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Parliamentary government is played as a game of Ins and Outs, and there was a time when it was frankly described in those terms. The Outs must try to get the Ins out. In order to do that they must simulate a degree of naiveté about what is practically possible so that they may appear sufficiently idealistic to make it worth while to oust the Ins. But because it is all only a game of Ins and Outs, it must be understood that there is very little difference between the Outs and the Ins other than the mere fact that one is out and the other is in. The game could not be played if there were fundamental differences between the Outs and the Ins, because in that case there would be periodic alternations of revolution and counter-revolution.

The rhetoric of party politics does, of course, make believe that the differences are fundamental. And this remains the case even though the Labour Party has given up the ideal of socialism and came closer in 1997 than any opposition had done before in British politics to selling itself as Party B which was identical to the Government in every respect but personnel. And of course the make believe of fundamental antagonism and irreconcilability was not always make believe.

British party politics originated in a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions. It took over a hundred years for the difference between Whig and Tory to become so slight that there could be a change of administration which did not raise the spectre of civil war. Sir Robert Walpole, who founded the office of Prime Minister, imprisoned, exiled or executed his opponents at the start of his regime and when he fell a quarter of a century later it was touch and go whether there would be treason trials. And shortly after Walpole's peaceful retirement it was touch and go whether the gentry of England would come out in support of the Stuart rebellion of 1745. It was not until the Tory gentry stayed at home and the country at large was pacified by a reign of terror that British politics began to fall into the largely meaningless routine of exaggerated posturing that we know today.

Lewis Namier, a foreigner who retained alien habits of thought despite becoming a naturalised Anglophile, observed in his Structure Of Politics On The Accession of George the Third (which caused a bit of a stir thirty or forty years ago) that there was no ideological substance to party-politics in 1760. There was only the pursuit of particular interest in a commonly accepted political medium. Namier, who came to England as a political refugee, judged English politics by European standards of the inter-war period, and he therefore found little substance in its supposed antagonisms. And he said so, approvingly. But that wasn't playing the game. It was giving the game away.


The franchise reform of 1832 was enacted on the point of a middle class rebellion against Parliament. The Whigs who enacted it were in principle no more in favour of it than were the Tories who opposed it. The great question for all in the ruling stratum that had made Britain great was whether the aristocratic Parliament could resist middle class reform pressure yet again; and, if the practical judgement was that it couldn't, whether the middle class could be absorbed into the political dynamic generated by the aristocracy since 1688.

The ideology of the reformers was a kind of second-hand version of the French enlightenment against which Edmund Burke had preached the great crusade forty years before. It consisted of little more than "laissez-faire". There was a simple-minded conviction that if everything was let rip general harmony would result from capitalist anarchy. But the old politics persisted and therefore the new 'freedom' was manageable, though not containable. There was extensive continuity of governing personnel from the 1820s to the 1840s, and in fact there was never a Prime Minister whose political origins lay in the Great Reform movement. The Tories, who had blocked the Reform in the Lords up to the point of no return, immediately after the Reform set about organising themselves as a mass membership party for the purpose of curbing the new middle class freedom. The first measures of protection for workers in the factories of the Reform capitalists were the product of Tory reaction against the spirit of the Reform.

As the franchise was broadened in the course of the 19th century, the phenomenon of working class Toryism became ever stronger. The Tory claim to be the 'national' party is hardly disputable on factual grounds. Disraeli's One Nation ideology signified an orientation on the mass of society as distinct from the progressive middle class, whose ideology was essentially anti-social. (Margaret Thatcher broke with historic Toryism and re-orientated the party on asocial Reform liberalism.) And socialist measures were first put on the agenda of practical politics by the Tory/Unionist combination of Lord Salisbury and Joseph Chamberlain in the 1880s and 1890s.

The events of actual history leave consequences behind them from generation to generation even though those events may be comprehensively 'spun' out of written history. Working class Toryism persists as a major fact of political life - surviving even Thatcher's betrayal of Tory tradition of a century and a half - although the great commercial industry of working class ideology decreed it to be 'false consciousness' many generations ago.