Political parties are strange, introverted organizations. Their business is to reflect the democratic pulse of the people and advance good public policies. But politicians aren’t like the rest of us. Vanity, obsession, and, above all, the will to power have been honed to a fine point. Some even hold a belief in their own personal destiny to lead. The result is that a political party is rather like an underwater environment from which the most remarkable creatures at times emerge to rule us, blinking and tottering as they try to adjust to the scrutiny of ordinary people and to the realities of public life.

Britain’s Conservative Party is an especially distinctive case. Western civilization is passionate about the change that nurtures the hope of better things, but here is an organization promising the people of Britain that it will try to keep things, in essence, the same. In democratic terms, it’s against nature! Political parties usually hoist attractive though illusory banners at the masthead—“democracy,” “liberty,” “justice,” and other motherhood abstractions. Conservatism as an aspiration doesn’t rate, and I can’t think of any other country where conservatism is much more than a term of abuse—except, perhaps, the United States under Reagan, and in that case the heroic martyrdom was done a generation before by Goldwater. The remarkable thing, then, is that the Conservative Party has dominated British politics for most of the last two centuries and has even been regarded as the natural party of government.

Political parties are bureaucracies, and the only interesting thing about a bureaucracy is the personality of its leader. A history of parties must then focus on personality, as Robin Harris, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, has done in this revealing history. He certainly brings out the strange character of some of the remarkable people who have led the Party, according space in proportion to the influence he thinks these leaders have had. Few will take issue with the pantheon that results.

Winston Churchill, for example, was clearly in the top rank; however, he was doubtfully a true Conservative at all. This is part of the reason why he was widely disliked and mistrusted by his colleagues. The key to success in politics is to live at a moment when your particular talents are needed. To be outstanding, as Churchill certainly was, is a bonus. But Churchill’s merits earned him the top position only in the later stages of a long career. He was sixty-five before he became prime minister. As an earlier Conservative once said of the battle of Waterloo, it was a damned near-run thing.

One of the formative personalities in Harris’s account of the Conservative Party is Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish Anglican, and a man of the world—an “adventurer,” as his many enemies called him. Like Churchill, he was a maverick in Conservative terms. It was his brilliance and charm, and perhaps his very oddity, that helped Conservatives (as the party of the landed gentry) adapt to the slowly emerging democratic features of mid-nineteenth-century Britain. The Party needed an organization that could reach out to the newly enfranchised, and Disraeli’s cynical and often detached personality helped to supply it.

In 1867, he had “dished the Whigs” by adopting the Liberal Reform Bill of his opponents, thus doubling the franchise. The immediate result was that the Conservatives suffered a heavy defeat in the 1868 election. Gladstone and the Radicals in power, however, alienated much of their support, partly because of their supposed hostility to the monarchy, and Disraeli suddenly found himself popular again. People cheered him, and he loved it. One speech he gave in Manchester lasted three and a half hours; today such verbosity would lose any leader an election, but Disraeli was returned to power in 1874.

Like Churchill, Disraeli came to power almost too late, and many detested him. But he could charm opponents, just as he charmed the Queen. Harris’s book is full of explorations of the eccentricities of political life, and, in the case of Disraeli particularly, we understand how antipathies in politics are more intense than in most other social spheres, but must be, and are, concealed, so that government may be carried on.

Nineteenth-century ­­politics was invariably an arena in which political actors had to back their hunches. Opinion polls were yet to come, but in the wider politics of Britain, Disraeli was sensitive to new developments, including the emerging middle class in the suburbs—a class that was discovering the benefits of Conservatism. It was also during this time that another strange political creature began to surface in Britain, a figure so contrary to conventional political wisdom that he was to cause great confusion for Marxist interpreters of modern British politics. This was the Tory workingman. What were these strange people doing voting Tory, wondered a whole bemused class of political scientists, when their business was to be struggling against bourgeois oppression?

