August 08, 2009

Hamlet goes business


Hamlet's father slumps over onto his desk, poisoned by his friend Klaus. Hamlet walks in, eating a massive slice of ham. Boorishly, he chuckles at the man he deems to be sleeping and then casts a rug over his shoulder. Aki Kaurismaki's film about Hamlet introduces him as a nonentity who does not realise his own place in the plot- and he continues to film Hamlet in such a way, shading in with his crayons whilst the Board take decisions over his head and pushing Ophelia continually for sex. This is not Hamlet as you have ever seen him- gone is the Shakespearian soliloquay, gone the wordplay that Tom Stoppard revelled in in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, gone the complexities of motivation and morality that the play evokes, gone the structure of silence- the silence that permeates Hamlet's father's grave and Hamlet's 'madness'. In their place, Kaurismaki turns to the plot of the play and finds resources to make what is a film-noir of the fifties: in the place of feuding barons and the King of Norway, we have business managers and a take over- in place of the King of England, we have a business associate of Klaus called, no doubt with silent commentary, Murdoch. Rosencratz and Guildenstern are dead and we see their bodies flop over the side of an ocean liner.

Kaurismaki's Hamlet is an adaptation but it is not uninteresting for all that. The film concentrates on Hamlet, the feckless but by no means sexless scion of his house, a caricature of the millionaire's playboy son, and his activities. During the film we see his selfishness: we are continually told of it by the other characters and when his father's ghost arrives, Hamlet tells the ghost to hurry up because dinner is waiting. Almost the only thing Hamlet seems to want is sex with Ophelia: almost the only thing he seems concerned by is his own preservation (and his weight!). All the other characters are the same: all of them are cynical and selfish. Klaus nibbles at his lust for power, Gertrude is a cipher for the actions of the male characters around her and Kaurismaki takes out her seduction of Hamlet, Polonius is as stupid and pompous as in Hamlet but has less of the counciller and more of the corporate climber about him. This is a world which turns on money- even Hamlet's driver (an inserted character) seeks money for his quest is to protect his fellow workers down at the factory. Ophelia does not love Hamlet at all- but is playing a game with him to obtain influence over the company. Money, Kaurismaki is saying, is what makes the world go round in this system of society: money is the sole reason for existance- money drives forward murder and the soft, as Polonius says, go to the wall.

When we turn to the source text and compare it to Kaurismaki's play, we notice that whereas the source was in colour, this so to speak is in black and white. The moral tension and moral values of the original have drained from the skin of the film- from the skin of society. This story is deliberately a retelling of Shakespeare for another society. One might term the play as a play about honour and fealty and familial loyalty: in which case Kaurismaki's film is an attack on the existance of all those things in modern society. If you make Hamlet, for Kaurismaki, you have to now make it like this. The great speeches are flat, the great moments make no sense in our world of pallor. Hamlet, the great production of the renaissance, can only make sense to the modern world as a dark drama about money and the neverending selfish quest for gain that defines the modern world. In this sense Kaurismaki betrays both a Marxist antipathy to what the desire for wealth does to people and a true appreciation of the play: his updating is intended to be a statement about what kind of things today can be said and what kind of things cannot be said. In the world of McDonalds, a Big Mac is more important than to be or not to be and noone looks around enough to tell a hacksaw from a handsaw.

Kaurismaki's Hamlet is dark- very dark and as soon as you think about it it becomes darker. The pathetic villainy of the characters never rises to an Iago like existential Satanic quality, but rather is mundane and boring. It reminds me of Robert Bresson's approach to the twentieth century: particularly in contrast to the original text, Kaurismaki has crafted a distopian world in which he wishes to persuade us we live. The imaginative effort is first rate: the film is replete with commentaries on the conventions of film noir and popular music, the darkness is sustained and implausibilities within the plot are a commentary on possibilities within Shakespeare's plot. As a sophisticated answer across to the centuries to the bard this works and deserves a watch.

