The effect on the Conservative Party of being in a coalition government from May 2010 onwards was profound. It challenged the essence of the party's approach to government. It did so in two respects.
First, the party was used to being in government – it was the ‘in’ party in British politics throughout the twentieth century – and to being in office as a single-party government. British Conservatism has a rich pedigree, but parties, as Robert Blake observed, rarely philosophize when in office. The party has seen itself as a practical party of government, attuned to British interests, and able to act in those interests. Power has been a necessary condition for pursuing those interests. ‘Of all the features of the Conservative Power’, wrote Richard Rose, ‘the intense concern with winning elections and holding office is the most notable.’ The party had some experience of coalition, or national government, but this was almost wholly in conditions where it could have governed alone. It was not dependent on its coalition partners to deliver a majority.
Second, the party is hierarchical and the emphasis historically has been on the role of the leader. Ultimate authority has been vested in the leader, with other bodies serving in an advisory capacity. The leader has been the fount of all policy. The leader selects the members of the Conservative front bench and those who will lead the party organization. When in office, the leader has exercised all the prerogatives of the monarch's first minister. As Lawrence Lowell laconically observed at the start of the twentieth century, ‘When appointed, the leader leads and the party follows.’ Though the relationship has not been as Hobbesian as these comments may suggest, leaders have nonetheless been able to rely for much of the time on the loyalty of MPs and party activists. The party has a reputation for being prepared to axe unsuccessful leaders, but until the time comes for execution has proved loyal.
One area in which there was a clear divide between the parties in 1997 was that of constitutional reform. The Conservatives were defenders of existing arrangements. Labour advocated a major overhaul of the nation's constitutional arrangements. The party's proposals did not figure at the forefront of the party's election manifesto – they appeared on pages 32 and 33 – but they presaged a major change in the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom. Although the implementation of the proposals was not exhaustive, by May 2007 the British Constitution was very different from that which existed when Tony Blair entered Downing Street.
By the 1990s, the basic tenets of the British Constitution had not changed substantially since the emergence of a cabinet-centred Westminster model of government in the late nineteenth century. UK membership of the European Communities in 1973 was the only major change of recent decades to challenge some of the basic principles. Otherwise, the constitutional landscape for much of the past century had been largely undisturbed and, for a good part of the period, had not figured on the agenda of political debate.
Demands for change began to be heard in the 1960s and 1970s. There was evidence of a growing discontent with the system of government, especially in parts of the United Kingdom distant from London. The Labour government appointed a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969: its report in 1973 recommended that ‘devolution could do much to reduce the discontent’.
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