Diehard Conservatives: Southern English or Four Nations?

Diehard Conservatives: Southern English or Four Nations?

In a special post marking the announcement of the date for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, Dr Neil Fleming (University of Worcester) places the current divisions in the Conservative party in an historical context.

The split within the Conservative party over Europe is more visible this week following David Cameron’s return from negotiations at Brussels. The party throughout its history has experienced similar periods of deep division, between a pragmatic leadership and backbenchers committed to Tory orthodoxy. In the early nineteenth century, Catholic Emancipation, the Great Reform Act and repeal of the Corn Laws led ‘Ultras’ to rebel against senior Tories. And in the early twentieth century, ‘diehards’ defied their party leaders by actively opposing reform of the House of Lords.

Ever since the 1960s, and especially from the 1990s, so called Eurosceptics have tended to be on the right of the party. And Conservatism’s electoral dominance in England, along with its relatively weaker presence in the rest of the UK, inevitably leads some to assume that Eurosceptic anxiety about sovereignty is rooted in a right-wing definition of English identity masquerading as British.[1]

It is hardly surprising, therefore, if people today regard the south of England as the heartland of the Conservative Right, and that some might even assume this has always been the case. To test whether or not the Conservative Right is principally a southern English phenomenon, it is instructive to look back at earlier Conservative crises over Britain’s global status.

The most spectacular of these took place in the early to mid-1930s. It concerned the question of whether or not the Conservative government should grant India an increase in ‘responsible government’. At the height of the controversy, grassroots Conservatives at the 1934 party conference came close to securing a majority against it. And on 11 February 1935, 84 Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip, over a fifth of the parliamentary party, in one of the largest recorded backbench rebellions in the twentieth century.[2]

On this occasion, the parliamentary party divided into three camps. So called ‘diehard’ Conservatives opposed constitutional concessions as a surrender to agitation and ‘terrorism’. Diehards argued that the India Bill abdicated Britain’s imperial responsibility to govern the Raj on behalf of its minorities. In contrast, Cabinet ministers believed that the bill granted the necessary amount of self-government to Indian politicians without undermining Britain’s key interests in defence and economic matters.[3]

Most Conservative MPs and the party grassroots fell between these two positions. They did not share the front bench’s sense of urgency in passing a measure of reform. And many were anxious about the implications for Britain’s global power at a time of heightening international tension. Yet they were also reluctant to take a stand with the diehards and risk undermining the Conservative party’s buoyant electoral support.

Did the ‘diehard’ rebels merely represent the safe Conservative seats of southern England? Certainly, the seaside resorts favoured by retired colonial officials, along with the Home Counties, contained a preponderance of diehard MPs, including their leading spokesman and the member for Bournemouth, Henry Page Croft. Yet these same areas returned Conservatives of all stripes to Westminster.

It is true that no diehard represented a Welsh seat. But Scotland returned a number of MPs who voted with the diehards on India. These included Sir William Alexander (Glasgow Central), the Duchess of Atholl (Kinross and West Perthshire), J.G. Burnett (Aberdeen North), Charles Emmott (Glasgow Springburn), Sir Patrick Ford (Edinburgh North), and William Templeton (Coatbridge).

But the most striking clusters of ‘diehard’ votes outside the south of England represented Lancashire and Northern Ireland. Conservatives in the industrial north-west of England were alarmed by the potential harm the India Bill might do to the county’s exports in manufactured cotton. And it is significant that Lancashire Conservatism had strong support from the working class, not only in mill towns but also in Liverpool and Manchester.[4]

A third of Ulster Unionist MPs opposed the India Bill. Not unexpectedly, Ulster Unionists—who were relied upon to vote with the Conservatives at Westminster—tended to be sensitive to legislation which appeared to grant concessions to nationalists. This built on a tradition of Irish Conservative MPs and peers being disproportionately involved in the major backbench rebellions of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.

The revolt over India was not a one-off incident. When rumours circulated in the late 1930s that Neville Chamberlain considered ‘returning’ former German colonies—under British administration—to appease Adolf Hitler, many of the same MPs threatened to rebel again.[5]

If the Conservative Right today appears to be an English phenomenon, it reflects the Conservatives’ weak performance in Wales and Scotland in general elections to the Westminster parliament. However, in an ironic twist to the party’s initial opposition to devolution, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay now provide Conservatives with significant platforms in Scotland and Wales.

What is clear is that the Conservative Right have never been an exclusively southern English phenomenon, something the EU debate is likely demonstrate when Conservatives across the UK choose to defy their party leader in the forthcoming referendum.

[1] For discussion of these questions see, Krishan Kumar, The Idea of Englishness: English Culture, National Identity and Social Thought (Aldershot, 2015); Menno Spiering, A Cultural History of British Euroscepticism (Basingstoke, 2015). A similar point might be made about the electoral success of UKIP.

[2] N.C. Fleming, ‘Diehard Conservatism, Mass Democracy, and Indian Constitutional Reform, c. 1918−35, Parliamentary History, vol. 32, no. 2 (2013), pp. 337−360.

[3] Carl Bridge, Holding India to the Empire: The British Conservative Party and the 1935 Constitution (New Delhi, 1986); Andrew Muldoon, Empire, Politics and the Creation of the 1935 India Act: Last Act of the Raj (Aldershot, 2009).

[4] N.C. Fleming, ‘Lancashire Conservatives, Tariff Reform and Indian Responsible Government’, Contemporary British History (early view: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13619462.2015.1087318?journalCode=fcbh20); N.C. Fleming, ‘Women and Lancashire Conservatism between the Wars’, Women’s History Review (early view: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13619462.2015.1087318?journalCode=fcbh20).

[5] N.C. Fleming, ‘Diehard Conservatives and the Appeasement of Nazi Germany, 1935–1940’, History, vol. 100, no. 441 (2015), pp. 412−435

Neil Fleming is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Worcester. His forthcoming monograph, Britannia’s Zealots: The Conservative Right from Empire to EU, is due to be published next year by Bloomsbury Academic.


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