Sunday 7 May 2017

On Seeing the Wood despite the Tory Trees

When Small I thought Tory was short for Conservatory
Times are tough for the British Left.   For four long years, since UKIP broke into the mainstream by returning 147 elected councillors in the 2013 local elections, the news media have been obsessed with issues of national identity. The debates leading up to the referendum were dominated by immigration rather than sovereignty or socio-economic wellbeing. I voted Remain, but there are other things that matter besides our relationship with Europe, which in general worries the mobile, professional-class elite far more than the poor. But you would not know it from the news coverage on offer.

When I was a child I thought that the name ‘Tory’ was short for ‘Conservatory’ and that it meant rich people with big enough properties (i.e. not back-to-back terraces and council flats) to support greenhouses full of exotic blooms tended by obedient gardeners. The Conservatory Party, I believed, existed to stop less rich people upgrading their accommodation.

It was only when got interested in the English Civil War that I discovered the real, original meaning of ‘Tory’.  This may seem baffling in the light of the Tories’ historic attitude to Irish independence, but it comes from an Irish word tóraidhe (modern tóraí), which means ‘pursuer.’

Tory Pin-Up Boy James II
In the 17th century it was an insulting term applied by promoters of English imperialism to Irish outlaws, equivalent, according to one historian in 1693, to ‘Robbers, Thieves, and Bogg-trotters’. This was transferred in 1679 to the ‘Abhorrers’—the Cavalier, pro-Stuart, often Roman Catholic devotees of James, Duke of York, later James II, who had support in France and Ireland. After James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the Tories became one of the two big political parties and took to their historic missions of (1) conserving limits to parliamentary representation; (2) conserving economic inequality; and (3) conserving the privileges of the established Church.

It wasn’t until the early 1830s, when the Tories hit an all-time low in popularity, that they tried to abandon the name Tory and turned themselves into ‘Conservatives’. This was described in Hansard Commons for 25th May 1832 as ‘the fashionable term, the new fangled phrase now used in polite Society to designate the Tory ascendancy’ and by John Stuart Mill in 1861 as ‘by the law of their existence the stupidest party’.

Pimenta, Hero of People's Health
They may be the stupidest in the grand scheme of things, but they have been canny in keeping so many current emergencies off our collective radar. The NHS can’t last much longer unless we pay attention: see this brilliant short video explaining why by junior doctor Dominic Pimenta.

Even the Tory Chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael, admits that by 2020 there will be such a shortage of teachers that the quality of secondary education will be under severe threat. The serial reductions in benefits, especially to young adults, and austerity cuts hitting local councils, charities and mental health services have made thousands more people homeless even than a year ago.

All of which means I’ve stayed in the Labour Party despite everything which the BBC, especially their snide, irresponsible Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, has done undemocratically to belittle it and its leader. And I would start calling the Tories ‘bogg-trotters’ as well as ‘Abhorrers’ and ‘thieves and robbers’ if it weren’t offensive to our free Irish neighbours.

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