August 07, 2009

Anti-Puritanism

Plutarch mentioneth a certaine painter, who when he had made a goose and a cock both alike, was faine to write ouer their heads for distinctions sake, this is a goose, this is a cock. I haue now drawn (curteous Readers) the picture of a Puritane and the picture of a Papist and haue set ouer theyre heads with Plutarchs painter, this is a goose, this is a cock; this is a puritane, this is a papist. (Oliver Ormerod, 1605)

Oliver Ormerod was an anti-puritan if there ever was one- he published tracts against puritanism and campaigned against its theological barbarity. Ormerod though was one of many: the early modern period was rife with anti-Puritans, distinguished anti Puritans (one hardly gets more distinguished than the creator of Malvolio!). Patrick Collinson in an article in the Cambridge Companion to Puritanism deals with the origins of this movement and what he shows is very interesting- anti-Puritanism and Puritanism grew and were sustained together for centuries but the origins of each are separate and their strength and genesis was different.

The issue of what was a Puritan and where Puritanism began is not easy: historians give answers which differ considerably, many of the early essays in the Cambridge companion examine the question of when people started believing that they were Puritans. The ideological traits behind Puritanism go back much further though and are part of a story about the reception of continental ideas about Christianity, particularly Calvinism, and godly networks from the reign of Edward VI onwards. Anti-Puritanism though as a phenomenon originates much later. Collinson suggests the word dates to anti-Protestant Catholic polemic in the 1560s, Thomas Stapleton labelled all English Protestants, Puritans in 1565. Some like John Stow in 1567 or Thomas Harding in 1568 believed that puritans were more radical protestants- Stow linked them to Anabaptists, Harding agreed. Puritan though was a word like any other that might be used as a term of abuse- often the last in a list of epithets cast at radical protestants- and significant contemporaries did not use it when criticising the radical fringe. In 1588, the Anglican enforcer, Richard Bancroft (future Archbishop of Canterbury) did not use the term in a notorious sermon that he preached against radicals or 'precisians' as he termed them.

So puritanism as a word enjoyed a fragile early life. Collinson shows that it emerged suddenly as a consequence of the Marprelate tracts in London- these tracts published by a Martin Marprelate (an anonymous pseudonym) called forth responses and angry attacks. The Puritan grew as part of the weaponry of the conservative opponents of Martin. Puritans start to feature in drama from 1593 (when Marlow is the first identified playwright to attack them). Puritanism, Collinson argues, became a mobilising label both in London and outside- whereas Puritanism was actually in retreat in the 1590s (its major court patron the Earl of Leicester died in 1588), the label created a threat, crystallised a sense of attack on the estabilshed church and led to an anti-Puritan response. Whether in Banbury, Stratford upon Avon, Chester, Wells or London itself puritanism could provide a label to mobilise anti-puritans and individual conservatives against unsettling godly reforms- it could unite the cause of the townsmen at Wells who objected to the wealthy constable John Hoyle with the townsmen at Banbury, keen to keep their Maypoles and market crosses.

There are a couple of things are interesting about Collinson's brilliant and perceptive article. One of which is the way that language gives you the means to identify and pursue your enemy- once you know him, you can identify his emanations and his devices. Once you have drawn the portrait as Ormerod suggested you could see how he worked and performed. (This issue is a familiar one to any early modern observer- trained to spot the workings of the devil in whichever guise he appeared.) Language in this sense unites a set of phenomena and divides them from us. The second is when this process happened- Collinson argues that it happened in the moment of puritanism's decline. That thought and the prominence of the Martin tracts prompts two ideas in me- that as a movement declines it becomes more vulnerable and as a defence mechanism more forcefully articulates its beliefs, noise is inversely proportional to size, and that as a movement articulates, it offends, and eventually prompts a backlash- a backlash that as Collinson describes took the form of a new nomenclature and a new contrary movement which supplied part of the base of civil war royalism.

There are lessons here I think for how we understand other historical periods including our own: the ideas that are accepted are not those that are challenged, the social forces that are powerful are often unspoken and the language of description is a political weapon par excellence.

