Saturday, 5 March 2011

Keith Flett on the History of the Tory Party

Opening remarks at The Making the Tories History Conference Institute of Historical Research 26th February 2011

Conferences at the IHR take a while to organise, so its fair to say that if we had decided to have this event in the last few weeks we might have focused on 1848 or the London mob. Even so the history of the Tory Party deserves the serious consideration of historians and we have some excellent papers today.
Pondering 1848 I note that Disraeli wrote to Philip Rose on the day of the great Chartist demonstration at Kennington on 10th April 1848 ‘in case there is not a provisional Government would it be quite convenient to you to let me have a thousands on the fourteenth. Let me have a line at the Carlton’.
The note demonstrates private confidence that there would not be a British 1848. Rose was Disraeli’s Solicitor who had made his money on the back of the 1840s railway boom. He was also the national agent of the Tory Party.
I have been a practicing socialist research historian for more than 30 years but I have never before considered in detail the history of the Tory Party.
Yes I both knew the late John Saville and agreed with his ideas on ‘total history’. That is that socialist historians should not just write history of or from the left. We need to understand how the class forces in society interact to grasp the direction of movement of society and the struggles in it.
Yet I haven’t given much thought to the history of the Tory Party.
As a labour historian and in particular an historian of Chartism I have studied and know a good deal about the history of the Liberal Party. There is also an excellent book by John Vincent on its formative years from the late 1850s onwards.
It is also the case that I do know a fair bit in outline of Tory history.
I know that they were lukewarm at best about the 1832 Reform Act and that there was a general crisis, split and reconfiguration over the Corn Laws in the 1840s.
I also know that Disraeli modelled a new form of Toryism in the 1860s and that in the final quarter of the nineteenth century Irish politics were a touchstone for ruling class politicians and that sections of the Tory and Liberal parties swapped sides on what appeared to be quite regular occasions.
But I did not have a sense of the Tory Party as a party.
I understood Marx’s views on it in the 1850s and John Saville’s correcting passages in his book on 1848. I also took a general understanding that the Tory Party had been one of the world’s most successful ruling class parties.
Researching the history of the Tory Party in 2011 two questions have come to mind.
Firstly while the modern Tory Party certainly started to develop and form itself after the 1832 Reform Act and partly defined itself in opposition to it, could it be said to have a coherent existence as a Party until at least the skeleton of the framework of the British State was in place?
After all if its purpose, as a modern party, was to run the affairs of that State, and that was certainly one of its key raison d’etre, then it first of all needed the State itself to exist.
John Saville one of the few historians on the left to pay attention to such matters gives a good outline of how the British State developed in his book on 1848. He notes that the first issue to be dealt with was the security of the State-particularly in Ireland but on occasion in Britain too. This was the motivating force behind the development of the original structures of the State.
These started to develop some extra areas of authority as the State- primarily the Home Office- moved into new areas of regulation with the Factory Acts and the Poor Law Amendment Act. By 1854 with the Northcote-Trevelyan report there was a structure for the civil service, and the division between clerks and decision takers,that still exists today.
At the same time there was a need to make sure that politically the developing State balanced out the representation of the old landed interests and the new industrial ones- arguably the new ‘middle class’- where these were not the same. The 1835 Municipal Government Act achieved some of this by partly democratising the machinery of the local State.
The point is that while this State, at least nationally, was in various ways in the process of formation to have a settled political party seeking to run it did not really work.
Hence we can begin to understand why in the late 1850s, with much of the early formation of the State done, the Whigs turned themselves very deliberately into a new party- the Liberals. The timing makes particular sense when looked at in this perspective.
If the Whigs transformed themselves from the late 1850s into the Liberal Party, Disraeli, for the Tories, was equally keen to construct a new framework for the Tory Party.
The 1867 Reform Act provided a powerful stimulus for this, with a new layer of electors to be related to. The Conservative Party had to become a party with local organisation in constituencies, able to organise and mobilise new working class voters.
In the 1867 Election for example, many seats went uncontested by the Party
The National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations was formed in 1867 giving the party the beginnings of a national political structure and Conservative Central Office appeared in 1870 to give a bureaucratic framework to Tory policy and Parliamentary activity.
The Party had previously been run almost as a private fiefdom. In matters requiring legal decision it was represented by Disraeli’s personal Solicitors, who also looked after finances. For a modern party this was unsatisfactory.
Disraeli, or his lieutenants, hit upon a lawyer JE Gorst to take charge of the National Union and set up a Central Office. It was clearly not a universally popular move but information on the setting up of the organisational framework of one of the great British political parties is limited.
Compared to the information about the setting up of the Labour Representation Committee, and the Labour Party itself, that exists in a number of works, the Tory Party has provoked little in the way of historical work, beyond that of the official Party historian Robert Blake. The best modern historian of the Tory Party the late John Ramsden provides a little more detail but adds no significant insight to the historical account. The only article is by Feuchtwanger in Historical Research for 1959.
While there are plenty of Tory historians therefore, historians of the Tory Party itself are remarkably limited.
Its true that the events of 1867, the Reform Act and how far radical and working class action made the Government act in certain ways or not has provoked some debate. Royden Harrison has put the case for and been answered by Cowling.

