George Walford: Precision, Political and Religious

The Church of England has been described as the Tory Party at prayer, and the connection between nonconformism and liberalism is hardly less close. Both refuse comfortable compliance, displaying a cross-grained determination to get things right, both insist on freedom of thought and conscience yet hold back from fundamental interference with accepted relationships; as liberalism would increase the scope for meritocracy without overthrowing established hierarchy so nonconformity, while insisting on the responsibility of each person for achieving, through Christ, their own salvation, yet sees this taking place under an omnipotent deity. The connection, arising from the common origin of the two movements in the ideology of precision, has been noted repeatedly in the literature of systematic ideology (one recent reference appears on p. 60 of Beyond Politics) but it has remained for the most part not much more than an assertion, supported by the occasional quotation or instance but with no systematic historical research to confirm it. Now we find that Stephen Koss, Professor of History in Columbia University, has studied the political behaviour of nonconformists; what follows here is based on his book Nonconformity in British Politics. [1]

The nonconformists active in politics comprise mainly the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists of one sort or another; when these groups have associated themselves with a political movement, rather than trying to exercise direct influence upon society, liberalism has been overwhelmingly the favourite partner. “The alliance between Nonconformity and Liberalism, like that between Anglican interests and Toryism, had long been axiomatic.”

Precision stands beyond principle in the ideological range, so we shall expect to find movements expressing it displaying greater divisiveness in their thinking than do those rooted in the less developed ideology. Of the time when nonconformists were known as Dissenters (the change of name indicated an improvement in status) Koss notes that while Anglicanism “encompassed a variety of divergent tendencies,” Dissent “consisted of a panoply of sects, some theologically irreconcilable.” The National Council of Evangelical Free Churches was established partly to obtain greater leverage in Liberal Party councils, and its internal dissensions “mirrored” those of the party. The parallel, between Anglican / nonconformist relations in the religious field and Tory / Liberal ones in the political, strengthens when he mentions. [2] Brian Harrison’s observation that Liberal leaders differed from Tories like Disraeli and Salisbury in sometimes deferring to public agitations or even stimulating them. The tendency sprang from their belief in popular control and desire for moral progress, features more prominent among nonconformists than among Anglicans with their distrust of enthusiasm.

Nonconformity, broadly based in the provinces, did much to help the Liberal Party extend its appeal, Primitive Methodism in particular being active in this way in mining districts. The way in which the two movements express the same pattern of thought, one in the religious and the other in the political field, comes out in “In their capacity as Liberals, Nonconformists were quick to find secular justification for their doctrines on personal salvation. With equal ingenuity, they propagated a spiritual justification for Liberal doctrines of individual enterprise… ” Bentley notes that all liberals of all periods see nothing amiss in principle with capitalism, believing their task to be one of improvement, [3] and Koss says almost exactly the same thing of nonconformists: “Far from rejecting the prevailing system they were confident that they could work it with better purpose and greater equity.” The theological individualism of one movement equated with the political activism of the other and nonconformity was seen, both by its own members and by others, as the backbone of nineteenth-century Liberalism. Both the Bloomsbury Central Mission (Baptist) and Whitfield’s Mission (Congregationalist) were headed by men active in the Liberal Party.

Since the Edwardian period religious denomination has been less of an influence between and within parties than it used to be, and liberalism no longer flourishes as “the accredited agent of a militant nonconformity”. Nonconformists have tended to withdraw from politics into more strictly religious activity, the Methodist Conference of 1974 even abandoning the traditional advocacy of total abstinence, leaving the issue to the individual. Koss suggests this withdrawal of nonconformist support may have been partly responsible for the declining fortunes of the Liberal Party, but also inclines to blame the increasing weakness of the party for the withdrawal: “The disintegration of the Liberal Party… left Nonconformists confused in theory and divided in action.” The place formerly held by liberalism as a critic working to make good the imperfections of the establishment has been partly taken by the Labour Party, and as this has happened so Labour has gained nonconformist support. The change indicates no departure from nonconformist attitudes but rather the infusion of the new partner with Christian tenets and the evangelical fervour of the movement; the mountain has been brought towards Mahomet.

Koss has tabulated the figures for members of the seven main nonconformist sects appearing as candidates and MPs for the various parties for each General Election from 1900 to 1935. In 1900 127 nonconformist candidates were Liberal of a total of 171; in 1906, 191 Liberal of a total of 223; in January 1910, 160 of 195; in December 1910, 155 of 186; in 1918, 111 Coalition or Independent Liberal of 182; in 1922, 93 Asquithian or Lloyd-George Liberal of 222; in 1923, 123 of 207; in 1924, 120 of 222; in 1929, 156 of 262; in 1935, 61 Liberal or Liberal National of 146. In sum, over ten general elections, in each of which the Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties competed, of 2016 nonconformist candidates 1297, or 64%, were liberals of one or another variety.

IC has more than once expressed scepticism of number-juggling in social affairs, and definition is always a problem; the brief career of the Social Democratic Party, for example, drew attention to the presence within the Labour Party of many people holding beliefs more liberal than socialist. Nonetheless Koss’s work, tabulation and historiography together, does tend to support the idea of a special connection between nonconformism and the Liberal Party.

[1] Koss S, 1975 Nonconformity in Modern British Politics London: Batsford All quotations are from the first 40 pages.
[2] Harrison B. 1971 Drink and the Victorians London, 291
[3] Bentley M. 1987 The Climax of Liberal Politics London: Edward Arnoldā£ 1987

from Ideological Commentary 48, November 1990.