August 06, 2009

The Education of Richard Cromwell


Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland upon Oliver's death on 3rd September 1658. His regime was not a success- and lasted barely a year before being replaced eventually by a return of Charles II. Richard retired to the country from politics. Historians have speculated for years about why Richard was summoned to the Protectorate and about whether his father, Oliver Cromwell, knew that his son's rule would be a failure. A parlour game for early modernists is the discussion of what would have happened had Henry Ireton (d. 1651), Cromwell's son-in-law and early collaborator, lived or John Lambert, Cromwell's later collaborator not fallen out with the protector in 1657. The assumption of those parlour games is that Richard was incapable and too inexperienced to be Protector. However more recent scholarship does not support the latter of those charges.

Jason Peacey in a fascinating article in Patrick Little's volume on reassessing Cromwell suggests that Richard Cromwell was prepared for the Protectorate by his father. The key thing to remember about Richard is that he was born in 1626- he was therefore too young to fight in the first civil war (which started when he was 16 and finished when he was 20). Furthermore he had a senior brother until Oliver junior's death in 1644. Richard's career was enhanced when his brother died- and Oliver sent him to the Inns of Court to learn law, under the tutelage of John Thurloe (eventually Cromwell's Secretary of state and at this point closely connected to that other crucial interregnum politician, Cromwell's cousin, Oliver St John). He did not become a lawyer- many including Ireton in the 1630s went to study but did not attain the qualification, rather Oliver married him to the daughter of an important Hampshire Parliamentarian (Richard Maiior) and there are rumours that Richard was elected just before Pride's Purge to Parliament for Portsmouth in 1648. Whatever happened in Portsmouth, during his early twenties Richard was deeply involved in local government in Hampshire. He was elected at the age of 28 to the first Protectorate Parliament in 1654 and again was elected to the second Parliament in 1656 for Cambridge University (his father's seat in the Long Parliament). Richard was included on various committees within the Parliaments he sat in: committees that had to do with his Hampshire interests- for example about wood for the navy, but also broader committees which reflected on Scotland and Ireland. Peacey detects a drift towards Presbyterianism within Richard's politics- especially in Oxford where he succeeded his father as Chancellor of the University in 1657. He was included in the Protectoral Council of State from 1657 and was nominated by Cromwell to the upper house after the Humble Petition and Advice. Peacey suggests that there is some credibility in the suggestion that Richard was being prepared to become the Lord Protector's Deputy in Scotland- a role that Peacey argues he was unable to take up because of accident and illness.

What are we to make of this, was Richard Cromwell being prepared as a plausible Protector in the later 1650s? Many contemporaries that Peacey quotes believed him to be- though others including the well informed Venetian ambassador were not so convinced. It does look as though Richard was being accelerated to high office and one must not forget that Oliver did not believe he was to die in 1658- one must not see the succession back through the moment of succeeding! But its worth remembering as well that Richard, despite holding a colonel's commission (he succeeded William Goffe as commander of Goffe's regiment of horse), had not held executive office beyond local government in the Protectoral regime. Compare that to his brother Henry who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1654 to 1658 and therefore had to cope with the morass that was Irish politics in those four years. (Peacey never addresses the comparative dignity of the two brothers- important I would suggest in establishing Cromwell's esteem for both.) We may here be guilty of turning the question around- let us agree with Peacey that Oliver intended his son for a career at the centre of politics, possibly as his successor- but in that case, we have to ask whether the preparation that Richard received was the right one. He never, as his brother had to, had to cope with using power or patronage on a national or semi-national stage- he was limited in his political utterances within England and his most formidable executive challenge was to, possibly, dismiss John Owen as chancellor of Oxford. Compared to his brother Henry's challenge in subduing the fifth monarchists in Ireland, Richard's challenge seems inadequate as preparation for dealing with the egos of Lambert, Disborough, Fleetwood and the rest who were to destabilise his eventual regime. If Cromwell intended his son for the Protectorate, we may suggest the training he gave him was insufficient as a means of preparation.

