All political coalitions evolve naturally over time; issues come and go, and so do constituencies. But it can be perilous to change a party’s stripes too abruptly. For a political party or movement, there’s both an identity and a community formed from the combination of the voters it pursues, its positions on issues, the nature of its leadership, and the way it presents itself to the public. It is always easier to kick out politicians and chase away voters than it is to bring new supporters into the community and develop new leaders with a new identity. The experience of the British Tories in the mid 19th century offers a vivid illustration, one that carries cautions for today’s conservative parties, from American Republicans to the Conservative party of today’s U.K.
The British Parliament before 1832 was in only the vaguest sense a democratic or representative institution. High property-owning thresholds for voting, unevenly distributed districts, and the division of power between the elected House of Commons and the hereditary House of Lords all combined to dilute its democratic character. Still, from the time it began meeting regularly in the early 1700s, Parliament was a legislature with two principal factions — the Tories and the Whigs — that had distinct constituencies and points of view.
The Whigs, as defenders of parliamentary prerogatives against the throne, were the dominant faction for the bulk of the 1700s, but by the end of the American Revolution, the Tories had surpassed them. Between 1783 and 1830, including the entire quarter-century of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, the Tories ran every ministry but one, in a unity government that lasted barely a year. The prestige of wartime leadership attached to men such as William Pitt the Younger, and war heroism to the Duke of Wellington. Their status as a long-governing majority party fostered a diversity of views within the party, elevating men such as George Canning and Robert Peel who were not orthodox Tories.
Moreover, the long tenure of Tory leadership, especially in wartime, meant that ambitious and talented young men were attracted to become Tories; future consequential prime ministers such as Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone all started their careers as Tories during these years. Palmerston, who ran the military budget for 18 years before becoming foreign secretary, embodied the sort of national-security professional who made the Tories the party of what might be called the Deep State in today’s fevered political language. As a broad governing coalition, they made room for such men to specialize in and work on some particular aspect of the causes their governments pursued.
The Great Reform Act of 1832, passed under the first Whig ministry in many decades, made British politics more competitive. Property qualifications for the franchise were loosened, though by no means eliminated, and the worst of the “rotten borough” abuses were abolished, bringing parliamentary representation somewhat more in line with a district’s population. The Whigs, having designed the reforms, gained the upper hand for a while, but the Tories — increasingly styling themselves as Conservatives — still formed a ministry under Wellington and two under Peel in the decade after Reform.
After 1832, the two factions began to act more like modern political parties. Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto was the first effort by a British party to set out something like a party platform. But discontent with Peel and his style of leadership was growing. Disraeli’s arch description in his 1844 political novel Coningsby sounds notes that will feel all too familiar to conservatives in 2019:
The Tamworth Manifesto . . . was an attempt to construct a party without principles; its . . . inevitable consequence has been Political Infidelity. . . . [When] men began to inquire why they were banded together, the difficulty of defining their purpose proved that the league, however respectable, was not a party. The leaders indeed might profit by their eminent position to obtain power for their individual gratification, but it was impossible to secure their followers that which, after all, must be the great recompense of a political party, the putting in practice of their opinions; for they had none.
There was indeed a considerable shouting about what they called Conservative principles; but the awkward question naturally arose, what will you conserve? The prerogatives of the Crown, provided they are not exercised; the independence of the House of Lords, provided it is not asserted; the Ecclesiastical estate, provided it is regulated by a commission of laymen. Everything, in short, that is established, as long as it is a phrase and not a fact. In the meantime . . . the rule of practice is to bend to the passion . . . of the hour. Conservatism assumes in theory that everything established should be maintained; but adopts in practice that everything that is established is indefensible. To reconcile this theory and this practice, they produce what they call “the best bargain;” some arrangement which has no principle and no purpose, except to obtain a temporary lull of agitation, until the mind of the Conservatives, without a guide and without an aim, distracted, tempted, and bewildered, is prepared for another arrangement, equally statesmanlike with the preceding one.
. . . Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for Antiquity, it offers no redress for the Present, and makes no preparation for the Future. It is obvious that for a time, under favourable circumstances, such a confederation might succeed; but it is equally clear, that on the arrival of one of those critical conjunctures that will periodically occur in all states . . . all power of resistance will be wanting: the barren curse of political infidelity will paralyse all action; and the Conservative Constitution will be discovered to be a Caput Mortuum.
As one of Disraeli’s characters famously summed up his target: “A sound Conservative Government, I understand: Tory men and Whig measures.”
The Corn Law Crisis
Meanwhile, a crisis was brewing that would rend the party in two over trade. Britain approaching mid-century had become the world’s leading exponent of free trade, as it sought to exploit its superiority in manufacturing, naval power, and commercial shipping. This became such a point of principle in British foreign policy that Britain in 1839 went to war with China to enforce its right to sell opium there. Large sections of the British economy had a stake in free trade, and those who could vote considered it important to their pocketbooks.
But there was one major anomaly: the Corn Laws, which raised the price of a battery of basic staple foods, from wheat to barley to corn (in Britain, the word “corn” meant grain in general). Enacted by a Tory government at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Corn Law tariffs were a gift to the landed aristocrats who made up the core of Tory support in both the Lords and the Commons. But for the urban poor and working class — including the manufacturing labor force and the customers of the merchant class — they were oppressive. For the manufacturing class, they also undermined Britain’s trade interests abroad.
Peel, who in 1846 was entering the fifth year of his second tenure as prime minister, had been a prominent Tory politician since the Corn Laws were enacted, and had previously supported them. But Peel had come around to conclude that the Corn Laws were both inefficient and unjust. The bulk of his cabinet and the men in administrative offices agreed. His problem was that his party had long defended the Corn Laws, and its supporters wanted them to stay in place.
