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The Conservative Party in opposition, 1997–2010
Author: Richard Hayton

Why did it take the Conservative Party so long to recover power? After a landslide defeat in 1997, why was it so slow to adapt, reposition itself and rebuild its support? How did the party leadership seek to reconstruct conservatism and modernise its electoral appeal?

This highly readable book addresses these questions through a contextualised assessment of Conservative Party politics between 1997 and 2010. By tracing the debates over strategy amongst the party elite, and scrutinising the actions of the leadership, it situates David Cameron and his ‘modernising’ approach in relation to that of his three immediate predecessors: Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. This holistic view, encompassing this period of opposition in its entirety, aids the identification of strategic trends and conflicts and a comprehension of the evolving Conservative response to New Labour’s statecraft.

Secondly, the book considers in depth four particular dilemmas for contemporary Conservatism: European integration; national identity and the ‘English Question’; social liberalism versus social authoritarianism; and the problems posed by a neo-liberal political economy. The book argues that the ideological legacy of Thatcherism played a central role in framing and shaping these intraparty debates, and that an appreciation of this is vital for explaining the nature and limits of the Conservatives’ renewal under Cameron.

Students of British politics, party politics and ideologies will find this volume essential reading, and it will also be of great interest to anyone concerned with furthering their understanding of contemporary British political history.

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The Conservative Party and electoral failure
Richard Hayton

This chapter introduces the subject of study, outlines why it is important, and sets out the key questions that inform the rest of the book. These are: why has it taken the Conservative Party so long to get back into a position to challenge for power? After landslide defeat in 1997, why was it (seemingly) so slow to adapt, reposition itself and begin rebuilding its support? And finally, how and why has this situation apparently been reversed under the leadership of David Cameron? The chapter argues that addressing these issues requires an assessment of party strategy over an extended period, so that contemporary developments can be adequately contextualised.

The bulk of the introduction situates the book in relation to the existing literature on Conservative politics. This is characterised as falling into two broad categories: a historical tradition which has emphasised the role of pragmatic elite leadership, and a Marxist-inspired analytical tradition which has emphasised the institutionalised sources of Conservative power. Contemporary analyses of the Conservatives in opposition since 1997 are then reviewed, and both the value and limitations of this literature are discussed.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
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Late-twentieth-century conservatism in context
Richard Hayton

Chapter 2 considers the context faced by the Conservative Party upon entering opposition in 1997, following the degeneration of John Major’s government and landslide election defeat. This unfavourable environment is explored through the problems faced by the Conservatives on both the electoral and ideational dimensions. The electoral context is considered in terms of the party’s opinion poll rating and public image, particularly with regard to the key issue of management of the economy. The work of three Conservative thinkers (John Gray, Ian Gilmour, and David Willetts) is used to consider the intellectual response of conservatism to the Thatcherite legacy. This ideological uncertainty over the direction of Conservative politics after Thatcher is an important frame of the debates in the party post-1997, from Hague through to Cameron.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
Leadership strategy in opposition, 1997–2005
Richard Hayton

Chapter 3 provides an overview of the leadership strategies pursued by the Conservatives in two full terms of opposition, between 1997 and 2005. It analyses the Conservative reaction to landslide defeat in 1997, and considers how the competing interpretations of defeat influenced the strategies pursued by the party leadership. The chapter contends that these were sub-optimal in electoral terms, characterised by uncertainty and inconsistency. This assessment includes an examination of electoral strategy across the period, particularly the two general election campaigns of 2001 and 2005. It also involves tracing the key phases of leadership strategy, notably Hague’s initial efforts to ‘reach out’ and subsequent change of direction; Duncan Smith’s efforts to forge a new narrative of Conservatism based around public services and ‘championing the vulnerable’; and Howard’s pursuit of narrowly-focused managerial appeal, centred around his personal accountability. The chapter concludes that the strategies pursued by Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard were sub-optimal: they underachieved even within the inauspicious context that they faced.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
Richard Hayton

European integration has long been one of the most controversial and divisive issues in British Conservative politics. It caused the deepest divisions in the party since the Corn Laws, contributing to Thatcher’s downfall and undermining the government of her successor. This chapter traces how this issue was handled between 1997 and 2010. Whilst most academic attention has focused on the intense divisions Europe caused in the Conservative Party during the Thatcher and Major governments, the chapter suggests that the issue was largely neutralised within the party in opposition, when the Conservatives settled on a broadly Thatcherite Eurosceptic position. However, it is argued that returning to office is likely to heighten tensions, highlighting the continuing significance of this issue for contemporary Conservatism.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
Richard Hayton

