August 02, 2009

The man who forged electoral victory:Lord Salisbury Brilliant Reactionary

In the 30 years or so of World War 1 the Conservative Party became a truly national force with a developed national organisation and loyalties to a greater extent than it had before (where it. This occurred particularly in the wave of

The Conservative Party is rare in being one of two dominant parties in a two party system in a representative system both now and before World War I there are only a handful of other parties of which this is also true-nearly all in the Anglo-Saxon World or Scandinavia. Not coincidentally there are politically just about the two most stable areas in the world the last few decades. Others include the US Democratic party and the Canadian liberals.

This does not mean that in the 1880's the Conservatives seemed particularly strong compared to other right of centre parties. Like other Centre-right parties it was strongly tied to the voting base of a particular denomination at least in the mainland United Kingdom. They were threatened by franchise extension-they'd long been very weak in the boroughs for the previous twenty years (and the boroughs had a wider franchise than the counties).This incidentally was as much (I’d say more) because poorer voters were less Anglican than because of any independent class divide . And indeed in 1885 when the franchise got extended to the counties they did very badly there- .In some this remained true in the decades that followed. A party that representing rural Anglican Britain should on the face of it been in deep trouble in the new era.

But this is not what happened. On the contrary in 1886 a Conservative minority government took power supported by "liberal unionists" who were in practice over the next few years rapidly integrated into the conservative party. The defeat of this new coalition was narrow in 1892 and the House of Lords (which thanks to liberal defections had gone from strongly to overwhelmingly Conservative) blocked the most important liberal measures. In 1895 the Conservatives-or Unionists as they were mostly known won easily-and the liberal unions were essentially absorbed into the party and a similar landslide was won in 1900. Even the devastating defeat of 1906 was not fatal -by 1910 the Unionists were competitive again-and in fact would probably have won without the fuss over the Lord's rejection of the "People's budget" . IN the run up to August 1914 it looked very much as if they were going to win the next election.

Much commentary and historiography gives credit to this achievement to Disraeli. In many ways many of the causes of the Conservative Party from imperialism to defence against interfering regulation were shaped and even started under Disraeli. This is even arguably true of “social reform” –though in fact this is a much more dubious view than generally realized. However the raw electoral statistics suggest very strongly that he was not responsible for the Conservatives becoming the majority party-or even clearly competitive. Disraeli’s' only victory was in 1874 and was the result of a backlash against probably the most radical government in the 19th century. Moreover they were dependent on the narrow county Franchise of that era-nonetheless 1880 saw yet another liberal landslide. IN 1885 despite the substantial British Catholic vote going for the conservatives (due to exceptional support from Irish Nationalists) the liberals got half the seat in parliament. AS already mentioned this owed a lot to Gladstone's new found fanatical commitment to Home Rome. But it was the exploitation of this by the Conservative party that was keen to their new competitiveness even dominance.

Probably the most imporant figure in this was Robert Cecil Third Marquis of Salisbury. For such an electorally successful leader he has been remarkably little praised or considered by Conservatives or historians since with a few notable exceptions. Myth making has often buried his achievements. To take one example Disraeli is seen as Queeen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister but she actually said Salisbury was-even going so far as to give him permission to sit in her presence ( he thought it better to refuse).

There are a number of reasons for this. Far from symbolising an opening up of the conservative party he represented an aristocratic family long at the heart of the party. His cabinet were notorious for nepotism-even his successor was his nephew!

Also far from being a great "progressive" he had a background as a hardline reactionary. He was a leading opponent of admitting Jews to Parliament and in the Civil War he backed the south strongly -not out of any love of slavery but because (dubiously) he saw the rebellion as a repudiation of and threat to Democracy, egalitarianism and broadly speaking Republicanism. He had actually resigned in fury from Disraeli’s government over franchise extension. He was Far from representing the embrace of a new "progressive" cause by the conservatives in the way Disraeli's support of franchise extension has been (probably wrongly ) seen. Indeed the greatest cause of his leadership was conservative in just about every sense-opposition to Home Rule.

He was however a remarkable man with an interesting life which would provide more support for historians and novelists- apart from his ample girth probably a record among Prime ministers which seems to get the bulk of attention! He had come from a very sensitive miserable childhood for all his high station -possibly the most miserable of Prime Ministers (certainly much more so than the much more humbly born David Lloyd George- his childhood letters to his father from Eton make appalling reading and when his sons went there ( rather happier) he refused to go to the school physically!. He married for love (to a women of lower social standing) and over the intense opposition of his father. He had not been expected to succeed to the title and had become one of Britain’s leading political commentators before achieving high political office. He was a distinguished Scientist- both an amateur biologist and a minor pioneer of electoral wiring . Indeed he was scientifically distinguished enough to become President of the Royal Society .Typically he then devoted his lecture when inaugurated as such to a powerful (scientific rather than theological) attack on the theory of evolution. In his own way he belonged to a religious minority- he was “high” and probably a member of the Anglo Catholic wing of the Church of England- a fact which caused trouble throughout his life. For example it was one reason his father had opposed his marriage and his moist politically significant son lost a by-election for sharing these convictions.

So how did this remarkable reactionary, aristocratic intellectual achieve so much for his party-that is the question to which we will turn next. In any case above is a picture of the “reactionary” who turned into the most successful Conservative Prime Minister of his era.


Vino S said...

Interesting article. As I mentioned in my comments on the article below, I think the Liberals did face a number of divisions and splits in the post-1867 period and this helped the Tories.

The Liberal Unionist split was the most important. In a sense, it marked the end of the Liberal Party being a coalition between Whigs and 'Radicals'. The Whigs nearly all went over to the Tories. And, of course, Chamberlain did. This thus also weakened 'Radicals' in the Liberal party since Chamberlain was known for social reform.

I think that by being able to say they stood for the Established Church and for the nation, they were able to get the unionist and C of E vote. This was presumably the bedrock of their support.And, by having some social reformers like Chamberlain and (perhaps) Randolph Churchill [although i don't know that much about his politics] in their ranks they were also able to say that they were interested in pragmatic measure of social reform [and therefore criticise some liberals for being too laissez-faire].

Also, of course, I suspect that as the Liberal Party moved leftwards it left some of its erstwhile supporters behind. Someone might be in favour of a merit-based civil service and more freedom for Dissenters, but might dislike Home Rule and a national welfare state. Such a person might be a Liberal in 1868 but not by 1900.

As a general, overarching, point I would also say that - in a democratic country with a two-party system - it is almost inevitable that the two will be reasonably finely-balanced in terms of support. Although they won in 1874 and 1886, they did lose in 1880 and 1892. And their loss in 1906 was one of the biggest in their history.

James Higham said...

Interesting how "progressive" is seen as a good thing - throwing the baby out with the bathwater on the grounds that it is new ... and that reactionary must be in collocation with "hardline", as if natural conservatism, the desire to maintain the good in society, is a bad thing.

Sulla said...

Vilno nearly all points i strongly agree with particulary the last. I would say one shouldn ot exaggerate (at least outside Glasgow and Birmingham0 the impact of such a split- there was not that big a shift of votes. I thinik the issue shift is even more important.

James fair pouint on progressive. I did not mean hardline as a perjorative but as descriptive- the young Chamberlain was cleary a hardline radical.