Postal Reading group
January 2023
Notes on the book Tory heaven, or, thunder on the right by Marghanita Laski

At first glance, and certainly on the basis of the title, Tory heaven by Marghanita Laski would seem to be an unusual choice for this group, and like many others I wasn’t entirely sure if I would enjoy it. However, by the end I was happy to be proved wrong on that point. It is generally good advice never to talk about politics or religion, which could make writing this review difficult. However, I have been a member of this group for long enough that you may assume that I don’t share James’ political views.

This book is basically a cross between political satire and dystopian fantasy. The outline of the story is that five people have been stranded on a desert Island while the 1945 general election took place. When they are rescued and return to Britain expecting a Labour government, they are surprised to discover that a Tory coup has taken place and an ultra-conservative goverment has been installed instead, the ‘new regime’. Fearing the prospect of a Labour government, James is delighted by the new regime, all the more so when he discovers that through attending the right school, and his family connections, he was to be grade A, the highest class. Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and soon even some of James’ fellow A’s see shortcomings.

Very often my enjoyment of dystopian fantasies are spolt by the feeling that its more of a warning than a fantasy. This is certainly true here, as is the phrase “you couldn’t make it up”. Laski clearly knew what the Conservative party was like, and more worryingly is like. Indeed, after the war, when the conservatives were still led by Churchill it may mave been slightly different, given his fondness for all things American. Still, many have tried to reinvent the conservatives, most recently Cameron and his “compassionate conservatism”. While such attempts have ultimately been unsuccessful, they have still succeeded in winning votes.

Of course, some may claim that the analogies between Tory heaven and our current political situation aren’t perfect, and its true that the modern Conservative party is an uneasy alliance of traditional social conservatives, the Eurosceptic far right and neoliberal economists. The conservatives like to claim that they are the party of ‘opportunity’, and like to promote “rags to riches” stories. The truth is, however, that such cases are rare. Yes, we currently have more social mobility, but all that’s happened is that class is more a function of how much money you’ve got, rather than more traditional indicators such as the nature of your profession.

Other aspects of the book are entirely accurate, however. Behind the strictly hierarchical society is the principle of seeking to transfer wealth to an ever smaller elite, which modern politics is spectacularly successful at doing, even if the means are slightly more subtle: bank bailouts, tax breaks for oil exploration, and handing out contracts for PPE which was never used. Also interesting was the claim that the conservatives are the natural party of the working classes; an assertion which we still frequently hear. Although they have no intention of making good on the promise, Brexit was seen as a way to secure the position of the political elite while selling it as a popular policy. Similarly, Martin’s view that communism is similar, only with the hierarchy inverted, would appear to be accurate, at least judging by the attrocities of Communist Russia. I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that the political spectrum is more like a ring with the far right and left joining up. If this book is anything to go by there may be some truth in that.

To return to the book, its particular success seems to combining a warning about where we are headed with an unexpectedly readable story. While the plot might be a little weak, the elements around canvassing for the Conservative Party candidate, and James’ desire to marry Penelope show that this is more than simple satire. Indeed, the author seems to have used those two elements quite cleverly. I’m not quite so sure about the desert island scene to begin with, but it does serve to explain James’ naiveity. James himself, being almost entirely obnoxious, seems an odd choice for a main character, but in this case it works helped by his wilful stupidity. At least it means that we aren’t at risk of cheering on the ‘new regime’! My one minor criticism is that I would have liked some of the other characters from the island, particularly Janice and Martin to have played a bigger part in the story. There was even a happy ending of sorts, although I would have preferred it if James himself had realised his initial impressions were wrong and made atonement by volunteering for degrading along with his parents.

In conclusion this was a surprisingly good read, even if the new regime of the book is uncomfortably similar to today’s government. It is well written, poignant and alarmingly accurate. My main criticism is around the choice of James as the main character, but even this is not unsuccessful and does assist the plot. This really highlights the paradox that populist regimes can be remarkably unpopular. As the experience of even James’ parents shows, it really is a case of “be careful what you wish for”.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler