It has been claimed widely in the media that the resignation of the Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel MP is unprecedented; that the degree of division shown within the Conservative Party and Government is exceptional: that no other Minister has had to resign for undertaking a private Foreign Policy, unbeknownst to the Foreign Office, or indeed the Government.
Such things just do not happen.
Let us explore this proposition.
We do not need to cast our minds back far to see the Conservative party split asunder over Europe, so we may surmise there may be something wrong with the general proposition that current events in the Conservative Party are exceptional. This kind of activity is not unprecedented; even the pursuit of an unofficial foreign policy is not unprecedented in Conservative history, and we need not go deep into the history of 17th century Jacobitism or the Glorious Revolution to recall division, panic-stricken behaviour or independent, unofficial policy-making in Tory ranks.
The Conservative Party has form; indeed, this is the way Conservative Government tends to operate when under any pressure at all. The Conservative Party and its governments are subject to panic, while freelance activity is much closer to the Conservative norm in government than you may think. Freelance activity that is full of irony; in this current case, involving British policy in Israel, irony on an apocalyptic scale. Let us examine Conservatism’s real political past. Let us scroll back to that high-point of modern era Conservatism that the Conservative Party would rather we all forgot; and no, it isn’t Thatcher – let us remember the nineteen-thirties.
The first ever Director of Research of the Conservative Party was appointed in 1930; Sir Joseph Ball (1885-1961), the first British ‘spin-doctor’. Sir Joseph Ball worked for MI5. Here are some of the activities with which it is alleged he was associated, all of it mysterious, most of it murky, or seedy, or worse; although interestingly a full accounting of his life and work has yet to be written; perhaps for fairly obvious political reasons. Who really knows what Joseph Ball may have done? I don’t, I merely try to identify here some of his cryptic appearances on the shadowy fringes of the historical record; with Joseph Ball reality is always going to remain elusive. He was not a man likely to leave an audit-trail. Historians are disarmed.
Ball is largely “credited” with involvement in what is understood to be the forgery of the ‘Zinoviev letter’ by MI5 agents, and specifically for leaking the letter both to the press in 1924, and for delivering it to Conservative Central Office; four days before the General Election, a deft intervention that probably ensured the defeat of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government. This probably made Joseph Ball’s reputation in the Conservative Party. Later in the 1920s he ran an intelligence operation for the Conservative Party that seems to have included running agents, even inside the Labour Party HQ. He was a master of black propaganda.
In the 1930s he worked closely with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, especially from 1937 onwards. He was at the heart of the policy of Appeasement (a euphemism). He tapped Winston Churchill’s telephone after Munich, and provided Chamberlain with the tapes. Following the outbreak of war he effectively ran an independent Foreign policy operation, had contacts with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy; and attempted to negotiate a separate peace with Hitler through the Italians, before his freelance activities were curbed by Chamberlain’s resignation and the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Ball also seems to have had a hand in pushing the Jewish MP and Cabinet Minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha out of Government. Ball also secretly ran the virulent pro-Fascist newsletter ‘Truth’; which had far-right connections and has been described as ‘anti-Churchill, anti-semitic, anti-American and pacifist’. Pacifism and Ball, however were not natural allies. Under the Churchill Government it appears Ball was eventually and at least partly, sidelined around 1942.
The people associated with Ball’s activities include an extraordinary cast of characters: such as Maundy Gregory (probably working on secret funding activities), Archibald Ramsay MP, anti-semite and member of the Far Right Club (who spent most of the war in detention, and was inexplicably not charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act), and the far-right diplomat and MP Henry Drummond Wolff (Ball arranged visits to Germany for Drummond Wolff to meet advisers of Hitler and Goering).
After the war Ball was probably responsible for Guy Burgess being appointed by both the BBC and MI5. Ball was also responsible for the founding of Lonhro and for the appointment of Tiny Rowland as CEO; an achievement that became notorious as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’. This, at least seems to be Joseph Ball’s accumulated reputation, gathered from sparsely recorded accounts and elusive references.
Before his death Ball systematically destroyed all his papers; although, by this time possibly losing his touch, a few survived (but perhaps those that would trouble him least?), and are now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Lord Blake, the leading historian of the Conservative Party wrote of Ball:
“Ball is an enigmatic figure who appears from time to time in some of the more mysterious transactions of the period …. …. One would like to know more about his activities”
…an extraordinary admission of absent-minded historical research at the very heart of the Conservative Party, at the most critical period of its history, and offered by it’s leading historian. The word ‘enigma’ somehow does not quite convince; perhaps ‘dangerous’ would be more apt; but given the dark corners from which Ball would noiselessly and briefly emerge into public life, then sink back silently from sight or scrutiny, perhaps ‘sinister’ would be more resonant.
This, then is a flavour of the nature of Conservatism: as it was then, and in the current chaos, as we see it now. In both cases erratic, subject to panic, given to facile but dangerous ideological dogma, open to freelance activities, and offering poor judgement of people. In this deeper sense the ill-judged words of the present Prime Minister perhaps accidentally illuminate something important about the true character of the Conservative Party: “nothing has changed”.