What are the origins of a one nation “ tradition in the Conservative party-t. The title is of course very vague and used a great deal by figures across the Conservative party political spectrum. However when used with some precision as a tradition of the (arguably the tradition of the ) leftwing of the Conservative party. It could broadly defined as a tradition in the Conservative party that emphasises the use of government to improve social welfare a general belief in compromise and harmony for it’s own sake in politics including and seeking to be overall closer to leftwing opposition than the average member of the Conservative party as a whole and perhaps a relative openness to other political parties and social outsiders . Even today a substantial number of Tory mp’s s identify somewhat with the nominature of this tradition and probably at least a considerable amount with the description.
This tradition is often traced back to Benjamin Disraeli the great late nineteenth century leader of the Conservative party who popularised the slogan ) and is often seen as the originator of a “one nation” tradition to the degree that the mere mention of his name in speeches was at least at one point seen as a sign of identification with the by the “leftwing” of the Conservative party. Disreali is a fascinating and often much misunderstood figure a socially dubious poet who managed to become one of the top powrs in the land, a Jew who was baptised in adolescent who became a Prime Minster in the nineteenth century -arguably a bigger cross over of social barriers than any 20th century prime minster). IN that sense he does represent an idea of “one nation”.
However it is difficult to see how the normal idea of one nation Conservatism as described above has much to do with him . Many of Disraeli’s issues as party leader were related to the call “church in danger” and the linked strong Tory support of Anglican establishment and traditional “constitutional” elements such as the purchasing of commissions in the army . Indeed his famous “Young England” in his youth owed more to that and a certain sentimentality for the middle ages than anything else. While many one nation Tories have been passionate about such issues ( for example Stanley Baldwin who is partly the subject of a future post) it’s hard to see it as specific to that tradition.
Disraeli’ was by the standards of his era highly partisan though it’s dubious whether either should be seen as being contradictory to the one nation tradition.
Three actual policies of Disraeli are often taken as signs of some one nation toy tradition. Firstly Disraeli’s government extended the franchise, secondly his stands on trade issues and thirdly his governments contribution to “social reform” particularly union reform.
All three are extremely dubious. On the franchise Disraeli’s ministry passed the Second Great Reform Act which extended it by an enormous amount the franchise- for example making it have a majority working class . It’s also dubious whether any “one nation” tradition in the twentieth and twenty first century Conservative party can really be identified with franchise extension-in an era where the franchise was no longer an issue. If anything the transfer of powers to non elected bodies such as the European court of justice has been more popular. And if one nation conservatism has been anything it’s not been populist. Even more to the point the evidence is Disreali had no particular desire to massively extended the franchise and was keen just to pass a bill (partly to give his government an achievement and partly to let the Tories write the terms of the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries) -and that the bill was much more radical in effect than intention- it enfranchised most of it’s voters on a technicality which was not realized at the time.
On protection Disraeli has been invoked as one national both as the opponent of “dogmatic” free marketers by bringing down Robert Peel and for his embrace of free trade. It’s hard to see how any particular position on trade reflects a “one nation” perspective. Disraeli’s position on trade was less inconsistent than he is sometimes portrayed. It could be said to be fairly free trade but with an emphasis on obeying election promises, and a desire to help agricultural interests. None of this could be said to have be particularly part of one nation Toryism.
Disraeli’s government contribution to social reform while real has been grossly exaggerated-it was considerably less extensive than Gladstone (and arguably less important than the reforms passed under Disraeli’s Bete noir Peel).- During these reforms Disraeli brought in a new emphasis on local option-that is if ratepayers didn’t want to do something they would not have to do so. The enormously important industrial relations act was a bi-partisan act with as much support among liberals as Conservatives- and the big divide in the Conservative party has never really been on union regulation.
So the argument for Disraeli being a “one nation” Tory is rather tenuous. There would be more grounds to see him a proto-Thatcherite though that would also be rather anachronistic. Disreali presided over and played a part in adding new cries to the Tory election appeal. The older tory cries of the “constitution” and “church in danger” .It was under Disraeli the Tories began attacking the liberals seriously for legislations that meddled with liberties and traditional rights-notably that of the drink trade- in a sense the rather modest beginning of a “small government” appeal. It was under Disraeli that the Tories began to push also nationalist themes such as the empire and the liberals as unpatriotic opponents of troops. As i said to call this the beginning of Thatcherism is anachronistic but it’s hard to see how if there is a distinctive one nation tradition opposed or moderating Thatcherism that it owes much to Disraeli-whatever his role in the use of it as a name.
This is not the only problem. As already mentioned it’s hard to see the divisions in the Conservative party before World War I as being of that nature (though Arthur Balfour did refer to protectionists as the “left” Of the party) I would place the origins of the “one nation” tradition as normally defined in the interwar era-and it is to this that we will now return.
December 19, 2009
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.
December 17, 2009
So in the 1920’s and 1930's what determined which people voted for between a Labour party whose ideology based on the twin principles of cooperation and equality of outcomes and a Conservative party with an ideology based on the defence and conservation of existing intuitions-most of all though not exclusively property.
