Dr Richard Hayton publishes blog on ‘The strange death of Conservative Unionism’
Richard Hayton's new blog reflects on the decline of the ideology of Conservative Unionism.
Once a potent electoral force in Scotland, the Consevative Party under David Cameron has just one MP north of the border and struggles to articulate a patriotic message that resonates throughout the United Kingdom. This not only poses an electoral challenge, but raises deep-rooted questions about the party’s ideological identity.
For students of British politics, 1951 is not a defining year evoked alongside the likes of 1997, 1979 or 1945. Yet it has its place in the electoral history books, marking as it did the commencement of thirteen years of Conservative rule, just six years after the country had decisively rejected the party in favour of Labour’s promise to build a New Jerusalem out of the wreckage of World War II.
The customary telling of this story attributes this rapid reversal of fortunes to the Conservatives’ willingness to embrace the greater part of Labour’s agenda and forge a post-war consensus which accepted the need for an extended and interventionist state. The 1951-64 period is accordingly remembered as the high water mark of One Nation conservatism.
However, One Nation conservatism involved more than an acceptance of Labour’s economic and social reforms. It also encompassed a patriotic appeal to Britishness and the UK state that helped the Conservatives reach across class boundaries by presenting themselves as the national party.
Strange as it may seem today this resonated powerfully in Scotland, where the ideology of British Unionism helped the party secure the support of a significant chunk of the working class vote. Indeed, while the general election of 1951 is recalled by psephologists for the fact that it delivered Winston Churchill’s party a majority of the seats at Westminster on a smaller share of the vote than that cast for Clement Attlee’s Labour, it is less frequently noted that in Scotland the vote-shares were reversed. More famously at the following election in 1955 the Conservatives went on to capture more than 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland, a feat matched not matched before or since.