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
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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?"

The mystery begins, in part, with his ancestry—only during the election campaign did we learn, for example, that he has a Japanese great-grandmother—and thickens with his education. He went to a naval academy with the reputation of being a less-than-illustrious place for less-than-brilliant boys, and then to Sandhurst, our West Point. Some way from the brightest cadet of his year, he was nevertheless commissioned into the Scots Guards and served for six years, part of the time in Northern Ireland. This history fits what might be called the Sinn Fein image: another Saxon oppressor of the Gael. Actually, and more significant, IDS has an Irish mother, and he is the first Catholic ever to lead the Tories.

After Margaret Thatcher came to power, in 1979, she carried out something like a bloodless purge of the opposition within her party, embodied by the upper-class Tory old-guard members Ian Gilmour, Christopher Soames, Lord Carrington, and Francis Pym. All four men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton. That was indirectly the effect of Macleod's attack on the magic circle. What he didn't foresee was that with its spell broken, the Tories would move further and further to the right. Of course, this movement is partly a response to the general collapse of the left, and the joke isn't just on the Conservatives. During the leadership contest Canon Paul Oestreicher, a veteran radical cleric, wrote to the Daily Telegraph, "Why do decent Tories of the Centre-Right make such heavy weather of finding a leader, when they need to look no further than the Prime Minister?" True enough—but that fact would be small consolation to Macleod if he could see a Tory party with its most reactionary leader in generations.

Owing to the new procedure, the election was absurdly protracted, taking more than three months, and the Tories named Wednesday, September 12, as the day they would declare their new leader. As it proved, the previous day witnessed a catastrophe of world-historical importance across the Atlantic. The Tories postponed their announcement for twenty-four hours, as a mark of respect, but in any case it now seemed utterly trivial. The following day the House of Commons met in an emergency session. During his first outing as leader of the opposition, Duncan Smith stood shoulder to shoulder with the government, and with the Americans. His stance was sincere. IDS is as ardently pro-American as he is anti-European; he has moved on the fringes of the military-intelligence complex in Washington as well as here; and he warmly supports President George Bush in general and national missile defense in particular. And yet: after the unhappy date of IDS's election, he had more bad luck. His first speech to a Tory conference as leader fell in the week the bombing of Afghanistan began. He is not an exciting speaker anyway, but his speech was inevitably low-key, as he stood utterly overshadowed by a Prime Minister bestriding the world.

Listening to that speech, I couldn't help wondering what Iain Macleod—one of the most exhilarating speakers of his age—would have made of it, and thinking how baffled and dismayed he would have been by the new Iain. Others appear to agree. A dozen leading Tories have declined to join the new opposition team, Portillo and Clarke among them. They don't like IDS's politics, and they can also recognize a lost cause. Maybe there's not so much wrong with the 1950s. They were just rather a long time ago.

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Geoffrey WheatcroftGeoffrey Wheatcroft has written for The Atlantic on subjects as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Salman Rushdie, the Republic of Ireland and the island of Antigua, and has been affiliated over the years with some of England's best-known publications. In the late 1970s he was a columnist for The Spectator, and also its literary editor. In the following years he was first the editor of the "Londoner's Diary" in the Evening Standard and then that newspaper's opera critic. He is currently a columnist for the Daily Express. In the interstices of regular employment he has written many freelance articles and published two books—The Randlords (1985), a study of South African mining magnates, and Absent Friends (1989), a collection of biographical sketches. His new book, The Controversy of Zion, about the history of Zionism, was published in September, 1996, by Addison-Wesley. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian.

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