One of if not the major new cleavage was between the middle class and the working class- or to put it another way those in non manual and manual jobs. The former were overwhelmingly Conservative the latter heavily Labour. These differences flowed naturally from many of their policy differences. The middle classes were the best off so would suffer from redistribution-while the working classes were much more likely to benefit from it. The middle classes included those who owned large chunks of the productive economy-who nationalization might hurt the same did not apply to the working. It’s worth noting that if one believed nationalisation benefited the workers in an industry-a very reasonable belief , industries whose nationalisation was proposed had overwhelmingly working class employees from the Miners to the Steel industries-industries like retailing there was much less support for nationalisation even in the Labour party. Finally of course in this period the middle classes were overwhelmingly non unionised and culturally fairly hostile to trade unions-it’s significant that what might be called middle class trade unions- for example the First Division Association (check) carefully avoided such names and associations. It was the working class that provided the bulk of trade union members. At the same time it was the middle class who by and large owned British held UK government debt as well as paid a disproportionate share of taxation-so the positive economic side of Conservatives was also more appealing... Even Protectionism most obviously helped elements of the middle class-particularly farmers and “cheap bread” was probably a less important requirement.
The Conservatives as mentioned did massively better than Labour in this period-including in the 1930’s when a “split in the vote” completely fails as an explanation. So how did the Conservatives do this? One factor was that some working class voters could be regarded as having very similar economic interests the middle class. Foreman were one direct example and almost certainly voted Conservative at levels rivalling the middle class one reason reflected perhaps partly in the old radical rhymme “the working class can kiss my aXXX I’ve got the Foreman’s job at last”. Servants were definitely another Conservative group though in this case the identify was indirectly-economic damage inflicted to the interests of the best off would obviously hurt servants indirectly-and arguably more than their employers (say if higher taxes led the fifth servant in a household to be fired). The safest Conservative seats in this period included ones in Westminster with a large majority of servants (they were also consequently among the most female –above 60%). They also helped increase the Conservative vote in Oxford which as late as 1945 the safest Conservative seat in Oxfordshire (now the successor seats are by far the least Conservative in that county). However foremen and servants only go some way to explaining how Conservative the working class was- in fact in the interwar period as a whole split very closely between the two parties (some estimates are the Conservatives actually won the working class vote in the 1930’s).
Party this was linked to another difference-heavily working class communities were massively and overwhelmingly Labour. The great Labour strongholds were areas like the Clyde side in Glasgow, Dagenham in London or the South Wales valleys where there essentially was no middle class. Crucially in these areas the working class voted much more heavily Labour than in the country as a whole. On the other hand in areas with a strong middle class minority were the working class also voted more conservative. In a sense Labour was supported by a working class sub culture which did not include all the working class.
The areas which were strongly working class tended to have other probably more important feature impersonal employers. That is they tended to be dominated by large institutions with enormous number of employers and lacked a personal nexus between employer and employee. This is often put down to “deferential” voting – the supposed desire to vote for social superiors which this writer is generally very sceptical. This also runs into the problems that election surveys (which it should be pointed out date to the 1950’s though the pattern of voting was very similar then) show that people with “deferential” feelings were no more likely to vote Labour. Stronger might be sympathy- in Dagenham for the average working class voter the middle classes would generally be an “other” with little close social interaction .In Westminster they were quite likely to live in the same household . Anyone who has worked at a low level for both a small firm and a large firm can probably identify that the latter is much less likely to be seen as a person for good or ill.
However again I think a lot of such distinctions can be explained by perceived economic interest. This can be seen by reference to the four sets of issues that defined Labour’s economic policy redistribution, nationalisation, economic planning and trade union reform. Workers for small employers would be more likely to see any effect on the incomes of the affluent as affecting their own fortunes. To put it another way it was natural for the employee of a small business to see the completion for resources as between that business and the rest of the country , while for a large impersonal one it was natural to see it as being between the “firm” and it’s employees. , while a large one was As already mentioned servants are an excellent example of this –but so too was the nascent tourist industry and indeed seaside towns also were fairly ardently conservative. With Nationalisation large impersonal employers – a miner was unlikely to lose their job (at least the short term) as the result of = there would still be a continuation of the firm just with new ownership (and in fact in many ways that was the model for many of the post-war nationalisations). In a bread and breakfast or similar though any rationalised planned system or national organisation would cut across thousands of small local compromises (so a women who worked two days at a bakers shop would she be sure she’d keep her job under “British Bread”). And the mind boggles of how the nationalisation of the domestic service sectorcould have been organised. To put it another way a government employer would be preferred to an impersonal employer but not necessarily a personal one now nationalization proposals (partly for some of these reasons) were overwhelmingly aimed at industries such as mining or the railways where impersonal employers were already the norm. But if the employees of such industries might support nationalisation in the hope of a better deal – any such “better deal” could plausibly be seen as being taken out of the incomes of those who used the railways or bought coal-that is the rest of the population. And they would of course pay for the taxes for any nationalisation programme.