The Moment of 1867; Bagehot

1867 represented a significant moment in the history of the British ruling class. Further concessions were made on the suffrage after a discussion which had started in the 1850s. It is not the aim of this commentary to add further to the already quite extensive literature on the events of that year. Certainly however whatever weight is to given to working class influence on these events there is no doubt that there was some, and that the changes to the franchise meant that more working class men got the vote.
This was the concern for all bourgeois politicians. How would Disraeli’s shot in the dark impact on election results. There was not at this stage much thought that an independent party of labour would be formed that could challenge electorally. The possibility of specific working men standing as candidates in receptive constituencies was certainly allowed for, but the memory of the Chartist electoral challenges only 20 years before seems to have faded.
The assumption was that many working-class votes would go the Liberal Party which after all had already re-modelled itself to accommodate to some extent this constituency. In the 1868 General Election Ernest Jones stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate.
The one area of the country where the Liberal factory owners were hated sufficiently to mean that the increase in the electorate helped the Tories was in the north-west of England, as Engels comments below. His argument of course was precisely that workers needed an independent political party. Disraeli however saw the example of the north-west as something that improved Tory organisation could build on.
In terms of organisation, the Reform League provided a conduit for the Liberal Party to send out League organisers, semi-covertly, to map what the new working-class vote might be inclined to do. Disraeli’s Conservative Party had no such mechanism. In fact in 1868 the annual conference of the National Union of Conservative Associations was attended by just 8 people.
Disraeli was distracted by writing a novel and it was not until Spring 1870 that JE Gorst was appointed to set up Tory Central Office in Parliament St and to increase the number of active Constituency Conservative Associations, and hence reduce the number of seats that Liberal candidates won uncontested.
Elections in this period had to be only once every 7 years and infact Gladstone called a snap election in January 1874. Gorst had had nearly 4 years to organise the Tories and he did so very successfully indeed. One modern innovation that Gorst may perhaps be credited with developing is that he purchased, according to Ramsden, a press agency to more effectively get the Tory Party’s view expressed in the press. It was, perhaps, something that they had either not previously thought necessary or simply taken for granted. Now in the post-1867 environment it was more important and it meant that they started to get consistent press coverage for example, as Ramsden again notes in the London Evening Standard which was felt to be a ‘reliable supporter’.

Engels on the 1868 General Election
What do you say about the elections in the factory districts? The proletariat has once again made an awful fool of itself. Manchester and Salford return 3 Tories against 2 Liberals, including the milk-and-water Bazley, Bolton, Preston, Blackburn, etc., almost all Tories. In Ashton it looks as if Milner Gibson has gone to the wall. Ernest Jones nowhere, despite the cheering. Everywhere the proletariat are the rag, tag and bobtail of the official parties, and if any party has gained strength from the new voters, it is the Tories. The small towns, the half rotten boroughs are the salvation of bourgeois Liberalism, and roles will be reversed: the Tories will favour more members for the big towns and the Liberals will favour unequal representation.
Here the electors have increased from 24,000 to not quite 48,000, and the Tories have increased their voters from 6,000 to 14-15,000. The Liberals have let slip a lot, and M. Henry did a lot of harm, but it cannot be denied that the increase in working-class votes has brought the Tories more than their simple percentage, and has improved their relative position. On the whole this is a good thing. As things look now, Gladstone should have a narrow majority and will be compelled to change the Reform Bill to stop the rolling stone; with a large majority, he would have let things take their course, as usual.
But it remains an appalling display of weakness by the English proletariat. The parson has shown unexpected power, and also the cringing before respectability. Not a single working-class candidate had a ghost of a chance, but mylord Tom Noddy or any parvenu snob could have the workers’ votes with pleasure.
The howls of the Liberal bourgeois would amuse me very much were it not for this accompanying experience. To cheer myself up properly, yesterday I made Borchardt’s son-in-law, who had dutifully drudged for the Liberals, as drunk as a lord.
F. E.

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