It is part of the fascination of political history that judgments never stay long in one place. Most political parties in real democracies are, of course, coalitions of one kind or another, and the Conservative Party has been no different. It allied diverse groups, from believers in free markets to “Tory Radicals” keen on implementing social legislation—and Disraeli did in fact pass a great deal of social regulation. Indeed, political judgment is so fluid that even today some conservatives look back to the Liberal Gladstone as a leader the Conservative Party might have had.

At the intellectual center of Harris’s account of the Conservative Party is the crucial and little-known figure of the Marquess of Salisbury. He was “probably the most recognizably and intelligently conservative leader the party has ever had,” remarks Harris, who goes on to make the point that its leaders are by no means always philosophical conservatives. Salisbury was deeply pessimistic about the future of Britain, and broadly religious in his view of life. One element of his fame results from a remark reported by his wife when, casually coming into the family drawing room after a morning at his desk, he said he did not understand what people meant by the “burden of responsibility.” One makes one’s decision in terms of the materials available, he said, “and not in the least upon the magnitude of the results which may follow. With the results I have nothing to do.” The point being that those who fret about the burden of decisions think that the outcome has been directly caused by what they have chosen to do. Salisbury, however, thought in terms of contingency—the world is so complicated that uncontrollable responses begin to multiply from the moment of action.

Salisbury’s pessimism was essentially philosophical rather than temperamental. He enjoyed life and was amused by it. Even so, Salisbury’s grasp of the essence of politics is so solid that one of Harris’s chapters on him is a brilliant essay on political wisdom. Some of Salisbury’s remarks still resonate strongly today. Writing his last journalistic article in 1883, he observes, “Half a century ago, the first feeling of all Englishmen was for England. Now, the sympathies of a powerful party are instinctively given to whatever is against England.”

But what is one to make of more recent leaders? Churchill and Salisbury came from central casting as leaders of Britain’s Conservatives, but with Edward Heath, prime minister from 1970 to 1974, we were in a different world. Shy, arrogant, and charmless, Heath moved to the Whips office from the moment he was elected and quickly learned the art of keeping MPs in line; a couple of good speeches at the right time gave him a place in the public eye. Harold Macmillan was ill and had to resign, but his control of the Party was sufficient to get Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was in fact the fourteenth Earl of Home, moved from the Lords to the Commons, and made leader of the Party. But it soon became clear that in an aggressively democratic atmosphere, Douglas-Home could not last, and who could have been a more striking contrast than the graceless “low born” (as Harris puts it) grammar school boy, Heath? Of such strange combinations of events is the world of politics made. Heath seemed a safe pair of hands and, while no more a real Conservative than Disraeli or Churchill, he was hardly a political operator. He believed in experts and consensual policies. His one immutable belief, however, was that becoming involved with the European Union was the way to solve all Britain’s problems, whatever the cost. We live with that mistake to this day.

In addition to her own merits, another sequence of accidents was needed to install Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, as leader. Sharing a staunch belief in the power of the free market, she was a close ally of Sir Keith Joseph, but Thatcher became the standard bearer of this new line of thought after Joseph ruled himself out of contention with an incautious speech laced with eugenic overtones. Poor vain Heath did not think Thatcher was a serious threat to his leadership, and after failing to win the vote, spent the rest of his life sulking at the outcome. Thatcher may not have been a real Tory, but she was certainly made of the right stuff, and the critic Shirley Robin Letwin, in a brilliant attempt to understand the principle of Thatcher’s rule, certainly judged her to be properly conservative. Thatcher, Letwin argued, wanted to restore the balance of virtues in Britain away from current sentimentalities such as compassion and towards the “vigorous virtues” of courage and enterprise, characteristics which Thatcher herself showed in abundance when dealing first with her own colleagues, and then in responding to the Argentine take-over of the Falklands, and beyond, into her battle with the Union of Mineworkers.

Here then is a witty and concise account of the figureheads of perhaps the most influential political tradition in the modern world—a tradition that has generated not only the American Constitution, but also liberal democracies all over the world.