Devolution and immigration present difficult questions for the Conservatives in the politics of nationhood, testing the viability of Thatcherite conceptions of national identity. This chapter explores the Conservative Party’s conception of national identity in the contemporary context of the emergence of a stronger and more visible sense of Englishness: the so-called ‘English Question’. As a way of exposing this dilemma, party policy on devolution and immigration since 1997 is mapped out. In the light of these two areas, the chapter considers the Conservatives’ reluctant drift towards becoming an English party. It concludes that the Conservatives betrayed a lack of confidence in their conception of nationhood, which is significant as traditionally it forms a central aspect of both their identity and their electoral appeal. How this relates to Cameron’s modernisation project is also explored.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
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Social liberalism and traditionalism
Richard Hayton

Chapter 6 examines party policy and rhetoric on social, sexual and moral issues between 1997 and 2010. It focuses on the Conservative approach to gay rights (notably the disputes over Section 28 and adoption rights for gay couples), and family policy (particularly with regard to attitudes towards marriage). The Conservatives were forced to consider their positions on these issues in response to the New Labour government’s moves to equalise the age of consent, abolish Section 28, introduce civil partnerships, scrap the married couples tax allowance and introduce a system of tax credits not dependent on marriage. These debates are linked to the wider question of party modernisation, and the division between modernisers and traditionalists. The chapter suggests that the most significant division in the Conservative Party in this period was along the social, sexual, and moral policy divide, and that this posed a significant challenge to David Cameron.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
Richard Hayton

This chapter examines the political economy of twenty-first century conservatism. In 2008, the credit crunch and subsequent recession returned economic policy to the forefront of political debate in Britain. Formulating an effective and convincing response to these difficulties posed a significant challenge for all political parties. This chapter argues that the Conservative response was neo-liberal in nature, reflecting the underlying dominance of Thatcherite thinking in the party on the economy, even though it had been downplayed in the early years of New Labour. This is of vital importance as it would shape the austerity agenda of the Coalition government elected in 2010.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
‘Cameronism’ in context
Richard Hayton

The concluding chapter draws together the findings of the research, briefly reviewing what the book has shown about leadership strategy between 1997 and 2010. The book argues that the ideological legacy of Thatcherism played a central role in framing and shaping these intraparty debates, and that an appreciation of this is vital for explaining the nature and limits of the Conservatives’ renewal under Cameron. As such, the evaluation of ‘Cameronism’ finds that this was essentially a project aimed at detoxifying the Conservative brand rather than undertaking a more far-reaching reappraisal of contemporary conservatism.

in Reconstructing conservatism?
Ideology and values
Richard Hayton

Following three severe election defeats, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader on an explicitly modernising platform. His agenda for change encompassed revitalising the party image through a concerted effort to rebrand the party, an extensive review of policy, and ideological repositioning towards the centre-ground. While these three strands are of course intertwined this chapter will focus on the latter, namely the attempt to distance the Conservatives from the legacy of Thatcherism and cultivate a new form of conservatism with wider electoral appeal. This is examined in relation to the period of opposition under Cameron’s leadership (2005-10) and during his tenure as Prime Minister as leader of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2015.

The chapter argues that despite some rhetorical distancing from the Thatcher era, Cameron largely failed to alter the trajectory of contemporary conservatism, which remains essentially neo-Thatcherite. Ultimately this has undermined the modernisation project that he hoped would define his leadership, limiting the effectiveness of his rebranding strategy and shaping the policy agenda that his government has been able to pursue. While forming the Coalition provided the Conservative leader with significant freedom of manoeuvre in statecraft terms (Hayton, 2014) it conversely limited his scope to radically alter his party’s ideological core, as he increasingly needed to balance the demands of his Coalition partners with those of the right of his own party. While significant political capital was expended on the totemic issue of equal marriage for gay couples, few other issues have pushed the boundaries of conservatism beyond its Thatcherite comfort zone. In short, after a decade of Cameronite leadership the construction of a coherent new conservatism remains largely unfulfilled.

in David Cameron and Conservative renewal