The political world that the Tories used to inhabit was changing drastically in the second half of the nineteenth century. With each passing electoral reform and extension of the franchise it appeared harder for the Conservative interest traditionally defined to oppose the legislative designs of the Liberals. To be a Tory meant to firmly defend property (especially landed), the Established Church, and to have a strong respect for authority and order as opposed to dangerous social innovation. In the absence of a modern party apparatus or agreement on party tactics, this basic worldview united Conservatives. But to men like Disraeli, Salisbury and Randolph Churchill (Winston's father), to be a Conservative also meant to be capable of adaptation when it was required.
By mid-century, sensible Tories had to accept some basic truths – Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Act of 1832 could not be undone, and they would have to adapt to periods of being in opposition. By 1885 the Conservatives, traditionally the party of the country, derived half of their support from the urban boroughs and had an effective party organisation. The rise of 'urban Toryism' represented a remarkable transformation in the base of the party’s support and the triumph of those who knew that a changed society would need a changed Conservative Party. Neither Disraeli nor Salisbury drove the development of the political organisation that eventually managed to harness the votes of the urban electorate for the Tories, but neither did they obstruct a process that developed from below. But both Disraeli and Salisbury contributed to the transformation of the Conservative Party by their support of electoral reform, which found expression in the acts of 1867 and 1884-5.
The Reform Act of 1867 was at the time a tactical concession to the Liberals, passed on the understanding that the Conservative Party could not block a second reform bill and hence should pass one on their own terms. It hence cannot be seen as a purely Conservative initiative, or one that belongs entirely to Disraeli. However, his skill at piloting it through the House of Commons and preventing a fragmentation of the Party, as well as gaining some reformist credentials for the Conservative Party, allowed the subsequent transformation of the Party's organisation to occur. Following the Act, Tories faced the future with a degree of uncertainty – three quarters of the new electorate resided in the boroughs, a world largely impenetrable to traditional Conservative methods of garnering votes.
Here bribery and social influence was no sure way of ensuring votes were cast in their favour, and in response to this there was a gradual emergence of a Tory movement that realised that new means were needed to win elections. The Left had plenty of organisations in the big cities such as Dissenting chapels and trade unions, whereas the Conservatives had a poverty of such bodies and could not rely on informal influence. Subsequent changes in the representative system and the electoral system made the cities ever more important, as did rural depopulation and the agricultural depression of the late 1870s that made the counties more unpredictable.
Posthumous perceptions of Disraeli did more to encourage the move of the Conservative Party onto a mass base than he had done during his lifetime. Although Disraeli has been cast by some historians as a 'Tory democrat', he was a romantic elitist. ‘Democrat’ is a strange label for a man who only faced two election contests in his life and hardly ever spoke in public. He did not particularly care to cultivate plebeian opinion and was often hostile to it – indeed, he saw radicalism and liberalism as the biggest threats to the British constitution and to 'Englishness'. 1867 had been a matter of tactics and he was quite happy to accept the mandate to do very little that was handed to him by a country wary of Gladstone's legislative activism in 1874.
His earlier dalliances with Radical and Irish MPs had been to thwart Liberal designs rather than out of sympathy with their views – his longer-term goal was always the good health of the Conservative Party. He achieved this goal especially (and probably accidentally) by bequeathing a Conservative ideology of national unity and ‘Englishness’ that could transcend class and appeal to people of all social standings. As the Primrose League later recognised, the new Conservatism would have to address all social classes and gradations of wealth to be successful amongst an electorate that was no longer composed primarily of the rich and powerful. To justify hierarchy, and hence the Conservative Party, the former had to be seen to benefit all. Disraeli's idea of a traditional English society whose unique culture was being subverted by cosmopolitanism and dangerous individualism could appeal to anyone whose woes could plausibly be blamed on Liberal interventionism. Following 1867, the Tories could claim they were as willing as anyone to trust 'the people' with political power – but power still needed to be exercised wisely by aristocrats.
The most direct use of the mythology of Disraeli to foster a Conservatism based on social inclusiveness was the Primrose League, which had originally not been designed for mass membership but created the status of 'Associate' in April 1885 so that the poor could become involved. The League was excellently integrative as it crossed boundaries of age, class and gender. It was an attempt to bridge the gap between the exclusive world of Westminster and the largely non-political populace. By offering a small dose of politics alongside a larger display of entertainment, the League was popular because it was less sober and boring than other political organisations. It provided a formal and institutionalised way to systematically influence the opinion of millions of people in a way that they found cheery and amenable.
The old system of informal influence and bribery would have found it absolutely impossible to achieve the same on so broad a scale, but the League was virtually financially self-sufficient. It also exemplified the Conservative focus on community rather than individuality, as joining and attending was often a family affair. Most importantly, it included people of all social classes and involved them in activities together in a way which no other party's political organisation at the time did. The Primrose League was hence in an excellent position to exploit the situation created by the electoral reform of 1884 – 5, which Salisbury did much to engineer.