The divisions over union policy can also be linked to this. Workers had less sympathy with impersonal employers and were more likely to see their interests as antithetical trade unions tended to be much stronger with impersonal employers –much stronger among the miners than servants, among car makers than those who worked in the resort industry. So the clashes over trade union policy reinforced further the tendency of the working class who lived in the most working class communities and worked in the most working class workplaces to be the most strongly Labour.
In a sense indeed it makes more sense to think of the electoral battle of this era being the organised (unionised) working class vs. the middle class or even against the rest of the country. In a straight middle class vs. working class choice Labour would win in a straight trade unionist vs. non unionist choice the middle class would win-in the interwar era elections came closer to the second model.. AT the same time the of minorities’ middle class voters and unionised voters were strongly mobilised making them much more overwhelming in their voting behaviour than the "unorganised" working class.
However even this recasting has its problems Firstly it’s hard to disentangle how much being “organised”- a member of the trade union was important separately from the factors given above-being part of a distinctive working class sub culture with (or in an area dominated by ) impersonal employers. Trade union membership fluctuated quite a lot in a way fairly independent of the Labour vote. Secondly it might be best to call this a battle between the “self conscious” that is the organised (or mobilised) working class against those forces wary of it. So groups who saw their interests as deeply antithetical to the organised working class-such as the middle class, servants or employees of small firms were more likely to be Conservatives than members of the working class who were just not unionised.
It can be seen how the differences between the domestic ideology the two main parties fit this kind of social cleavage. Those who belonged to the distinctive working class sub culture were attracted to the cooperation and equality offered by the Labour party-whether this took the form of expanded welfare benefits, the replacement of the “jungle” of capitalism with a new cooperative economy the nationalisation of their unpopular employer or the defence of trade union rights. The conservative ideology of conservation of existing institutions from fiscal balance to property, on the other hand appealed to those who feared such policies would endanger them and their country.
This kind of partisan choice was conductive to strong and increasing voting on lines of class and unionisation. This was in fact to continue after World War II into the 1950’s-the great exception was 1945 (when the Conservative vote among the middle class was “only” around 60%) an election dominated by “Munich” and housing issues that fit less well into such a profile. However from the 1950’s other issues whether the expansion of universal benefits or immigration would complicate such simple dividing lines and the sharp class division of mid 20th century Britain would fade somewhat.
It was also reflected in geography. The safest Labour seats (say the 52 that voted Labour in their overwhelming defeat of 1931) were overwhelmingly working class areas with impersonal employers. In these highly distinctive seats there was a distinct and strengthening working class culture based around trade unions but held by many who did not belong to them. Which mp’s represented such seats was often politically important. Atlee became deputy leader in 1931 (almost certainly key in becoming leader in 1935 because he represented Limehouse and so kept his seat when virtually every other member of the 1931 government had either been expelled or lost their seat (usually the latter) .This was not the same as the poorest seats – labour’s safest seats were not the most deprived in the country much less than today even though it’s support was much more based on the working class vote. This apparent paradox was really an explanation. The strongest elements of “working class culture” were not among the poorest- those who worked for impersonal employers and were best organised n trade unions were generally skilled workers whose skills had some commercial value-not the poorest of the poor.
The Tories had a much larger number of seats that were Conservative in every election in this period-around 200 or so. These varied a lot some very rural others middle class constituencies in large cities others urban. They all shared in common a very limited number of voters who worked for impersonal employers and were trade unionists-a fact that had implications for Tory factionalism as we will discuss in a future post.
As with geography a great number of cleavages of this period were simply reflection of this fundamental cleavage between a self consciously working class and those furthers from it. A classic one in this author’s view is that of sex the Conservatives were regularly weaker among men than women. This has often been blamed on “chauvinism” in the Labour party-and there is some evidence it was a rather more male party culturally and demographically. But I think it just represents the more fundamental cleavage of those who had a culture of working for an impersonal employer and those who were Firstly women were concentrated in industries such as domestic service or tourism whose employees were naturally firmly Conservative imagine a brother and a sister the latter a housemaid the former a . Secondly workers in the heavily major “impersonal” industries were more connected to the dynamics of the workplaces than their wives. Now for obvious economic, social and psychological reasons their wives were likely to share this but less so. (And single men would have no such) I think this explains the gender gap and any “chauvinism” of the Labour party reflected rather than caused this difference. After all the tendency of women to vote for the right was not that large – it was much bigger in continental Europe where the pious were much more likely to vote Conservative driving the gender gap wider.
That of course does raise an interesting question-what electoral cleavages that were not class or workplace based in nature. Were e there important issues which did not operate on a class basis and how did they work?
This picture is of Ernest Bevin. From working class origins and a trade union leader (in a trade with large fairly large corporate) his role as a Labour party titan reflected well the politics of this era both in his association with the labour party and his enormous power within it.
December 16, 2009
So what was the Conservative party’s belief system in the inter-war era? Before giving my view I want to emphasise that this is even more provisional than the rest of my posts in this series... Moreover this task is particularly less than the Labour party of the era was the ideology of the party based on some set text or Canon.-it has to be inferred from the views and statements of supporters, members and leaders-which is not to say it was not real.
