London January 2002

The Fruits of the Tory Revolution

The recent election of the party's new leader is the surprising result of four decades of reform

In January of 1964 The Spectator published one of the most influential political articles ever written. Innocuously titled "The Tory Leadership," it was by Iain Macleod, the magazine's new editor, who until the previous October had been a senior minister in the government of Harold Macmillan. Macleod was a liberal Tory who wanted to see his party reconstructed, as indeed it was, owing partly to him. The process culminated this past September in the accession of the startlingly unliberal Iain Duncan Smith—IDS, as his friends call him—to the party leadership. Has there ever been such a case of unintended consequences? And what would the first Iain have made of the latest one?

Early in the autumn of 1963 Macmillan had resigned abruptly. He was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, rather than by R. A. Butler, the man Macleod and many others in the Cabinet and the country wanted. There was no election and no transparency whatsoever to the proceedings. The Queen appointed her new Prime Minister after Home's name "emerged" from Havana-smoke-filled rooms. In The Spectator, Macleod blew the whistle on how this had happened and gave another phrase to the language of politics when he wrote of "the magic circle" behind the decision. The circle's tightness was emphasized by the fact that "neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor the Leader of the House of Commons [Macleod himself] had any inkling of what was happening." In still-more-lethal words he listed the conspirators and added, "Eight of the nine men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton."

To re-read Macleod's article today is to realize the scale of the Tory revolution. The party led by IDS is almost unrecognizable as the party Macleod loved, hated, and helped to transform before his premature death, in 1970. Although the Spectator article made him intensely unpopular, it exorcised the magic circle. Every subsequent Tory leader has been elected by the Tory members of Parliament—until four years ago, when a hybrid (or half-baked) scheme was devised under which the MPs vote until they have produced two names, which then go on to party members throughout the country.

Even granting the Tory propensity for choosing unlikely leaders, from Benjamin Disraeli to Margaret Thatcher, Duncan Smith is a remarkable choice. Americans who hadn't heard of him needn't worry: not many people here had either. Last June, when the previous party leader, William Hague, announced his resignation in the aftermath of another disastrous electoral defeat, the obvious candidates to succeed him were Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke. I shan't recite the chapter of accidents by which they lost out, but I don't know anyone—any political correspondent, that is, let alone any chap in the pub—who guessed then that Duncan Smith would now be the leader. And even after rising without a trace, IDS remains mysterious. At a lunch in 1991 I playfully asked the late Enoch Powell, a cranky, intellectual high Tory, what he made of John Major, our new Prime Minister, and was told, "I simply find myself asking, Does he really exist?" IDS exists, I think, but he seems almost to recede from view the harder one looks at him.

At forty-seven, Duncan Smith is younger than Prime Minister Tony Blair but older than Hague, and he looks older still: having lost an election under a fogyish, right-wing, bald leader, the Tories have replaced him with someone more fogyish, further to the right, and even balder. In person he is affable, even engaging, quiet-spoken and modest in manner, belying very hard-line views in favor of capital punishment and national sovereignty. In choosing IDS, a former army officer whose father was a wartime Spitfire ace, the party has made as much a cultural as a political statement. There is something a little trying about a Clinton or a Blair parading his credentials as a member of the rock-and-roll generation, but with IDS one wonders whether he has ever worn a pair of jeans in his life. The point was captured in an exchange between a well-known liberal columnist and a right-wing, warmly pro-IDS newspaper editor: "Your fellow seems pleasant enough, but isn't he a bit 1950s?" "What's wrong with the 1950s?"

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