The reform of 1884 – 5 was the latest thing that was helping the Conservative Party develop a new image, however uneasily most men of Salisbury or Churchill's background viewed it. The Conservatives had decided to block reform until it was linked with franchise redistribution, which some genuinely wished for. It was hoped that the creation of class based constituencies and smaller constituencies would allow Conservative support to be concentrated in areas where it could lead to a candidate being elected, rather than Toryism being swamped by Liberal opinion. Redistribution, along with suburbanisation, achieved this goal and created constituencies of middle-class Tory leanings. Of course, middle-class support might falter if not given adequate attention.
Salisbury, like many Conservatives, feared an alliance between the middle and working classes against the aristocracy, and hence the Primrose League and its values were important as an integrative body that helped reduce class conflict. Disraeli had not actively tried to foster a broader political culture, but his legacy was evoked to help legitimise social integration and deference in the boroughs. Workingmen’s clubs were viewed as dangerous unless they included men of other classes, and so if maintenance of Tory working class strongholds would require political organisation, it would need to be socially integrative organisation.
If the agency of change is sought in explaining the rise of non-aristocratic Conservatism, and specifically the rise of Conservative political organisations that became so vital for the party, it will mostly be found to have emanated from below. The man most associated with 'Tory democracy' at the time and since – Lord Randolph Churchill – was certainly no avowed democrat and cannot be viewed as the driving force. He only tried to define the concept in public once and did so in an essentially Conservative way – it was clear that everything he did he did to defend what he saw as traditional Conservative values.
Rather, having accepted the 1884 reforms after they passed with a large majority from both parties, he exemplifies the new attitude to urban Toryism that Salisbury’s reforms had helped to foster. Urban Toryism had been on the rise for many years despite not being actively encouraged by the party leadership, which frequently came into conflict with the local organisations. Its rise had been helped by a rise in ‘jingoism’ among the middle classes, anti-Irish sentiment (especially in the North West) and the drift of the bourgeoisie towards the Party. Salisbury had little detailed grasp of borough politics but was perfectly willing to welcome the urban plutocracy into the parliamentary party. He only did so because he recognised that these classes had an interest in law and order and the maintenance of property rights, although they came from a different world to the landed one he identified with.
Although Salisbury instinctively sympathised with the landed interest it was nigh time to face the fact that times were changing, and so 1884 – 5 can be seen as an attempt to shore up traditional aristocratic governance on a much wider base. He was much more interested in governing than managing the party, and he only intervened in party matters when strongly advised to do so by Smith or Akers-Douglas. The party-political organisation that was going on beneath him and that he had helped to create the conditions for did not interest him as much as legislation or diplomacy. This highlights the fact that his contribution to the actual creation and management of new electoral support – which is the main feature of the transformation of the Conservative Party in the latter half of the nineteenth century – was necessarily small on a day-to-day level, although he had created the conditions for it. Like Disraeli, he thought in terms of bigger things.
The success of Disraeli and Salisbury was to keep the Conservative Party together in a time when its traditional power bases were declining and there was a danger of lapsing into extreme reaction, or of becoming an anachronism in a sea of Social Democratic politics. They themselves viewed the boroughs and many of the voters within them with distrust and fear, and would have felt better had they not had to participate in a transformation of the Conservative Party. But such a transformation was necessary due to the changes surging through society. By both at least tacitly accepting the need to construct a new urban Toryism that was socially inclusive and cultivated by 'modern' political organisations that acted as propaganda centres and were able to influence elections, they helped to steer the Conservative Party into a new era.
Disraeli had managed to prevent the secession of a large body of support from the Conservative Party (and his tenure had seen the not-inconsiderable drink interest added, although this was due more to Liberal failure) so that his successors might take advantage of Liberal disintegration. The Marquis of Salisbury’s tenure saw the reconstruction of Conservatism so that it was able to garner a great deal of support from respectable urban opinion that responded to what had since become seen as ‘Disraelian’ tactics of stressing patriotism and social integration. The Primrose League, largely driven by pressure from below, exemplified the specific tactics that a defence of hierarchy, property and rank now called for. The Tories had come a long way since 1832, even since mid-century, and managed to stake a credible claim to being the national party of government.
B. Coleman, Conservatism and the Conservative Party in Nineteenth Century Britain
J. Cornfod, 'The transformation of the Conservative party in the late nineteenth century', Victorian Studies (1967 - 68)
M. Pugh, The Tories and the People, 1880 - 1935
M. Parry, 'Disraeli and England', Historical Journal (2000)
P. Smith, Disraeli: a brief life
Michael Bentley, Lord Salisbury's worldview: conservative environments in the late nineteenth century