If Labour was defined by cooperation and equality both economically and internationally at the core of Conservatism was the conservation of major institutions. These intuitions could be summarised as the fundamental institutions of the UK state and to some degree society, including Monarchy, the House of Lords, the established churches ( Church of Scotland as well as England), empire, the union and its independence , the army , the major trades including the drink one , the pound and private property (in a sense the earlier institutions could be seen as public property) and civil order.
This held together diehards such as Gretton or arch moderates such as Lord Halifax. -It is no coincidence that it was in this era that the generic term Conservative clearly elbowed aside the more constitutional and generic “Unionist” as the usual Monique for the UK’s biggest right of centre partisan force -even though the change in ideology in this period was not that extensive.
On domestic policy private property was the most relevant important of Conservative party values much more so than it had been before World War I when it had already been increasingly important.- Indeed the formation of the Conservative dominance in this period can be seen as the rallying of electoral forces behind the defence of property. This was because of the clashes of it (as opposed to say Gladstonian liberalism) with Labour whose different forms of Collectivism were clearly incompatible with a high view of the defence of private property. For example the desire for raising taxes to fund redistribution attacked private property, to nationalise large industries, a web of regulations (insert Baldwin quote) controlling the activity of industry all were treated with deep scepticism by Conservatives.
With trade unions the story was more complicated though those privileges of unions which hit hardest against property (for example the ability to break contract without being sued) were the most resented. The General Strike added to this terror of civic disorder and (grossly exaggerated) fear of revolution – it’s no coincidence it was followed by the most significant attempt to restrict union power by the party Conservative government in this period. In a sense unions won some sympathy from Conservatives as a major intuition-it was when these rights clashed with those of other institutions notably the rights of private property that Conservatives-the supposed “anti-competitive” nature of unions that so aroused the indignation of Hatcheries was not a central preoccupation of the interwar Conservative party. The main legislative form this took was the Trade Union disputes act of 1927 which was aimed at keeping the effect of trade unions on other instititution's at bay- by restricting sympathy strikes, mass picketing, civil service unions, general strikes and donations to the Labour party ( a partisan move). Such aspects as legal immunity and lack of organisational regulation were not touched by the interwar Conservatives-which helped reflect their labour ideology Nonetheless this still represented a sharp contrast with the attitude of the aptly and deliberately named Labour party.
The belief the currency and the fiscal rectitude of the nation was also reflected in a firm support for balanced budgets and stable (even falling prices)- as already mentioned the Labour party was quite sympathetic these principles but they lacked the same overwhelming indeed close to unquestioning support. And the combination with the anti tax stance had huge implications for government spending.
IT’s important to realize though that the great mass of the Conservative party did not simply have the opposite priorities to Labour nor did their ideology boil down to what today might be called neo-liberalism or then Gladstonian Liberalism.
For example many conservatives were quite sympathetic to welfare extension-though the widespread scepticism on most ways to pay for it had a big implication particularly when times grew tough and they were fond of the contributaory principle- redistibutionary welfare was seen in a more sceptical light. Nationalising industries (even with compensation) was an attack on private property-but the continuation of state owned industries in state hands was not an attack on it in the same way-even it was equally anathema to the free market. This point was of only marginal relevance to interwar era politics but was to be important in the failure of the Conservative party to reverse most of the Atlee nationalisations. ” Much extension of government intervention in industry in this period were driven by a Labour desire to spread planning married to a conservative desire to project and help British business. For example very extensive regulations were passed under Conservative governments for example they tightened hours legislation Indeed in some areas where government intervention might plausibly be seen as defending property and Britain the Tories were actually keener than Labour-this was true for Tariffs and to a limited degree certain forms of agricultural support.
The last was also influenced by Conservative nationalism and imperialism-the defence of state and empire. IT’s worth noting one of the most popular terms for Protectionism was “Empire free trade”- the Conservatives beloved in an imperial not a “little England” protectionist block. The Conservatives were very wary of the electoral consequences of Protection with good reason their defeat in 1923 was on an election fought on the trade issue. The second attempt I the 1930’s was rather more successful (partly perhaps because other issues such as “economy” in government spending also loomed large). The Conservatives were fairly cautious on Protection-indeed the 1930's owed a great deal to the bullying of "Empire Free trade candidates" who were very completive against, even beating Conservative Candidates in by-elections in the 1929-1931 Parliament.
This caution did not represent much diversity of actual views on trade- Conservatives across the political spectrum were fairly firmly supportive of a break with England’s ancient free trade traditions- a victory for Joseph Chamberlain’s ghost (his son Neville took great pride in introducing Protectionism in the 1930’s). . The free trade exceptions including the likes of Churchill and Salisbury were random eccentrics rather than a proper faction -the equivalent of AV Wedgwood in the Labour party (who hated government regulation). This protectionism was even true of many former liberals or those of Liberal party background whose embrace of Conservatism meant embracing “Empire Free Trade”. The leading liberal Sir John Simon went on to lead that faction of the liberals who stayed “National Liberals” after the reintroduction of tariffs it was his acceptance of Projection that marked the key stage in his and their effective absorption into the Conservative party. Even as late as the 1950’s the young Margaret Roberts (after 1951 Thatcher) who was from a liberal family tradition stoutly defended imperial tariffs.