Peacey may overstate his case- but what he has proved is that Richard was hardly a neophyte emerging onto the political scene- he had had a political education. This points us though to reflect on a further issue- if Peacey is right, and Richard's political education was extensive, then either Richard was incapable of receiving his education or lacked the right education (the lack of executive experience) or (and?) there was something in the structure of the Protectorate that meant after Cromwell it could not survive. That structural flaw, again something we should be cautious about- had Cromwell lived another twenty years it might not have appeared, is something that historians are wary of examining but if anything it is the great question at the heart of the English interregnum, the regime was established, great minds (Milton, Harrington, Nedham) and politicians (Cromwell, Marten, Lambert etc.) worked to fortify it and yet it failed, and yet we live in a regime formed by its failure. Peacey presents convincing evidence that the answer is not to be found solely in Richard Cromwell's lack of education, it may be found in Richard's views or in the structures of the regime- but that question remains and haunts English history.

August 04, 2009

Flicker

Chris Newby's film Flicker lasts only five minutes. It is not a film for epileptics to watch- there is a dizzying display of imagery over the five minutes, overcut by electronic music, surrounding the bonfire at Lewes every 5th November. For those who do not know, 5th November was the day that Guido Fawkes accompanied by other plotters attempted to blow up the British House of Commons in 1604- he and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed (as were many other innocent Catholics) and the day became a day of rejoicing that the King, Commons and Lords had survived and the Protestant religion had been fortified. The celebrations at Lewes are famous for they are one of the few celebrations left in England where the Pope, as opposed to a Guy, is ceremonially burnt in the town. Newby's film of this does not really make any of that context clear- instead he jump cuts through the crowd, the fireworks, the seventeenth century costumes, the burning Pope and the illuminated woods and trees and faces which watch. His film therefore is more of a pictoral thought about the event, rather than an examination of the occasion.

What it says though is still valuable. I don't think any film that I have ever seen has brought home as convincingly the strangeness of Guy Fawkes day. Every year I have been accustomed as are most British people to going to watch a fire and fireworks in the dark on the 5th November- being a historian I know of course what it means and what it is really about which I do not think is true for most of the crowd. Yet what I had never realised was how strange it was and must have seemed to our ancestors. Fire suddenly pouring out of the ground- strange lights and shapes been made in the trees and on the faces of the watchers- the opportunity to dress up in antique clothing- even more so the spectacle of ceremony, the spectacle of the crowd. Foucault would have enjoyed its subliminal messages without quite understanding them. In a world of neon, it is easy to forget the surprise of fire, the scandal of fireworks. Because Newby speeds everything up, he makes you see this for the first time, see its strangeness. Standing in the cold, watching fireworks slowly arc into the sky becomes an experience of five minutes with shooting fire- and that is what it would have seemed to our ancestors, unfamiliar with the speed of a Mario Brothers game and a computer screen.

Speed yet also strangeness- strangeness of course brings to light something else that this is a ceremony, a ceremony which has an antique quality. Like a man from an ancient land, it tells of times when wonder might be produced as a communal and religious activity before the purity of Protestant confessions. There is something carnivalesque, something pagan about the bonfire and the fire and the trees. Again because of the electronic beat and the speeded vision, Newby captures something that is unfamiliar to my eye about the day- and makes me reconstruct it in a different way- an anti-Papist, Northern European carnival. Part of film is making you see things in different ways- Newby does that with his roving camera and his inventive effects (smoky breath coming out of an umbrella for example)- he reminds us of the primitive nature of all ceremony and makes me look again and realise the wonder of Bonfire night.

August 02, 2009

Factionalism in the Conservative/Unionist Party before World War I-the Old Conservatism and the New


I’m now finishing the series of Posts on pre world war one British Poltics . I’m very gratefull to Grachhi for letting me post for the last week or so instead of him.

Before finishing this series of posts I wish to talk briefly about factionalism in the Conservative Party in the pre war era -in a similar way to my previous post about the liberals.

The conservatives were probably more cohesive than the liberals in this period ( though a fair number of free traders defected in the 1900's ). However I would argue two large tendencies can be identified in that party. One the more or less straight continuation of the old Disraeli an party . This was at least it's hard core the tightening of party lines lost a handful of eccentric candidates-for example Winston Churchill's fellow Conservative candidate in his first election- a working class trade unionist who (according to Churchill) was motivated in his Conservatism by dislike of middle class industrialists. However this was the exception rather the rule-by and large those who had been Conservatives stayed in it-wiht hte same profile as before.

