December 19, 2009

The interwar era and the "old politics"

So the politics of class and labour do a great deal to explain why ordinary people chose the sides in the political struggles of the interwar United Kingdom between Labour and Conservatives. However Politics associated with the workplace did not explain all the voting patterns of this era. IN many ways the cleavages that existed in this period were a continuation of those that had existed before World War II-. Before World War II a large amount of voting could be explained by the clash of those for and against the traditional constitutional order of the United Kingdom.

Socially the former and Conservative party voters tended to be Anglican in England and Wales ,Church of Scotland in Scotland and Protestant in Ireland and to a latter degree the rest of the UK (particularly areas with large Catholic populations such as Lancashire and Glasgow). The latter voted for the liberals (in Ireland their Irish nationalist allies) and tended to gain the support of Nonconformists of all sorts in Great Britain and Catholics throughout the Kingdom . These divisions also were linked to important divisions on socio-cultural issues such as drink and religious education which follows similar though not identical lines ( Tories, Anglicans and Catholics liked alcohol and government funding of denominational schools Liberals and nonconformists generally did not).

In the interwar era these divisions faded in importance. This was a for a number of reasons. However it’d be fair to say the Labour party was more prohibitionist and got more support from Nonconformists even allowing for class- they were the party of bigger government and nonconformists after all were less likely to have been from a Tory tradition- they could effectively choose Labour rather than abandoning the party of their forefathers. .Such effects were quite weak though. Areas like Pudsey ( a rural/ suburban areas needs Leeds) moved from liberal to Tory as class conflict replaced religious. Some historians argue there was a new development- the pious were more likely to vote conservative allowing for denomination- perhaps not surprisingly if it was a preference for the politics of defence of institutions over the politics of transformation of society-though this effect if true was weak.

The Catholic, Protestant split was more powerful than any other religious cleavage tdespite the low profile of the old constitutional issues. Catholic areas were heavily Labour, Protestant areas near large concentrations of Catholic became heavily Conservative This was at it most intense among Protestants in Ulster (the Labour party was not organised in Ulster) . Even in mainland Great Britain it remained a strong cleavage. As late as the 1950’s in greater Glasgow middle class Catholics voted Labour and working class Protestants Conservative. Such appeals could survive a landslide. In the Tories terrible result in 1945 the two large cities that were most Conservative were Liverpool and Glasgow the two large cities where the “orange” ) vote was strongest. It’s worth noting Sectarian cleavages were not generally driven by of church hierarchies –Catholic clergy in this era had strong Conservative sympathies possibly more than Anglican clergy who had already started moving leftwards politically. Ironically it was in the post war era even as the politics of the instuitional catholic church moved leftwards that catholic identifiers were to vote increasingly Conservative.

The religious cleavages could have strange influences on the ideology of party members which went uneasily with the overall ideology of the parties . So in the Spanish civil war one reason for the relatively low level of outright Conservative support for the Nationalists ( compared to Continental and Latin American Conservatives) was anti-Catholicism. Similarly in the most Catholic party of Liverpool the local Labour party sympathised with Franco’s side . Indeed the religious cleavages could s interact peculiarly with each other- In the 1950’s one survey of attendees of a nonconformist church in Liverpool found that middle class members voted liberal and Lab our working class Conservatives.

In a sense areas with a large Catholic minority had a different electoral basis for politics than the rest of the country-adding a geographic element to politics. This could also be seen in other areas where it is difficult to see that as the reason. In particular Birmingham was remarkable Conservative with them being dominant and competitive even in very working class areas in the city central. Birmingham had a lot of small employers and industries hurt by free trade. It’s hard to believe this did not represent the powerful local political machine, the legacy of Joseph Chamberlain and the presence of the Conservative titan Neville Chamberlain. It’s worth noting that the Labour swing was unusually strong in Birmingham in 1945 the election that ended this political era- suggesting both that the Chamberlain brand might have been tarnished and that “localism” politics based on a particular popular or effective local political figures or party was being pushed aside by class politics.

It should also be noted that there were other issues that’ so hard to put together with the new era of class politics. These included the empire (though the historic links of say Liverpool to the empire may have contributed to it’s Conservatism). However what’s noticeable is how many issues can be seen as fitting in well with a class cleavage. . Though anti-communism and anti-Sovietism was a broad sentiment it would naturally scare more those outside the “self conscious working class system” who opposed nationalization and saw the capitalist system in more positive terms. It’s worth noting the election most fought on communism was the 1924 election where under that banner Conservatives made massive gains from the liberals- nearly all voters outside organised labour ( the Labour vote actually rose).

But there were also divisions within the two parties. And it is to the divisions in one of these parties-the Conservative we now turn.

This is a picture of a figure whose contribution to politics in this era dealt a great deal with the “old” issues divisions James Craig 1st viscount Creigan first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland one of the leading Conservative and Unionists of this era.


Vino S said...

What I would say is that the consciousness of being part of a disadvantaged religious [and ethnic, given that most of them were of Irish origin] minority meant that Catholic voters were more likely to support the Labour Party, seeing it as the party of the underdog - and seeing the Conservative Party as standing for the C of E. Hence the Catholic vote moved from the Liberals to Labour as the Liberals went into decline and Labour become the main non-Tory party.

In terms of working-class Protestants voting Tory in certain areas [notably Merseyside and Glasgow], yes, you make a very good point about how it was not until the post-war era that Labour made big advances among Protestant voters in Glasgow and became the strongest party among them. This webpage demonstrates how some of the biggest pro-Labour swings were in Scottish and Merseyside seats in the 50s and 60s:

In terms of the religious issue, the other thing I would like to add is that the salience of the issue went down from the pre-WW1 period. This was because the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 took the issue of Home Rule off the political agenda. It was thus less easy to rely solely on the 'orange card' and fear of 'Rome rule' to get Protestants to vote for the Right.

Vino S said...

One more thing - the attitude of the Church itself seems to have had little impact on Catholic support for Labour, given that the Church itself was quite small-c conservative in those days. You are right - it does seem paradoxical that _as the Catholic Church got a bit more liberal_ its members ceased to vote as much for the left [in the post-60s era]. But this is partly because, due to the secularisation of society, many left-wing Catholics had ceased to be religious _and_, in my view, because there was _greater acceptance_ of Catholicism in post-1945 British society and so more Catholics felt comfortably voting for the party of the status quo [the Tories] and less like voting for the party of the underdog [feeling themselves no longer underdogs].

Sulla said...

thanks vilno will try and reply next two days!

Sulla said...

i basica agree with most of your points (and said them rather less well in some of my earlier posts). I'd mainly just quibble over the term "underdog" even in terms perception, I'm sure the other side often saw themselves as underdogs or at least linked to it. I think the identificiaon of the tory party with traditioanl Britishness

I'd also say there may just be community mobilisation- the local tory party was domainted by Protestants so Catholics in Liverpool made the Labour party the own.

To be very pedantic i'd say priests or the hirarcny rather than the laity per say.

I think the reverse history of the hiracrcy catches that at least in the Uk direct denominational influence on politics. THe fact that being catholic made people feel socio-cultural outsiders was more important than the pol9itical beiefs of those who were religious ministers. A not entirely dissimilar dynamic can be seen in the US in the 1960 presidential election.

I'd say secularisation per say was probaly less important (in some ways it may have reconciled many Catholics to large parts of Labour socio-cultural agenda) than assilimation- Catholics in the UK no longer feel like outsiders. Also of course it's just the fact class issues had dominated for a long time partly for the reasons you suggest.