Indeed empire represented a broader commitment of the Conservative party. AS we shall see it also fiercely divide them on the details. But unlike Labour ideological anti-imperialism was a marginal force in the Conservative party –the debates concerned how to preserve the Empire.
As the party of imperialism, the military and what one might call “state nationalism” the Conservatives overwhelmingly rejected Pacifism or even radical moves to disarmament). Though many Conservatives were League supporters- for them with very few exceptions it was a League of States not a collective of Nations.
This general belief in the utility of force meant that for most of the 1930’s the Conservatives consistently took a harder line on Germany-and were much more supportive of defence expenditure than Labour or the liberals. Neville Chamberlain was attacked by Clement Atlee in 1936 ( for raising defence spending too far "Everything was devoted to piling up the instruments of death."
Obviously this did not mean Conservatives were warmonger in any simple or unequivocal way – Neville Chamberlain (The Conservative Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940) willingness to make compromises “appease” in the vernacular of the time Germany is notorious. But the ideology of the Conservative party also shaped these efforts to appease. The reliance on deals between states and military deterrence in Chamberlain’s version of appeasement flowed from Conservative ideology.
The Conservative party was also unsurprisingly very hostile to the Soviet Union Indeed After Marxist-Leninism as an ideology was self consciously committed to virtually destruction of all the values the Conservative party stood for from private property to religious faith. It has been argued that this had a big influence on the failure to achieve an alliance with the Soviet Union when they dropped support for appeasement in 1939, an assertion the author like many historians is rather sceptical of. But it was certainly the case that the hardest part of “anti-appeasement” for Tories to swallow was any kind of moves in favour of the Soviet Union.
Economics and foreign policy did not of course cover the whole ideology of the Conservative party-and it would be fair to say that was even less true than it was for the Labour party. The old issues whether defence of the established church, the drink trade or the Monarchy still resonated and as we will see in a latter post still had political impact. . There was some dissent on such old issues Nancy Astor the first female Conservative mp (indeed the first female mp) was a fervent prohibitionist which may have helped her win a seat with a powerful liberal tradition. But even before World War I there had been plenty of Tories sympathetic to such policy-including the leader Bonar Law. They remained a minority-more so than in Labour.
O n constitutional issues there is a fair case that the Conservatives were much clearer and more committed than Labour-it was much more central to their ideology. This does a lot to explain the almost complete lack of Constitutional change in the interwar era (and the rather modest Constitution change in the post-war era)
So we have looked at the broad ideological framework of the two major parties of Inter War Era. Next we shall turn to the Social Cleavages that divided and polarized the public.
This is a picture of one of the most significant Conservatives of this era-Neville Chamberlain who was key as Health minister, party chairman, Chancellor of the Exchequer and ultimately Tory leader and Prime Minister. Though in many ways a moderate his protectionism, his commitment to “economy” and his belief in high defence spending and “national deals” all represented a commitment to Conservative ideology. His views were mainstream in the Conservatives they would have been very odd in Labour. It is one of the poignant ironies of his career that his record was to do a great deal to smash the Conservative domains he had done so much to create.
December 15, 2009
So what was the ideological basis of the new one of the two major parties of the interwar - the Labour party?
In examining the political ideology of the two parties that dominated Inter-War Britian we will first examine Labour for the simple reason that it was an entirely new party while the Conservatives were not –and their ideology consequently followed it's pre world war 1 contours much more closely.
If the major theme of the pre war (and indeed inter war) liberal party had been opposition to “privilege” variously defined then the ideological core of the Labour party was a vision of cooperation and equality variously defined...
IT should be emphasised that these viewpoints were not necessarily held by every member of the party held dogmatically and was muted by electoral consideration and by a belief n “gradualism” common to virtually all democratic parties at virtually any time-for the Labour party was firmly committed to liberal democracy more so than virtually any continental Socialist party of the era.
It’s also important to realize the extent of these differences. In particular continental socialist parties were nearly all Marxist or very heavily Marxist influenced even when passionately anti Soviet. There was a Marxist influence in the Labour party-perhaps most notably through Sir Strafford Cripps the “messiah” of the Labour left in the 1930’s but it was limited. Indeed even Cripps’s Marxism had distinct limits-he was a devout even preachy evangelical Christian (when succeeded as an mp by Tony Benn he praised him as “as true a Christian”) unthinkable even among moderates in most Continental Socialist parties of this era. British Socialism or "Labour party ideology’s of this era can’t be boiled down to a single set of texts even to the limited extent one can for continental socials parties. However t had a number of quite coherent ideological themes on both domestic and foreign policy.
Domestically one major theme was a belief in economic redistribution-in the redistribution of economic income and wealth to create social equality-generally through progressive taxation and different forms of Social services. IT’s worth noting the most vicious split in the Labour party in this period was in 1931 when a Labour cabinet narrowly refused to go along with nominal cuts in unemployment benefit (it may have stayed static in real terms-it was a time of deflation) which were accepted by even the most “paternalist” Tories and nearly all “radical” liberals. Contrary to myth a majority of the Labour party have never believed in absolute economic equality-but a move towards it was an overwhelmingly consensus from this period onwards.
