December 20, 2009

Who were the Diehards?

The term “Diehard” is of used in histories or e of the interwar Conservative party. They tended treated as figures who often emerged to assail Tory leaders particularly Baldwin on issues as varied as India and trade union reform.

Definitions on the other hand are rather fewer. This (generally excellent) book of Stuart Ball's which enormously informs this post, for example suggests they were not really ideologically different from the Conservative party as a who but concerned with the “maintenance of standards” and “not intellectual rightwing” and “out of touch with the modern world”.

This does have some truth . As Ball rightly argues it’s very difficult to trace the Diehards back as a group to the origin of their name-those who rejected the acceptance of the Parliament act by the House of Lords preferring to “die” in the ditch ( have the House of Lord’s Conservative majority broken by hundreds of liberal peers who would then pass the act anyway).

Very few prominent interwar diehards had even been in the house of commons in that era- and diehards of that era were not necessarily “diehards” on issues such as government spending or India which split the interwar Conservative party.

Like most Conservative factions ( probably most factions in democratic parties) the edges of such a faction are rather blurry and it was in many ways a tendency rather htan a faction. Churchill after his switch to the conservative party rapidly displayed real “diehard” tendencies for example over India and over the creation of London transport (which he led the opposition to) but historians have been wary- perhaps in part because he was one of the very Conservative mp’s to basically be pro free trade. The diehards were the factional tendency (and like Baldwin proto- “one nationers” they were more a tendency than a faction ) that wanted to take stances further from the other main party-the Labour party. Thus in a certain sense what set aside a diehard –at least in many cases was not necessarily ideological differences with other Conservatives but either a belief the party should be willing to go to the stake for such principles. This was most notable on the issue of free trade as discussed below – where the party was united in principle. However it can also be seen on other issues-Ball has a point.

Nonetheless a fairly coherent ideological framework can be seen for most diehard policies of this era- that is the opposition to meant opposition to the ideology of the British Labour party. If the Labour party’s ideology was based on an ideology of equality of equality and cooperation “diehardism” was even more positively hostile to the form it took than the average Conservative as a whole. Or to put it another way the general Conservative “defence” of traditional institutions among the Diehards took the form of an aggressive offensive against any aspects of “Socialism”. Thus far from being a relic past they were based on a considered reaction to as opposed to ignoring of) the ideological currents of the era. One can see this is one compares their stance to the rest of the Conservative party across a wide range of areas.

On economic policy (broadly defined) they were more opposed to redistribution and the high spending and welfare expenditure that led to both enormous numbers of dole recipients (“scroungers” in the eyes of many diehards or at least including many such) and more fiercl.y opposed to of the taxes and deficits thius caused. They had a fuller opposition to any form of centralised control of industry with the aim of promoting some supposed common good, even more intense dislike of nationalization of the existing Conservative ( a “diehard” dominated Conservative party would not have nationalised manual revenues as Chamberlain did and "diehards" led by Churchill opposed the creation of London Transport)They re also more likely to be opposed to the powers and privileges of trade unions- it was “diehards” (in this case very much including Churchill) who took the hardest stand in the general strike for example.

On foreign and imperial policy they rejected the Labour’s internationalism anti-imperialism and neo-pacificism more than the average Conservative . It was Diehards by and large who objected to the creation of the Irish republic (in violation of the treaty under which the Irish Free state had been creation) and denounced the inaction of the Conservative government. It was diehards who led by Winston Churchill virulently opposed the concessions to self rule of the India act. And it was diehards who by the early 1930’s were the loudest voices for rearmament. Indeed Churchill’s earlier stress on the issue was seen possibly rightly as part of his embrace of diehard positions on a wide variety of issues in that period most of all but not exclusively India .

This changed of course in the late 1930’s when policy towards Germany became the central issue- an issue that cut across not just factional lines in the Conservative party but party lines as well. Indeed it led to the slightly bewildering spectacle of the diehard Duchess of Atholl fighting and losing a by-election on a platform of anti-appeasement backed even by members of the radical left -because she now saw "facism" (broadly defined) as an even greater threat than Communism.

Constitutionally there was arguably also a distinctive “diehard” stance though again it was a stance most opposed to the Labour party. In particular it was the right of the conservative party who were most keen on the constitutional innovation an elected house of Lords. This partly represented a belief both that a working constitution needed to be fully bi-cameral –that the Parliament act by allowing the House of Commons to ultimately get it’s way on virtually all issues had disrupted the constitution. But it can also be seen as a desire probably shrewd to provide a powerful new obstacle to socialist measures- particularly if the House of Lords was elected on a system (say a county basis or a property franchise) that would hurt the Labour party.