The issue became more acute in late 1845 as the Irish potato blight led to famine, making a tax on basic foods look not only archaic but obscene. Peel could justly have brought forward a temporary suspension of the Corn Laws as an emergency measure, but he felt that the political pain would be less if he pushed for permanent repeal all at once, rather than retaining the pretense that the Tories still believed in them as a long-term measure. He accordingly dropped a proposal to repeal the Corn Laws into a somnolent series of presentations in January 1846. Disraeli, then a back-bencher, launched a blistering, personal tirade against Peel as a flip-flopper and betrayer of his party, selling out the people who had made his career. He concluded: “Let men stand by the principle by which they rise, right or wrong.” The speech rallied a Conservative insurgency that ended friendships and shattered party unity.
The Corn Laws debate dragged on for five bitter months. Peel got his repeal, mostly with votes outside his own party, but his coalition was irreparably damaged. After losing a vote on a separate Irish issue, he resigned the night the bill passed. He left the party and would never return to high office. Conservative governments would rule for only two of the 20 years after Peel’s fall. It would be 28 years before another Conservative government took office with a parliamentary majority.
After the Schism
Many of Peel’s followers went with him into party exile, never to return to the Conservative fold even after Peel’s accidental death in 1850. Others, like Gladstone, lingered a while on the Conservative benches before drifting away. The Peelites were a minority of the party, but they included nearly all the men experienced in high office. The Conservative advantage in experience and prestige was decapitated in a single strike.
When a split in the Whig ranks briefly toppled Lord Russell’s government in 1851, the Queen sent for the Earl of Derby to form a cabinet, but Gladstone and other Peelites refused to join, and the proposed government collapsed in a humiliating failure before it started. As Disraeli later conceded, “Every public man of experience, however slight, had declined to act unless the principle of Protection were unequivocally renounced.” The Conservatives, once respected and still popular in the countryside, were now the laughingstock of London.
The next Conservative government, formed by Derby in 1852 after Russell’s government fell for good, underlined the problem. When the names of the new ministers were read out, the aging and hard-of-hearing Duke of Wellington kept interjecting, “Who? Who?” at all the obscure and unfamiliar names. The ministry, which lasted just ten months, went down in history as the “Who? Who?” ministry. Meanwhile, most of the civil service was stacked with opponents of protectionism. The new ministry wanted to eliminate a vacant position at the Board of Trade, a bulwark of free traders, but felt compelled instead to get at least one of its own men into the system.
The substantive problem was what to do when you build a party around defending something that has already been repealed and has no prospect for return. Disraeli, by now the Conservative leader in the Commons (while Derby led the party from the House of Lords), began working on a new agenda. In a twist that Peel would have found bitterly ironic had he lived to see it, Disraeli began arguing that the Corn Laws fight was lost and that Conservatives should accept free trade and move on. Derby was alarmed; having alienated the nation’s rising business class and driven out most of the people who knew how to govern, all his party had left for a constituency was the agricultural supporters of protection.
The party needed to maintain the public face of protectionism without a realistic plan to enact it. Opponents pounced, introducing a resolution declaring repeal of the Corn Laws to have been “a wise, just, and beneficial measure.” Disraeli grumbled that “our men will take anything [which] is not absolutely spitting in their face,” but was only briefly rescued from the humiliation of a vote on the measure by Gladstone, who preferred to let Disraeli fail on policy rather than principle. He did not have to wait long.
As chancellor of the exchequer in 1852, Disraeli decided that the solution was not to reintroduce tariffs but instead to try to pay off the grain farmers by slashing the tax on malt. Unfortunately for him, the only way to balance the budget was to shift the tax burden onto other constituencies, which made his proposal dead on arrival. Its failure ended the first Derby ministry, ushering in a Peelite ministry.
After the Fall
It is difficult to wholly blame either Peel, for doing what he believed was the right thing, or Disraeli; for calling on his party to stand consistently for conserving something. It may well be that the obsolescence of the Corn Laws, and their popularity with the party’s bedrock supporters, made some crackup inevitable. But the costs of a cycle of betrayal, disillusion, insurgency, and personal animosity were as painful then as they are today.
It is not hard to see echoes of the travails of the Disraeli-era Conservatives in today’s Republicans, torn between Trumpian populists and nationalists and Reagan/Bush-era free marketeers over trade, immigration, and other issues. Is the bleeding of support among business elites, national-security professionals, and suburbanites worth it? Is it delivering successes that could not be obtained otherwise, or just empty promises to conserve what is already gone?
For that matter, Disraeli’s own party is still bitterly divided over Brexit, with David Cameron having gone the way of Peel and Theresa May faring little better, leaving Boris Johnson to fill the Disraeli role. Johnson, a student of British history and, like Disraeli, a writer, undoubtedly relishes the prospect, and stands a better chance of building a majority if he can get to face the voters. But the fate of Brexit still hangs undecided over Parliament.
The parallels can be overdrawn. One reason why the loss of Conservative support among the business class and the political elite was so damaging in the 1850s was that it could not be offset (as Disraeli desired) with working-class support, because the British working class was barred from voting until a second reform act passed in 1867. Though that reform was long championed by the Whigs and their successors, the Liberals, it was Derby and Disraeli who actually delivered it, after which their party’s nationalist appeals helped them recover parity with the Liberals in the decades to come.
In the long run, a political party needs all of its elements to succeed: not only different factions within its coalition, but also a balance of elites and populists, leaders of the people and followers of their moods and needs. When they can no longer coexist, the wilderness beckons.
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