Another pillar was an attempt to end conflict in industry through collective (legally speaking government) ownership of major parts of the productive economy. This was argued for on grounds of efficiency –it would eliminate what was seen as wasteful in profit and competition. But even more important was a powerful ethical and sociological idea- that collective ownershi8p could end or at least massively mitigate the conflicts and perceived materialism of the capitalist system and bring a new era of co-operation. The notion of a new “Jerusalem” in Labour thought owed a great deal to this idea of replacing conflict with cooperation-and state ownership of much of the productive part of the economy. The lack of a Labour majority in this era meant very few steps were made towards this but the intention was there.
The same motives lay behind planning- the attempt to control the workings of the production and the capitalist economy through planning- price controls, production controls and the like again replacing the waste. Nearly all the liberals who joined the Labour party were those who had expressed sympathy for such planning before World War I. As mentioned in a previous post planning had often be embraced by was often those liberals who were "imperialists” before the war. One of these was Lord Haldane before World War I often regarded as virtually a Tory-who became a Labour Chancellor in the 1920’s.
Another effective principle of the Labour party’s ideology sat a bit an uneasily ideologically with the others- that was defence of the legal immunities and independence of the trade unions. In part through historic accident the British trade union was immune to most forms of legal restrictions (for example they could not be sued for going on strike in breach of an agreement) and were essentially completely autonomous- a combination found virtually nowhere else in the world.
The Labour party had been founded in the 1900’s to protect and restore these privileges-with great success. It was not so successful in the interwar period-there were moderate restrictions on the unions imposed by the Tories in the wake of the Great Strike and the high unemployment of the era made it a difficult one for union membership.
Defending almost completely autonomous bargaining unit’s sits somewhat uneasily with the attempt to tame competition and conflict. One clash was triggered by the creation of London Transport (in some ways the greatest Socialist achievement of the interwar eras) by Herbert Morrison then minister for transport. He clashed sharply with Ernest Bevin the greatest trade union of the era over the terms of its creation –Bevin representing trade unions sought to have guaranteed union representation on the board which Morrison serving a vision of planning for a perceived common good refused-this triggered a lifelong hatred by Bevin for Morrison.
However politically at least this was type of clash was the exception not the rule. For example the union leadership were opposed to unemployment benefit cuts and Trade unions (particularly the miners) were increasingly keen to Nationalize major sections of the economy to gain a more sympathetic employer. And as we shall see trade unionists were the electoral base of the Labour party.
The Labour party ideology on foreign policy was again based on replacing conflict with cooperation. In this case it took the form of a big belief in cooperative international endeavours which made a plausible case to be based on some kind of “collective” interest and particularly the League of Nations. It also led to an intense wariness of war and assertive nationalism.
This meant that the Labour party was consistently more supportive than the Conservatives of compromise with l movements for auto money and independence against the United Kingdom (in the inter-war period India and Ireland were by far the most politically significant) and consistently more hostile to arms spending (in the early 1930’s the Labour party came very close to supporting total disarmament). For much of the period Labour party foreign policy was dominated by the imperatives of disarmament and opposing to “warmongering”.
Naturally the events of the late 1930’s brought a change-but there was still a distinctive element to Labour party foreign policy which was more supportive of a grand rather than tight alliance (for example one that included the Soviet Union) and more respectful to the League of Nations. IN a sense it was not only a belief in cooperation that tied together Labour party ideology on domestic and foreign affairs but a belief in equality-in this case the equality of states and national movements among themselves.
Unsurprisingly given how close the Labour party had been to the liberals there was a lot of carry over ideologically – even though opposition to “privilege” as opposed to a belief in equality and cooperation was not central to Labour thought. This was reflected for example in a general support for free trade strange in a party of state planning of private enterprise. This was partly a historic legacy. It does perhaps also reflect the reasonable view of tariffs as a tax on the poor and the belief in international cooperation.
They also inherited the liberal party’s wariness to the “non parliamentary” aspects of the Constitution settlement- particularly the House of Lords. However constitutional issues were much less central to the labour party which failed to manifest the enthusiasm for constitutional reform that had been a feature of liberals. This is particularly noteworthy given that these institutions (with the important exception of the Church of England) were more hostile to “Socialism” and the Labour party than they had been to “radicalism” and the liberals.
It should be emphasised such a description is general not specific. The Labour party even at an elite level was a broad enough church- after all several of its leading members broke with the Tories Even igniting that there were other examples of exceptions- for example that the rabidly teutonophobic Hugh Dalton had little time for disbarment much less pacifism.
It should also be noted the huge areas that the ideological preoccupations of the Labour party left uncovered. For example a belief in planning and government ownership did not mean that one rejected balanced budgets or believed in “reflationary” (unorthodox “in a specific sense) economics-0 and indeed despite the best efforts of an Oswald Mosley (briefly a McDonald protégé) the liberal party proved much more sympathetic to such policies in this era. To take another example while the extension of social services was championed selective education or traditional gender roles were generally embraced not rejected- they simply did not clash with the core principles of Britihs Socialism and indeed they arguably fitted in unusally well with those of the Labour movement. Thus while in many respects the Labour party of the inter-war period was more radical in principle than it has been for nearly all its history since in other respects it was a lot more “rightwing."The ideological development of the Labour party has not been a simple story of moving “right” or “left” but a much more complicated one.