The hardest cause to see as the result of anti-Socialism (including a foreign policy that rejected the idea that force could be superseded by cooperation) was the diehard opposition to the abdication of Edward VIII over his marriage to a divorcee (again including Churchill). In many ways this represented a highly tradition view of kingship- the King’s sovereignty and status came from god or at least was a settled piece of property regardless of his personal behaviour . Baldwin, Chamberlain and Halifax on the other hand thought the monarchy had to at least to a certain degree model bourgeois and Christian values. The Labour party insofar as it was monarchist again preferred Baldwin’s model . This even incidentally also underlined the truth that the diehards were not necessarily particularly puritanical on sexual matters or even necessarily pious.

So ultimately the diehards did have a form of ideological coherence- in the aggressive rejection of Socialism. Just as the Labour party’s ideological core was fairly coherent- so were the diehards based on rejecting the assumptions about society domestic and international the Labour party’s was built
It’s also worth noting what the diehards were not.

As already suggested on Protectionism they were not necessarily different on principle from the party’s left – it would be hard to think of a leading Conservative moderate who was a free trader in this era . However their disillusionment with other aspects of Conservative support and greater belief in an aggressive foreign policy meant they tended to be for taking a more aggressive line.

They were not necessarily believers in lassire faire. Many of them were quite supportive of government action to support as opposed to transform existing institutions particularly business and agriculture-one reason why most of them were Protectionists- and many also expressed interest in agricultural subsidies or other forms. To be strongly opposed to the agenda of socialism including centralised planning was not the same as being even on economics a Gladstonian liberal.

They were not an electoral irrelevance even if one defines diehard strictly enough to exclude Churchill or the first Lord Halisham (probably the most important law officer) of this era. Perhaps the greatest proof of this was that this was the golden age of rightwing third parties (generally ) very brief. There were numerous “anti-waste” candidates in the early 1920’s who precipitated the massive spending cuts of that era. The Empire Free Trade candidates are more notorious-and tended to be on Protectionism where the difference between diehard and moderate was more tactical. But the last such candidate- in the famous by election of ST Georges was not really. Baldwin had essentially committed the conservative party to a fairly protectionist policy. Thus Rotheremere (the press baron who controlled the St georges campaign) ran instead mostly on the issue of India. This has often been condemned tactically and as a colossal failure. I’m rather dubious on the former and even the latter. Given the Tories had adopted a very radical policy protectionism it’d be absurd to have made that the main issue – thus te slogan . Even in the result the candidate got a vote equivlant to half the tory vote at the previous general election and 40% of the votes cast in the byelection. This was a very good result a third party suggesting the slogan “Gandhi is watching St Georges” could make a large minority of Conservative voters support a third party. Diehard themes when tried in general elections had a reasonable record-the 1931 election was the one fought on cuts in spending (including nominal cuts in benefits and public sector pay) and tariffs- and ended in the biggest conservative victory of the era. It’s very difficult to see how a more “diehard” or less “diehard” Conservative party would have done- but one should not assume “diehardism” simply meant electoral oblivion.

Unsurprisingly they were not an irrelevance in policy either . The industrial relations act of the mid 1920’s, and the moves to spending cuts, Protectionism and rearmament in the early 1930’s. Nor on the other hand is it true that the Conservative party of the inter-war era should be seen –ultimately Baldwin and Chamberlain were far removed from their stance and so diehard desires for a return to pre-war domestic spending, an uncompromising line on Germany in the 1920’s, an elected House of Lords or the repeal of the India act got nowhere.

I think the most unfair notion of Diehard’s is that were simply lost in the past. ON the contrary many of their policies were to be pursued by future conservative governments often many decades latter. This is most obvious in the case of trade union reform. In other areas their policies whatever their merits or demerits would become obsolete. Obviously after 1947 an attempt to hold on to India no longer had such relevance- and even the diehard successors’ in the Monday Club’s imperialism started to become irrelevant in the 1960’s. But the terms of the interwar debate are often forgotten- Baldwin and Irvin (later Halifax) argued on behalf of their Indian policy that these concession would prevent a move to actual independence. It’s dubious the diehard policy would have stopped it- could Indian indepe3nce have been stopped after World War 2? But it’s unquestionable that Baldwin and Irwin’s policy failed!

Here is a picture of a famous figure who a liberal imperialist,and quite a leftwing one before World War I but in this era on issues from India to rearmament to union reform to nationalisation was if not a diehard at least a fellow traveller-Winston Spencer Churchill.