A Party in Four Parts
by Minoo Dinshaw
Stewart, that most historically interesting, and interested, of Britain’s currently aspirant Tory Prime Ministers, has already faced repeated hostile enquiries as to the reality of his Conservative credentials. At his launch Stewart delivered a solid riposte – that his commitment to fiscal responsibility made him more of a Conservative (or at least conservative?) than anyone else in the race. Earlier in his remarkable campaign he implied a more complex and sincere truth: that he saw himself as that older phenomenon, a genuine, full-on Tory. Now he appears to be borrowing from the rhetoric of the Parliamentarians during the 17th-century civil wars. There is an explanation for this puzzling trajectory, but it relates to the peculiarities of Stewart himself, his political tradition, and his situation, including, of course, the attributes of his most formidable opponent, Johnson.
Toryism in its original sense extends from Britain’s turbulent 1600s all the way to socialist paladins and self-described Tories that included John Ruskin and George Orwell. Like their rivals the Whigs, and like the predecessors of both factions, the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, the Tories adopted a nickname that had begun as an insult as a badge of honour. The slur ‘Tory’ derived from the Irish Gaelic toraidhe, encompassing all the most menacing aspects of the bandit, the highwayman, the cattle-thief and the outlaw. It thus possessed the same crypto-Catholic, despotic charge as Cavalier, from the Spanish ‘Caballero’, branding those loyal to the Stuart monarchy as enemies both of English national liberty, both political and religious. The Cavaliers and Tories, to use a verb with contemporary resonance, reclaimed these catcalls as signifiers of loyalty, chivalry and honour. Their enemies, first the Roundheads and then the Whiggamores or Whigs, named respectively after unfortunate coiffures and the Scottish Presbyterians, whose plain, egalitarian but dour hardline Protestantism they were said to espouse, equally ennobled their nicknames by associating them with decency, the national interest and free enterprise.
These terms are probably easier to understand at their proper significance during the present political discourse than they have been at any other time during the intervening centuries – ‘Remoaner’ and ‘Brextremist’ writ large. By a surely not wholly coincidental quirk of fate Rory Stewart carries one of the most Cavalier and Tory names imaginable, combining the Gaelic background and the royal dynasty. He has shown himself willing to play with this accident of birth, joking to a journalist that ‘I’m a Stewart. My family is committed to impossible loyalty.’
The later and stodgier name for Stewart’s party, Conservative, dates from the early 19th century. It was coined by J. Wilson Croker, that same bitter literary critic whose cruel review was said to have finished off the poet Keats. The Conservative's opposite is the equally bloodless, rational, usually deceptive term of Liberal. Both words emerged in the complacent calm period of British imperial dominance, after the toughest constitutional questions were long settled. In the time of the Tories and Whigs, by contrast, wars were fought over powerful ideals, and the conditions that made peace possible slowly, painfully worked out. Between 1637 and 1691 the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland became gloomily injured to political instability and civil war.
By the early 18th century the Whigs had basically triumphed, in an alliance of aristocratic and commercial interests over the monarchy and its supporters. The resulting oligarchy might properly be called the ancestor of both the 19th century Conservative and Liberal Parties. By the 20th century the Conservatives were effectively continuity Whigs; Britain’s established, monied interest. The Liberals were left increasingly outflanked by the more hot-blooded arrival of Labour, while the original, 17th-century Tories seemed a mere romantic sentiment and likely forever to remain so.
But as Stewart himself has remarked, true Toryism persisted as a ‘wing of the Conservative Party’. Tories maintained a fondness for the Church of England and the country of Scotland that went increasingly unrequited. Toryism was generally repelled by more run-of-the-mill Conservatives’ (or Whigs’), brash embrace of capitalist buccaneering, at its height under Margaret Thatcher. The preferences of Tories in policy terms professed to be non-theoretical and pragmatic. Their leading philosophers, Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, were profoundly anti-philosophical, and passionate about the individuality and importance of the most organic, illogical institutions in Britain – the monarchy, the established state church, the independence of the ancient universities, the unwritten constitution and the always unruly House of Lords.
The Whigs continued to hold a near monopoly on the Conservative Party’s power, leadership and government, and in time managed to capture the Labour Party as well. Thatcher and her diluted heirs, Blair, Brown and Cameron, were each of them more Whiggish than the last. Cameron even rounded up a few left-over Liberals to accompany him into power, and in 2012 had a go at finishing a task started by Blair in 1999, abolishing that most romantically ramshackle Tory amalgam, the House of Lords. The rebellion that saved the Lords was led by Jesse Norman, an old-school sentimental Tory. In the post-Brexit era the roll-call of Norman’s supporters makes fascinating and bewildering reading. There can be found Steve ‘Brexit hard man’ Baker and second referendum advocate Guto Bebb; the Brexiteering once-young-fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg and that Venetian Doge of Remainers, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. There, also, among a Stuart and two Stewarts, can be spotted Rory of that ilk, then a cub MP.