This is a picture of Herbert Morrison-one of the titans of the Labour party of the Inter-war era.
December 14, 2009
The Interwar Era and Multiparty Politics- the fall of the Liberals, the rise of Labour and the Conservative hegemeny
The interwar era was an era of partisan flux and replacement. Overall despite ups and down the trend was the gradual decline of the Liberals to the benefit of the main two parties. In 1918 the two factions of the Liberal party still had more support than Labour some 26.7% of the vote despite electoral deal and 163 seats . By 1935 those Liberals who were not "national" (effectively Conservative) had around 6% of the vote and 21 seats-an extremely poor third. So part of the story was a story of a once massive party being reduced to insignificance in a new two party system.
Given the liberals could reasonably have been seen as the “middle” party at least insofar as issues such as state ownership of industry and industrial relations this arguably represents the vulnerability of a third party in a simple plurality rule system. This is particularly true of parties in the “middle” on the key issues which was definitely true for the liberals on industrial relations and probably on state ownership and economic redistribution as well. In a sense this era is the triumph of institutions-in 1900 there were two overwhelmingly dominate parties in mainland Britain. IN 1935 for all practical purposes this was true again-but one of the parties had been replaced.
It was also an era of coalition-no coincidence of course since three fairly completive parties make a coalition more likely (as the 2010 General Election may let prove). .This was true of the Conservatives who had an absolute parliamentary majority but formed a coalition anyway out of electoral caution in 1918-1922, 1931-1935 and (rather nominally) 1935 onwards. It was an era of tacit coalition both the Labour government of this era 1922-1923 and 1929-1931 were minority governments backed by the liberals and in large part as a consequence with a rather modest agenda. The Tories were the only party to have majorities in this period.
This brings to another distinctive feature. –it was an era of Tory dominance even ignoring the majorities they gained in coalition with others. . They were also the only party to rule alone in 1922-1923 and 1924-1929. However only in 1931 did they actually win an absolute majority of the Votes (the last party in UK history to this date to do so) and in 1935 if you count their now very nominally separate “National” Liberal and Labour allies.
This had led to much talk about a “progressive” majority in this era- defeated by its own divisions-often see as another distinctive feature of the era. I disagree with this theory least insofar as this infers Labour would have won if the liberals had withdrawn from the political fray. In fact the two elections where the Tories obtained no majority (1923 and 1929) were those the liberals did best ( while not in an alliance with the Conservative. Moreover the Liberals then supported a Labour government. In terms of the actual situation one could see the liberals as more splitting a natural anti-Socialist majority. Indeed the first big Conservative majority of this era was in 1924-an election that saw a rise in the Labour vote but a massive switch to the Conservatives from the liberals who had put Labour in power. It was in the 1930’s that the liberals first temporarily allied with the Conservatives (in the 1931 crisis)-the official Labour party then won 52 seats. In 1935 the newly indepe3ndent liberals were weak enough a large Conservative plurality/ majority could assert itself.
In this view which is basically my own it was not until World War 2 that the Labour party competed with the Conservatives on fully equal terms- it was only the liberals splitting the anti-Socialist vote that allowed Labour to win minority governments in the interwar period On the other hand if the Tories had presided over the economics of 1931 it’s questionable whether that would have remained the case!. In light of the demographics which we will talk about in the next post it is worth pointing out that the liberals in this era owed a great deal of their strength to rural and small town areas where organised “labour” whether industrial or political was to remain weak was to be persistently weak for decades to come.
Despite this fear of electoral weakness was a persistent theme of this period's Conservative party. As with the sobriquet “inter-war” hindsight was not available at the time. There was often a very scared conservative party-fear (unjustified) of Lloyd George’s popularity in 1918 and again fears of a defeat for the Conservative party in 1931. Even the dominance of Stanley Baldwin (which will be discussed latter in this series) owed an enormous amount to a fear Socialism would beat a “diehard” or somewhat diehard Conservative party – a fear that might have been wrong though that’s taking us into very complicated counterfactual waters. The same was true of the Labour party for most of this period it too was very sceptical of its electoral strength. It’s willingness to take office in a minority government unable to achieve much “Socialism” owed a great deal to this belief. From fairly on the leading figures in the two parties Baldwin for the Conservatives and McDonald for Labour felt they had more in common with each other than many in their own parties.
This moderation aroused considerable resentment which spilled over into electoral politics in a way that was not true in the post World War 2 eras. -there was several significant breakaways form the Labour Party in this era most notably the “independent Labour Party” defection of 1932. There was also frequently massive success for rightwing independent candidates in this era-most notably the “anti waste” candidates whose victory over the Tory-Lloyd George coalition in the early 1920’s helped provoke it’s splits and the "Empire Free Trade" candidates that helped push the Conservative party to embrace protectionism as a policy (as opposed to an ideological aspiration) in the early 1930’s.
