Reflections on the Tory Party Revolution – part one

Conservative Party logoPart 1: From the 2019 Constituency Revolt to the 1846 Corn Law Split, and back

In its April 22th coverage of the Tory Constituency Party leaders’ revolt in demanding an “Extraordinary General Meeting” to shake May’s throne, the BBC inserted the link to its article from August 2018 about how, between the Chequers Cabinet Brexit Agreement and May’s disastrous Tory 2018 Autumn Conference, a Hard Brexit revolt started brewing in the Tory grassroots.

That 2018 article, by BBC researcher Georgia Roberts, referred to the Tory party Conference revolt of 1950, right after the general election that slashed Labours massive majority, when the Tory grassroots “educated the platform” by pushing through the “build 300.000 houses a year”-target for its 1951 election manifesto (whereas the Tory front bench had reacted to Attlee’s nationalization drive by retreating from state direction). That promise turned out to be extremely popular, election-winning (for Churchill, and later Macmillan), and long remembered. Previewing the 2018 Tory Autumn Conference, Roberts wonders if it will see a similar “educating” Brexiteer uprising; it halfway did.

But the present Brexit split in the Tory Party, with the first batch of Remainer Tories splitting off towards TIG/ Change UK, and on the other end external agitators (Farage, Banks, Tice) influencing the “hard Brexit” wing of MPs to obstruct and reject “their” PM and Party Leader, also reminds me of the massive 1846 Tory split over the repeal of the Corn Laws. That was another big issue involving Britain’s relationship with both Europe and other exporting markets, starting Gladstone’s evolution to Liberal leader.

In his Gladstone biography (Random House, New York, 2002, p. 60, 61, 62-3; “foremost Peelite”, p. 66), Roy Jenkins says that Gladstone, an aspiring Tory MP, not only in policy matters became a follower of Peel, but also in pragmatic, transformative party strategy.

Peel, in his 1834 Tamworth Manifesto, had transformed the old Tories, who dogmatically resisted all innovation, into the Conservatives, who in Norman Gash’s summary “would reform (sensibly) to survive” as a leading party. And, of course, both caused splits in their parties in their final years; Gladstone following Peel’s 1841-5 conversion against the Corn Laws (Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 68, 81 & note on p. 81). As Peels minister, Gladstone’s 1844 Railway Act regulated that new mode of transport, coupling it with building the just as innovative telegraph wire network (see: Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 68 and ); an emblematic act for a modernizing Tamworth Conservative.

After the Corn Laws split and Peel’s death, Disraeli became the Conservative Commons leader; but without Tamworth he couldn’t have been the opportunistic policy switcher: first railing against a new policy, then accepting it (as Disraeli did from 1852 on Corn Law Repeal; Jenkins, Gladstone, p. 140), and remain as Commons leader.

In the same way, Gladstone’s insistence on Irish Home Rule in the 1880’s, in driving the “Unionist” (and imperialist) Chamberlain wing to cross the floor, substantially hardened the knee-jerk Unionist instincts inside the Conservative Party; which much later made the Ulster- and Democratic Unionists such natural Tory supporters (and now: Tory hostage-takers) as they are with the 2017-‘19 May minority government.

Part 2 “from the 1940’s generational change to the growing hostility to Europe” will follow tomorrow.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Greaves 23rd Apr '19 - 2:24pm

    Wow. Someone who understands a bit of history.

  • John Marriott 23rd Apr '19 - 2:48pm

    He’s a Dutch historian, Milord. Pretty flat then?

  • Bernard Aris 23rd Apr '19 - 3:42pm


    Praise by the indomitable Liberal veteran activist
    *) whose column on the back of LibDem Weekly I always read first since the early 1990’s;
    *) and in whose Conference fringe bookshop I picked up classics by Grimond, Thorpe, Meadowcroft, Jenkins… at every LD conferencre (since 1992; mostly the autumn ones) I visited..

    Thanks a lot; I owe part of my historical knowledge to your books, your columns, your fringe meeting interventions.

    so the wows turn out to be mutual…

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Apr '19 - 3:52pm

    It is always good to read informed articles. Too bad that so few in the modern Lib Dems understand anything about our Liberal/Whig history and where we come from.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Apr '19 - 4:15pm

    If I can try to “reverse the Polarity” of the comments so far, & look forward to the History we can make; the crucial point of the disintegration of the Tory coalition is the opportunity it offers to the Reformist, liberal, Centre-Left, if we can put our differences aside to work together.
    Both of Britains conservative Parties, Tories & Labour, are weaker now than they have been since the 1930s. Its not simply that both have been captured by extremists, both have seen their support decline in tandem. Essentially Britain is back on trend with the long-term decline of both “Major” Parties resuming.
    Once the Local & European Elections are over, The Libdems need to sit down with Change & The Greens to work out some sort of Electoral arrangement. We should look back to 1981 & seize the opportunity to “Break The Mould” for good this time.

  • How many more times are we to hear about a new direction, breaking the mould, a new politics etc. In the end nowt changes.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Apr '19 - 6:19pm

    @ Mick Taylor,

    “Too bad that so few in the modern Lib Dems understand anything about our Liberal/Whig history and where we come from.”

    It’s interesting that the early 19th century Whigs were also inclined to be much more “pro European” than their Tory counterparts, and particularly with wanting to co-operate with Napoleonic France rather than take up armed conflict.

    “The French Emperor had British sympathizers during the Napoleonic Wars. They were primarily liberal Whigs…….”

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