The division appeared to be last ride of the constitutional Tories against the Whigs. Equally fitting was the convenient absence of Boris Johnson, then at the height of Olympian glory as that ill-thought-out, Blair-fashioned potentate, the Mayor of London. Just four years later, Cameron, with his continuing Blairite indifference to historical context, embarked on the gamble of the Brexit referendum. He had inherited a party split by Europe; he did not know or care much about the older, underlying tension and started a bar-fight that ripped right across it. Cameron thus ended up leaving behind him a party in at least four parts: Whig Remainers, grey-faced Establishment spectres (they produced Theresa May and are now led by Jeremy Hunt); idealistic, sometimes confusing Tory Remainers, of whom Rory Stewart is the most persuasive example; Whig Brexiteers, blithely ahistorical venture capitalists; and Tory Brexiteers, atavistic and excitable backwoodsmen.
If Rory is a Tory, why then such radical talk of constitutional dynamite – of challenging the government of the day with what has variously been called a ‘Roundhead’ scheme, or more simply a ‘coup’? Why did Stewart specifically compare another leadership rival, Dominic Raab, to Charles I, the king beheaded as a result of the Civil War? The answer lies in the greatest crisis in which terms like ‘prorogation’ were bandied with equivalent fury, that of 1640-2. Some of the founding fathers in the Tory story were loyal to the King, but deeply critical of his programme. Such men wanted to engineer a compromise between King and Parliament, executive and legislators, to prevent at all costs the outbreak of the crisis that was soon to become plural civil wars throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. Later termed by historians ‘constitutional Royalists’, politicians like Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland, and his close friend Edward Hyde, were sorely disappointed when Charles I dissolved the first Parliament of 1640, had friends among the party that would later become Roundheads, and much sympathy with several of their aims. Falkland, Hyde and their allies spoke exactly the language of respectful compromise that Stewart has now made his own.
As Falkland and Hyde did in their time, Stewart risks holding a position that is so ambivalent it can possess the appearance of mendacity. At his launch he claimed to be by instinct ‘wholly supportive’ of a Labour opposition motion with cross-party support, drafted by a (more Whiggish) fellow-Conservative, Sir Oliver Letwin, to take control of Parliament in the event of a No-Deal Brexit. This cautious step seems entirely at odds with his gung-ho challenge to set up a rival Parliament to Johnson. But according to the the Falkland/Hyde rationale – and in their troublesome period, to which Prime Minister Cameron inadvertently returned us – constitutional practice was an art, not a science. Hyde and Falkland voted for the measure, hastily drafted by their Parliamentarian friend Bulstrode Whitelocke, that prevented the King from dissolving Parliament. Hyde regretted doing so, and later would be instrumental in setting up a rival Parliament at Oxford (a slightly longer walk from Westminster than the Methodist Central Hall).
Stewart, guided by emotion, rhetoric, reason and expedience, is muddling though just such murky waters in a comparably chaotic epoch. He has the support of a heterogeneous handful of Remainer MPs, while Johnson appears to have united the Brexiteer Whigs and Tories, and plenty of Whig Remainers eager for preferment into the bargain. All of these should tread carefully. Like his upstart younger rival, Johnson is much more Tory than Whig or Conservative (as his famously his profane impatience with the party’s cautious business backers bears witness). No one has bothered, at least lately, asking Boris Johnson if he is a real Conservative. He would laugh the question out of court, but not because he has a proper answer to it. Yet no one can doubt he is the most glamorous, seductive, unsubtle sort of Tory, a thorough cynic and a self-confessed ‘wasp in a jam-jar’.
The most idealistic and principled of those men who served the incompetent, petulant King Charles I seem to haunt our present curiously in the gauntly diminutive form of Rory Stewart. But within Boris’s bulkier silhouette it is all too easy to discern the Captain Hook-esque charm of the doomed king’s frolicsome son, Charles II; the merry monarch who sold his foreign policy to the French and promised his personal religion to the Papacy while proclaiming his Protestant credentials; who betrayed his friends, servants, ministers and mistresses, put off every fundamental question of policy unresolved, and always proved stubbornly impossible for his subjects or his historians altogether to dislike. It remains to be seen if Conservative – or Tory – MPs and members will pay any attention whatsoever to this warning resemblance, or any heed to what Stewart so urgently calls ‘the wisdom of humility’.