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BRITISH POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT SINCE 1900 THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY IN AN AGE OF MASS DEMOCRACY: 1918 TO 1964 How were the Conservatives able to maintain themselves as the dominant party in British politics from 1918-64?
With the emergence of mass democracy in 1918... Introduction Inter-war years - class/economics/Labour failure/Liberal impact/Baldwin Post-1945 - rejuvenation/class/economics/Labour/Liberal/Attlee 1951-1964 Conclusion The Attlee Years: N. Tiratsoo
- The Reconstruction of Conservatism:
- The Conservatives were not consistently dominant. The 1945 election saw the loss of 60% of the old Tory MPs.1
- Rab Butler saw merit in the 1945 defeat, arguing that it was good for the country and for the party. After 1951, the Labour Party was not so naive and the Conservatives not so complacent and anachronistic.
- The radical populism which had reached its zenith in 1945 was all but undone by 1947, thanks to the demands of the Cold War and Labour Statism. The Conservatives were attracting the support of anti-socialists who were by no means natural Tories.
- Conservative party reforms: introduced the training and payment of party agents - subsequently reconstructed both their organisation and policy.
- Party membership doubled between 1947 and 1948.
- The experience of the war and the emergence of the Welfare State was a server challenge for Conservative policy makers. 'Progressive' Conservatism was adopted, with begrudging acceptance of the new mixed economy.
- The 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy provided a boost to the Conservatives. It advocated an export-based economy, wage and price stability, union restraint, and the regeneration of manufacturing.
- Formulated the 'Industrial Charter' in 1947.
- Emphasised the importance of the individual and the consumer. Symbolised a gradual return to Conservative unity along its newly adopted principles2.
- Conservatives benefited from not being in office during the period of retrenchment from Empire, particularly the loss of India. Churchill retained outmoded attitudes to Empire.
- The emerging Cold War landscape did much to neutralise the politics of the Left. Conservative recovery was contingent on partial reversal of radical populism.
- 1945-51 the Conservatives adopted the language of the people. The arrival of 93 new MPs in 1950 cemented the party's shift in narrative.
1 The Attlee Years: N. Tiratsoo 2 The Attlee Years: N. Tiratsoo
Social Relations in Britain, 1880-1950: R. McKibbin
- Class and Conventional Wisdom:
- By 1918, society's relationship with the working-class had become the central political problem. Middle-class strength rebounded in inter-war Britain to the electoral advantage of the Conservative party3.
- During the inter-war years the Conservatives assembled a coalition of social groups.
- By the mid-1920s, the Conservative Party had c700,000 members - more than twice as many as Labour - and predominantly middle-class.
- 1945-79 - following the post-war coalition, both the Labour and Conservative parties were in office for 17 years.
- After 1918, the 'old' Liberal vote was initially divided almost equally between Conservative and Labour. Yet, by the 1930s, it was almost entirely Conservative. The anti-Labour majority continued to exist post-1945, but the Conservatives failed to consistently mobilise it4.
- Post-1918 electoral boundary changes resulted in a gain for the Conservatives of around 30 seats. At the same time, Irish MPs, left-leaning, withdrew from Westminster (c70 MPs).
- Conservative defeat in 1929 meant they had the good fortune of being in opposition at the height of the depression.
- pre-1914 and post-1945 it would be disingenuous to classify the Conservatives as the 'normal' vote.
- McKibbin argues that the Conservatives represent the predominant value order, and only those with an objection to that order vote against it.
- Deflationary fiscal policy kept tax low and restrained wage-growth pressure. In 1929, a middleclass family earning PS500pa paid only PS8 tax. Tax bands were set up to the advantage of those on low and middle incomes.
- Anti-inflationary policies in the 1920s subordinated manufacturing in favour of finance - managed currency, protection, debt controls.
- The Liberal party was the greatest threat to Conservative predominance in the inter-war years:
- It spoiled the Conservative vote to Labour advantage in 1923 and 1929.
- Became a special interest party that distorted political debate.
- Still won 29% of the vote at the 1929 election.
- In 1929, Labour splitting of the Left vote cost the Liberals c40 seats to Conservative advantage.
- A help or a hindrance?
- The 'dole', aided by 1931 and 1934 employment legislation, helped to portray the unemployed as scroungers - a useful stereotype for the Conservatives. The 'dole' was seen as a Labour benefit, grudgingly accepted by the Conservatives as the least worst alternative.
- The Liberal party failed to appeal to middle-class interests, leaving this demographic free for the Conservatives.
- Keynes made the distinction between the 'public' and 'labour' or working-classes.
- Conservatives were exploiting this distinction.
- The 'public' felt threatened by the organised working-class.
3 Social Relations in Britain, 18801950: R. McKibbin 4 Social Relations in Britain, 18801950: R. McKibbin
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