The latter group though represented newer set of issues and groups that were largely new to the conservative party. If Salisbury was very much from the "old" perspective albeit flexible, Joe Chamberlain was perhaps the leading example of the latter-not just a liberal but a radical liberal until very shortly before his defection. One could use various labels the former could perhaps be seen as "Tories" and the latter "unionists" to help show the difference in nomenclature. I have decided to call them the "old" and the "New"-though while the groups are identifiable the terms are my own (and are meant non normatively)

The old conservatism was rooted in the institutions and social network that had kept the Conservatives going pre Salisbury. . Their big issues were the defence of the traditional institutions- an Anglican establishment, the honour of the Crown (the two naturally led them to oppose Home Rule), the aristocracy and other institutions that formed the traditional constitutional and social settlement. It's support was highly rural and highly Anglican in nature- the Tory ghetto the Tories were in the process of breaking out of. It tended to be strong among the aristocracy and the gentry- the Cecil family even after the Prime Minister's death were classic examples of the genre.

In terms of viewpoint ( and it is important to remember this was not some rigid or sharply organised group) They were in a way very much conservatives in the strict sense of the word- and had minimal sympathy for social reform and regulation, whether alcohol , poverty programmes or the like-a "positive" conservatism had little appeal to this group. Oxfordshire and other counties still dominated by Anglican rural (or at least rural linked) electorate were the paradigm area of politics of this sort. It's obsessions were the recognisable airs to Disraeli’s' or even the pre Disraeli an Conservative Party, "church in danger" and suspicion of meddling reform- particularly if statist or changing the established institutions of the country whether the Church, the Union or the army.Even their imperialism was old fashinoed and very India centered.

The "new" toryism by contrast drew it's strength from the newer sections of the Conservative coalition . If Oxfordshire might have been a paradigm "old tory" stronghold Birmingham-where the Conservatives traditionally failed to win seats at all was that of the new". Urban voters- particularly ones who worked in fields such as defence production or areas vulnerable to foreign competition such as textiles were more "new tory". Rather than necessarily being Anglican in support it was more ecumenically Protestant as well as more secular including the not very pious and dissenters- and non Episcopalian Scots. Scotland had virtually been a one party state before the mid 1880's and the more vigorous Conservative/Unionist party that followed particularly in Glasgow tended to be very "new tory" in type. Ideologicaly this Conservatism could be seen as more "modern" given the fashions of the time. It was much more sympathetic to social reform-and strongly supported tariffs as the solution to that. It was nationalist in a much more contemporary way- for example it was strongly imperialist rather than just pro military and it's notable that before World War I when this conservatism had grown strong the Conservative party s flirted with armed resistance to Home Rule- in a way that had never been true of governmental reform in the century before . The tendency to see nationalism in a sectarian way in terms of Protestantism-does not contradict this incidentally- Confessionalism and support for a strongly confessional state was falling out of fashion on the European right- but nationalists were very often defined in partly Sectarian terms as separately as Germany or Turkey. Those few conservatives who were sympathetic to such liberal social causes as alcohol control or non denominational education were very much of this type (though it should be emphasised they were a minority even of this type.

When looking at these differences Five key points need to be made.

Firstly it was not a simple matter of moderates vs hardliners-not that such differences did not exist but they cut across these categories rather than between them- both Joe Chamberlain and Hugh Cecil were hardliners on the House of Lords in 1910 for example. It is true the "old" conservatives tended to be more hostile to expansion of the state domestically, much more defensive of the old Confession state ( it was mainly Conservatives of this stripe who opposed Welsh Church Establishment ) and much more constitutionally conservative- seeking to avoid change in the House of Lords altogether for example. But on other issues they were actually more moderate. They tended to be less militantly nationalist as already mentioned, were much less supportive of Tariffs- essentially all the handful of strong supporters of free trade in the Conservative party after the early 1900's were of this faction, and much less militant in their imperialism or desire to military strongly - it was "new conservative organisations such as the magazine National Review that called for conscription for example. So if on some of the "cleavages" of British Politics they were more moderate on others they were more extreme and opposed to the liberal party.

