conservative [writing a pompous letter of resignation to my local MP], and have ever since had no particularly strong party allegiance, though inclining towards the Liberals [now LibDems] primarily because of their stance on civil liberty issues and voting reform.