George Walford: Politics by the River’s Brim

Marxism sometimes loosens its grip on the intellectuals enough to permit a timid reference to conservative working people, usually in the tone reserved for rare species facing imminent extinction. In fact, of course, among workers as among capitalists, those who support the constitution (largely conservative) of existing society are more numerous than reformers or revolutionaries. For the Conservative Party to maintain itself as a party of government it has to obtain the support of a large proportion of the voters who work for a living and the compliance of even larger numbers. It managed to do this when the electorate was restricted and the only choice was between Conservative and Liberal, and it does it now, with adult suffrage and after the electorate have repeatedly experienced Labour government. The Tories and the People, 1880-1935 by Martin Pugh (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1985) tells of the Primrose League, and how it helped the Conservative Party keep its hold on the support of working people during the period shortly before, and during, the rise of the Labour Party.

Disraeli died in 1881 and the League was founded in 1883. The reasons for its title are familiar, but less securely based than might have been thought; there is little evidence of any special connection between Disraeli and the primrose, except as a gimmick in his dealings with Queen Victoria; his novels mention the flower only to recommend it for salads. The original intention was not to seek a mass membership, but the interest shown by the lower classes (Pugh’s term) changed this. A dual system of membership was set up, with Associates paying only a very small sum, and the results were dramatic. In 1884 there were 900 Knights and Dames and 57 Associates, but in 1910: Knights and Dames 167,293; Associates 1,885,746. In 1900 (when Associates already formed the great majority) there were 6,000 paid members of the League in Boston, a figure equal to the total membership of the Independent Labour Party at the time.

Pugh comments on the tendency of historians to neglect conservatism as a subject in favour of the left, and ascribes it to the way conservatism remains largely merged in its background, “the constant element in the British political system,” while the left steps forward in dramatic and challenging opposition. Until late in the 19th Century conservatism had little in common with the centralised organisation of today, country gentlemen expecting to manage their localities themselves, without interference from any centre. But as Reform Acts followed one another the Conservative Party in the narrow (and original) sense – the Members of Parliament who accepted the conservative whip – found themselves faced with the task of securing the votes of a large part of a greatly expanded electorate. The official mass conservative organisation, the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional (later, Conservative and Unionist) Associations was set up in 1867, the Conservative Central Office in 1870 (and the Primrose League in 1883).

Unlike the other two, the League for most of its life was not formally associated with the Conservative Party, and its activities were more social than political. It included non-voters as well as voters, women and children as well as men. A meeting of a League branch (they were called Habitations) was a combination of music hall, harvest supper and women’s institute, with a political speech serving mainly to aprovide an interval. The leaders of the movement did not llow the League (or the National Union either) an influence on policy commensurate with its membership, and this reveals much about conservative attitudes. Members of the Labour Party treated like that would be protesting furiously, but conservatives tend to be happy to leave to the leaders what they like to describe as thd “high ground” of policy decisions. It was possible to submit resolutions for debate at Grand Habitation, but “detailed policies were simply regarded as out of bounds,” the political purpose of the League being framed in general principles such as Monarchy, Religion, Empire, and the Estates of the Realm. Pugh stays close to the record, not trying to set the League, much less conservatism, into any significant relationship with other political movements. He says the League, although without specific commitment and willing to support any movement consonant with its principles, did not in fact support any but the Conservative Party. Nothing surprising about that, since its approach, eschewing on the one hand unprincipled expedience and, on the other, the rigid thinking which in the conservative view deprives liberalism (and much more so, Labour) of necessary flexibility, is distinctive of this stage in ideological development.

In extending its membership to embrace working people as Associates the League was extending down the social scale the approach adopted by  conservatism among the country gentlemen when the electorate was more restricted. It found support among these new voters, so often claimed by the left as their natural adherents, as it had found them among the old.

It did not set out to effect any sharp change in their ideas but, working through family contacts and local attachments, sought to induce those, who were willing to bestir themselves at all in political affairs, to join in defending the the way of life they valued. Pugh does not suggest that those who joined the League were coerced into it by their employers; they joined because they found its approach to be consonant with their beliefs. Many people now support the Labour Party in the same way, not out of enthusiasm for the socialism it still occasionally mentions, but because it has come to represent, to a very large extent, the same sort of stability, tradition and patriotism that the conservatives used to monopolise. Neil Kinnock recently provided striking confirmation of this by assuring us he would die for his country. As he said it a strange buzzing sound came from all around; it was the internationalists of the early (and uninfluential) days of the Labour Party spinning in their graves.

Pugh recognises what is meant by conservative claims to be deeply rooted in the country, and in this respect conservatism has not changed since the days of the Primrose League; it still sees itself as expressing feelings, customs and traditions rather than any definite theory of politics. Roger Scruton, for example, has recently been quoted as saying that once the effects of Labour rule have been cleaned away he would like to see the powers of government once more in the hands of “bumblers and utterly inactive, incompetent politicians” (Observer, 29 Dec 85). Conservatism believes the electors to prefer, in political matters, the traditional to the enterprising, feeling safer with bumbling incompetents than with clever leaders likely to introduce uncomfortable and dangerous novelties.

We may not like this view of the electorate, but the evidence shows it to be closer to reality than the vision of the workers groaning under oppression and held down by the force or trickery of capitalism. The general body of the people, workers and capitalists alike, do plenty of thinking, and very acute much of it is, but it is directed, with rare exceptions, to their finances, their personal and family affairs, to jobs, hobbies, sports and entertainment. The great social issues they are, for the most part, happy to leave to the politicians, and this attitude consorts better with conservatism than with socialism, in any meaning of that remarkably elastic word.

The enthusiastic response to the royal occasions of the past fifteen years, together with the wave of patriotism evoked by the Falklands War, goes to confirm that the attitudes which supported the Primrose League are still alive, and well, and living in Britain among other places.

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IF, AS the (A-)SPGB assert, ‘socialism’ is the answer, it must have been a funny question.

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.