Thirdly this did not mean the conservative party was full of individuals in the "wrong party" even ignoring the degree to which so many Conservatives shared elements of the two types. They could be held together to defend the Union-whether as prerogative of the Crown or expression of British nationalism (or of course both),both could oppose liberal tax reforms whether as unjustified interfering reform or an "anti-British" alternative to Protectionism . And in practice areas like drink, opposition to church disestablishment and at least a position more protectionist than dogmatic free trade held the large majority of Conservatives together

Thirdly these were nonetheless real factional tendencies. The classic case was Joe Chamberlain's organisation of his "Tariff Reform" crusade in the fact of hostility or at least mixed feelings from much of the party. Chamberlain would almost certainly have become Conservative leader-if it had not had a stroke in the 1906 election which left him a shadow of his former self. The leadership election in 1910 to succeed Balfour- the only such election in this period was between two candidates Sir Walter Long and Austen Chamberlain (Joe’s son) who represted the two groups if imperectly. In the end a compromise candidate was achieved Bonar Law who had strong new conservative leanings (he was Church of Scotland rather than Anglican and even had prohibitionist sympathies) but was more acceptable to old Conservatives-not least because he was a less fanatical protectionist and was not likely to take instructions in the same way from "old Joe".

Fourthly the fact it was more "modern" did not necessarily make the policies of the New conservatism more popular-it was a mixed bag though no doubt it's sympathies for welfare expansion were popular in principle . Probably the greatest obstacle to the Conservatives winning victories in the 1900's and 10's was Protectionism- the paradigm of the new Conservative cause. Though interestingly in Birmingham the greater centre of the cause they managed to win seats-suggesting perhaps it was as much the way it was embraced as the reality. The party like the liberals was probably strongest at elections when it could unite around some cause dear to the heart of all factions. Examples were 1895- thought essentially on Home Rule and 1900 fought on the Boer war, allowing old conservatives to defend the military and the Crown's standard, and new conservatives to defend Anglo-Saxon nationalism and expansion.

Finally it would be very easy to see one as "Tories" and the other as Unionists. The liberal party had a massive split in the mid 1880's-when these tendencies were beginning to describe the diversity in the party. It's easy to make this correlation seem causation. The old Tory voting block and elites formed the "old toryism" base among voters, activists and mp's defecting liberal the new. And indeed Birmingham went from being a great liberal stronghold-to a great "new Tory" stronghold-still dominated by the Chamberlains!

However this view would be wrong. IN fact the greatest advocates of free trade in the Conservative Party were former liberals-as were some of the greatest opponent of disestablishment and of the Tories adopting protectionism. Former radicals and Scottish liberals turned Conservative tended to be quite "new conservative"-but former Whigs did not. Indeed Hartington as Devonshire ended up as ones of Chamberlains leading opponent on tariffs. This is easily explained. The Whigs had differed from "old Tories" in having a lower view of monarchical and Episcopal power and believing in a more "open" establishment. But the issues on which these divisions had been fought- issues like the earlier franchise extensions (to a limited degree )and (much more) issues such as admission of Dissenters to Parliament and the "old" universities, were now largely moot. They shared with old Tories a suspicion of reform that either abolished establishments and "privilege" altogether and the new wave of taxation, spending and regulation.

In a sense this shows how quickly the "liberal unionists" became part of a new Unionist party-or to put it another way were absorbed into the Conservatives-the new divisions in the party ran through these boundaries rather than between them. This can remind one of other parties when the defences across the lines that separate close allies start to matter more than the distinctions between them. For example in France the "non Gaullist right’s distinction with the Gaullist right rapidly broke down after De Gaulle's departure from office ending with he foundation of a united party in the twenty first century (albeit with small break away)

So in a sense the factionalism of the Unionists- shows how successful the union between Conservative and Liberal Unionists was. Here is a picture of Joe Chamberlain- the architect more than anyone else of both that union and the “new toryism”. He was about the only figure to be powerfull throughout this period (he died as World War I began) and so is a very fitting figure to end this series with!

