>Bale-ing out the Tories
Still old habits die hard. So yesterday I caught the train over to Sussex University yesterday to hear Tim Bale talk about on his ongoing research on the British Tories. Having published on things as varied as Swedish Greens, New Zealand electoral reform, New Labour and Cypriot Communists in the past, Tim’s now committed himself to writing not one, but two books on the British Tories and, having already interviewed various plays and written some shorter pieces on the Blues, seems already to have acquired minority celebrity status on the Conservative Home website. His research centres on taking the Tories as a case study of party adaptation – the conventional wisdom in political history and political journalism is that the Tories are a pragmatic, office-seeking party par excellence, who always bounce back quickly. The first issue – and the first book – deals with why the Tories have not adapted and bounced back since being walloped in 1997, the second with a more long term study of how they adapted and changed since 1945.
The literature on party adaptation and change is, as Tim pointed out, rather ad hoc conceptually and empirically rather under-tested, while work on British politics is typically a rather insular affair with no real comparative perspective cast on our own dear party system, which is just not linked with other cases or used to feed into wider debates. Studies of Belgium and Holland gave us the model of consociational democracy, Sartori’s ideas about polarised party competition draw on the Italian experience, whilst the French case offers us the notion of semi-presidentialism, but the UK? Well, perhaps the ‘Westminister model’ and some interesting stuff on sub-national governance. A lot of the discussion then turned less on the Tories – although an interesting point was raised around whether they could ‘win’ when not being in office by boxing Labour onto traditional centre-right ground – than how to do comparison of different episodes of Tory adaptation and have a readable book that the general reader could get something out.
Although Tim self-deprecatingly claimed he was doing not so much a research in progress seminar as a research-before-progress seminar, it was one of the best and most interesting presentations of unfolding research that I’ve heard in a long time. He also bailed me out – no pun intended – to the tune of 50p to buy a stiff pre-seminar latte at one of the umpteen coffee bars that honeycomb Sussex University (a form of social engineering to encourage collegiality, apparantly) . What more could you ask for?