There is of course another way of looking at a “progressive” majority- this might argue that it was Labour who split the vote and prevented a liberal majority asserting itself- this is a lot harder to rebut. This of course begs the question of whether the believers in the ideology of the Labour party should have really been happy with the policies of liberals instead of fighting for their own... It also seems fairly clear the liberals would have been crushed in 1918 even if Labour did not exist-indeed probably even If Labour did not exist and they had been united. Also the new boundaries of politics created a new politics of class and Labour that meant many Labour supporters were almost certainly old Tories, Tory strongholds in Glasgow started to go Labour for example. It is to the ideology of this party to which we now turn.
The picture is of Ramsay McDonald perhaps the supreme symbol of the politics of this era- as Prime Minster first for Labour then in a Tory dominated coalition he represents both the rise of Labour and the Tory dominance of this era.
December 13, 2009
We are now going to examine in a series of posts different aspects of British politics in what might be called for want of a better term the “Interwar Period”. That is the period 1918-1939 and particularly that from 1922 when the slimmed down version of the wartime Coalition led by Lloyd George disintegrated. In doing so we follow on from an earlier series on UK politics before World War I.
Obviously this era was not at the time considered the “interwar” era- a point one too easily doesn’t reflect on. On the contrary it was fervently hoped that World War I had at least as far as the UK was concerned been the “War To End All Wars”. This was the view of the British Political Establishment and almost certainly the British public Indeed it’s probably the case that British resistance to fighting a major war was as high as it has ever been in the last few centuries- the famous/ notorious “peace ballots” being evidence of this. Hatred of major conflict was one of the dominant themes of the era- the attempts to appease Indian discontent with British rule should arguably be seen as part of this as well as the attempts in the 1920’s and 1930’s to appease Germany. The few (though often nasty) colonial conflicts did not mar the general impression for the average Britain of a peaceful era that should be retained. It was how to preserve peace not fight war that the parties squabbled.
Another powerful theme of this era was economic trouble. There were several very nasty depressions in this era provoking major fiscal crisis’ complete with tax increases and spending cuts Indeed to this day the spending cuts of 1920’s and 1931 are under some measurements the greatest in peacetime UK history. The UK (contrary to the myth of the “1930’s” though was very unusual among World economies l in the temporal distribution of these troubles. The UK had one of the world’s worst economic performances in the 1920’s and one of the world’s best in the 1930’s (of course the world economy did rather worst in the latter case). The UK had persistently high unemployment throughout the post 1922 period and (probably not coincidentally) frequent deflation- in 1939 the nominal GDP of the UK was below 1920 levels.
Economics had of course been a major political issue before the war (see the people’s budget). But it grew after the war for a number of reasons. Debt and hence taxes was much higher in the wake of the war. The war left a thick nexus of controls on the economy which were both inspiration and horror to a large number of ideologues and enthusiastic. Perhaps most important was the rough economic climate. This helped lead to a wave of strikes that sparked conflicts on union legislation. It also fed a constant series of fights over welfare spending and taxation which exacerbated divides between the haves and the have not. Also it led to a search for alternatives whether “retrenchment” “Protectionism” “Reflation” or “Planning” .This search however was much more powerful among intellectuals and even voters than in influencing the behaviour of the Chancellors of the Exchequer. Nonetheless even they broke with long standing British economic totems whether free trade or the Gold Standard.
It’s probably no coincidence that economic issues had a tendency to elbow out the Constitutional (Indian affairs was a very big exception) ones that had been so big in the pre war era. IN a sense the politics of cultural identify were elbowed out (without being destroyed) by the politics of class. There were other reasons, in many ways the” wartime” coalition had produced a much more broadly supported settlement o many constitutional issues. Ireland was the big one. Southern Ireland “Eire” was now independent and Northern Ireland was mostly run by a devolved parliament which’s politics were mostly ignored by Westminster. A constant theme of British poltiics before World War I was Irish mp’s using their clout to push constitutional reforms which provoked a massive backlash in Protestant Ireland more significantly in mainland Britain. This was now gone- in fact Ulster now provided a minor but valuable bulwark of support for the “Unionist” party ( the still significant name the Conservatives in Scotland and Northern Ireland in this era)-in 1974 Edward Heath was to lose the premiership in part because his abandonment of Northern Irish Unionism had lost him those mp’s support.
Other changes had also helped ease constitutional polarisation -notably the disestablishment of the(Anglican) Church of Wales – disliked by it’s heavily Methodist and Baptist population. . A still hereditary but much less powerful than pre Parliament act House of Lords was still valuable to the conservatives but much less dangerous and offensive to their opponents-which is not to say it was not still a bone of contention . The growth of ecumenical ism and arguably secularism may have helped weaken earlier divisions. But the growing pull of economic conflict was perhaps the most important of all.
The rise of economic issues and the decline of Constitution issues l fed on and fed another important factor-the development of a new party system along a rather different set of political cleavages than what had mattered pre war. And it is to that party system that we now turn.
The picture was taken in the Great strike of 1925-one of the great polarizing clashes of the era.