Salisbury and the forging of a conservative electoral majoirity


So how did Lord Salisbury this remarkable reactionary, aristocratic intellectual achieve so much for his party making it competitive and even dominant in British politics?


Partly it was through the shrewdness of the issues on which he opposed. He found issues where the tide of reform and opposition to "privilege" was not supported by the public. Home Rule was the ultimate example of this. As already mentioned it was the support of Catholic/ Irish voters on mainland Britain which had prevented the liberals gaining a majority of the seats in the 1885 election and thrown the ability to break a government to the Home Rulers. It must have seemed very tempting to try and do a major deal with them and after all Salisbury had already done something -to gain the votes of their British resident supporters he had committed to reducing Gladstone administrations restrictions on civil liberties in Ireland. But Salisbury very shrewdly did not. This did not just postpone Home Rule by over 3 decades but gave huge benefits to the conservative party. It shattered the liberals-and not just that but precipitated huge defections. The Whigs who'd been dithering on the edge of the liberal party for decades (despite generally being at least a 1/3 of Gladstone’s average Cabinet) broke away. So more did group of former radicals based around Joe Chamberlain and John Bright-and over the next few decades these "liberal unionists" grew integrated into the same parties. The combination of this split and general defections over the issue were enough to make the conservatives and their increasingly cooperative allies win all but on of the subsequent elections under his leadership. Finally it proved a very powerful issue for the next few decades-probably the most dangerous grounds of all issues (with the closely related Boer War-also a Salisbury project) for the liberals to fight on.

But Home Rule was far from the only issue Salisbury leapt on. Perhaps even more than Disraeli he started the conservatives om the role as the party that would stop meddling "interfering" legislation. He solidly opposed drink legislation and attempts to interfere with business or death duties. this helped build up a powerful social base among the middle classes-often traditional liberals increasingly frightened of the implications of the liberal party's dominant factions. Even immigration control began as a Tory issue under Salisbury. These issues varied in the groups they appealed to. So immigration control was at it's most popular in London East End Slums and even before Chamberlain defected and "swung" Birmingham Conservatives were already strongly competitive in the slums-fighting rate increases and regulatory "bossiness" the bad hardest on the poorest. However overall the social appeal was strongest to the middle classes. Strong middle class constituencies like Chelsea (previous a stronghold of radical liberals) swung to the Conservatives under Salisbury-and have often remained Conservative to this day

Salisbury understood that it was possible for Conservatives to win by taking clear stands sharply separated from their opponents- something in which he has been followed by every other successful Conservative leader whether Baldwin , Churchill or Thatcher. This consisted not just of the nationalist and sectarian vote over Home Rule but also of building up a powerful class constituency

It did not however consist of going out on a limb on unpopuolar causes. He knew how to pick fights as well as how to win them The classic case of this was Franchise extension. Salisbury as already mentioned was very hostile to such extension in principle. But in the 1880's he did not use the Conservative majority in the Lords to block it- he avoided a "peoples budget" style confrontation decades early. Instead he used the lords majority to win concessions for redistributing- in theory a "liberal progressive" reform-but in practice a big help to the conservatives separating middle class suburbs from liberal towns. The ultimate example of his willingness to be political on the franchise twas his willingness to consider female enfranchisement on the same terms as men-realizing that the affluent minority of property holding or renting women would be a lot more conservative than the national average.


