The role of Chairman is today accepted as an integral cog in our Party machine, but in the context of our long Conservative history, it is a comparatively recent invention.
In fact it dates back just under a hundred years to 1911, when Arthur Steel-Maitland took on the job as part of the extensive restructuring that following the electoral defeats of 1906 and 1910. The modernised organisation he created helped the Party on its way back to eventual power.
All the men and women who have held the post since then have played important parts in the Conservative story, in both good times and bad. The ones we perhaps remember best today are those who oversaw great electoral triumphs, such as Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit, and Chris Patten. All are rightly praised for those achievements, but there are other great Chairmen in our history whose contributions also stand out. I will pick out just three who I think were particularly significant.
The first is Frederick Marquis, who as Lord Woolton was Chairman for an impressive nine years, from 1946 to 1955. Like Steel-Maitland, it was his task to revitalise the Party structure following a landslide defeat. When Churchill unexpectedly lost the 1945 General Election, many blamed the fact that the Party’s campaigning operation had been neglected during the war year, for very understandable reasons. Woolton had been a highly successful businessman before serving as Minister of Food in the war-time government, and it was his talent for organisation that he brought to bear on the Party.
Amongst the many reforms Woolton supported was the restoration of the Conservative Research Department as a significant internal think-tank, under the chairmanship of Rab Butler. Woolton supplied the vital funds. The CRD, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, has been a crucial part of the intellectual renewal of the Party at key points in its history, but a Party needs an effective electoral organisation as well as a coherent policy programme, and Woolton saw the crucial importance of both.
My second choice is Peter Thorneycroft, Chairman from 1975 until 1981. As a former Cabinet minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Macmillan, he had been out of front-line politics for nearly ten years when Margaret Thatcher brought him after she won the leadership. It was he who built the electoral machine that came to be described as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of political campaigning. He brought in Saatchi and Saatchi as the Party’s advertising agency, and introduced modern presentational techniques which outshone Labour and delivered the historic victory for Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Finally, I want to highlight Kenneth Baker’s comparatively short tenure as Chairman, between July 1989 and November 1990. It may at first seem a surprising choice, but it is precisely because of the difficulties he faced that I include him in my trio of heroes. The final eighteen months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was a troubled time for the Party, with demonstrations against the poll tax, the resignation of Nigel Lawson and the ‘stalking horse’ leadership challenge of Anthony Meyer providing a less than ideal backdrop to the local elections of May 1990.
Despite that, Baker managed to snatch a victory of sorts, focusing on the flagship London councils of Westminster and Wandsworth, and resulting in the memorable ‘Kinnock Poll-Axed’ headline in The Sun. As an example of how to do the job in tough times, it takes some beating.
So those are just three of my personal role models as Chairman. I’m sure readers will have other personal favourites. Why not use the comments section to share them with us?
Eric Pickles is Chairman of the Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Brentwood & Ongar.
Eric’s post is part of Conservative History Week on the Blue Blog. There will be posts every day on various aspects of the history of the Party, to coincide with the launch of the new history section.