He was very careful to avoid a fight on a cleavage where the Conservatives were weaker than the liberals- for all his strong principles.. Free trade was a classic example. Salisbury had fiercely opposed repeal of the Corn Laws (which taxed corn imports) and theoretically kept up corn prices for farmers.The "Great Depression" and the linked fall in agricultural prices seemed to offer a massive temptation to embrace protectionism to protect the "rural interest". Salisbury flirted enough with this to make the Conservatives seem more sympathetic to farmers-but very wisely did not endorse it. When his successors did it shattered the Conservative Party electorally. He was helped in this by the fact his vision of government was sufficiently minimal that he was far from a strong protectionist himself


Salisbury's willingess to enter into a certian degree of social reform was also an example of his flexibility in the light of events and willingess to make concessions to electoral reality. In his housing reform Salisbury expanded the very small degree of welfare state-though it still was extensive compared to Disraeli's even more minimal reforms. The reforms followed Disraei's motif in being both modest and being run at a local level-minimising them being a threat to the power of local elites or the cohesion of local communities in a rather Burkean way.

However the great social reform of Salisbury's period was Land Reform in Ireland- which involved huge compulsory purchase of estates and their long term allocation to farmers. This could perhaps be seen as both the greatest policy failure and greatest policy success of Salisbury’s government. On the one hand it failed in it's purpose to end support for Irish Nationalism. Home Rule parties continued to get the same share of the vote (any minor decline being due to division over Charles Parnell being cited in a divorce) and indeed after World War 1 supporters of full independence would gain a majority of seats and make 3/4 of Ireland an independent state. In this it fits a general patter with land reform which perhaps because it promotes instability , perhaps because it is a later attempt to prevent it , seems to disproportionally go before the collapse of a regime.

On the other hand it was designed to break support for the radical and terroristic activities of the land league and opposition to enforcement of land ownership rights -and in that it was triumphantly successful -arguably helping maintain law and order in Ireland for decades. It also brought about a long term ideological shift in Irish politics. Ireland had previously been a radical area hostile to landowners and property. But post independence Ireland was very different-in some ways it's government can be seen as representing a form of Catholic Toryism. It was Protectionist, nationalistic, almost obsessively protective of property, more restrictive of union power than the UK and minimal in its welfare state . This of course goes some way to explaining paradoxically why liberals were so deferential to the Irish party in the 1910 parliament (when the Irish held the balance of power) -because the Irish naturally supported them little on non constitutional issues they needed to be satisfied on constitutional ones. This in turn further inspired Tory fury-feeling as they did they commended a majority on issues but were being defeated by an “illegitimate” log ruling coalition enthusiastic on particular issues- this led to a Tory love affair with referendum that would stay strong for decades.

But perhaps Salisbury's greatest achievement was his ability to expand his coalition. He carefully manoeuvred to bring in for the long term those elements of the liberals alienated by Home Rule In many ways the "Whigs" had long been natural allies their support of a broader constitutional settlement that brought in the middle classes and dissenters was now much less relevant than their opposition to attacks on establishment ,the Union and property. Even so Salisbury sought to keep them on board by essentially offering Harrington the role of Prime Minister-twice! But Joe Chamberlain had been regarded as on the radical wing of the liberal party and it seemed a temporary split. Indeed chamberlain himself probably wanted to wait till Gladstone retired nd then take over the liberals- Unfortunately for him Gladstone though already nearly 80 carried on the leadership for another eight years by which time it was too late for Chamberlain. Salisbury carefully refrained from issues such as Anglican education that would have alienated Chamberlain. Indeed Land Reform was an issue that appealed a great deal to Chamberlain-and it was a conservative government that was to introduce it!

There was also one Whig who it is very impressive Salisbury managed to accommodate-Lord Derby. The son of the Prime Minister he had left the Conservatives in the late 1870's for the liberals/Whigs over Disraeli's foreign policy. He had married Salisbury's stepmother and was clearly hated by Salisbury- Andrew Roberts suggests that Salisbury suspected he had committed adultery with his wife when she was still married to Salisbury's father. But nonetheless Salisbury cooperated well if not happily with Derby as leader of the Liberal Unionists in the Lords.

The reader may have noticed one absence-organisation. Partly that is because Lord Salisbury had little positive to do with the huge increases of organisation in the Conservatives in this period. It is also because I believe it’s impact has been exaggerated-the development of a structured organisation did not correlate closely with conservative victories.

Above is another picture of Salisbury-the man who made the conservatives-essentially for the first time since the mass franchise the majority party.

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.