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  • Popular Conservatism in Britain, 1832-1914
  • Matthew Roberts

The Conservative party used to be absent at the rich historiographical feasts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British popular politics. This was ironic given that the tories were in office, either on their own or as part of a coalition, for nearly 58 years of the nineteenth century, and they were also the dominant electoral force of the twentieth century. To historians of popular politics the electoral success of the Conservative Party was unremarkable, largely attributable to the enduring power of the propertied classes. What 'popular', or more specifically, working-class, Conservatism existed was usually dismissed as a form of political deviancy.1 To many of the left-leaning historians of popular politics writing in the 1960s through to the early 1980s the issues of real historical substance clustered around radicalism, Liberalism and the rise of Labour. When historians did pay attention to Conservatism it was usually in the small 'c' sense of the term - defined as a traditional, defensive, introverted and fatalistic mindset - and how this largely depoliticized outlook inhibited the development of a genuinely class-conscious, socialist working class.2 This conservative outlook could, under circumstances such as extreme poverty and ethnic tensions, translate into popular Conservatism.3 Yet this was not deemed worthy of serious historical attention. Thus, as late as 1985 Martin Pugh could still comment that: 'Popular Conservatism remains a somewhat elusive and under-studied phenomenon.'4

By the early 1990s a combination of factors had forced popular Conservatism on to the historical agenda. The continuing electoral success of Thatcher's Conservative Party, which clearly rested in part on widespread working-class support, the collapse of communism and the related challenge to the credibility of Marxist historiography, the intellectual challenges of postmodernism via the 'linguistic turn' and the critique of electoral sociology, had the combined effect of establishing popular Conservatism as a topic of serious historical inquiry.5 Consequently, over the last 15 years historians of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular politics have devoted an unprecedented amount of attention to the Conservative Party, focusing in particular on the party's electoral support, and more broadly on the relationship between the party and British society. The purpose of this article is to take stock of this new scholarship, and to illustrate how it challenges conventional interpretations of Victorian and Edwardian popular politics, in which the Conservative Party was presented as the passive beneficiary of a whole range of factors that enabled it to survive, usually accidentally, the advent of mass politics. The first section of the article shows how narratives of the 'transformation of late-Victorian Conservatism', which dominated conventional interpretations, not only obscured the party's electoral success in the early and mid-Victorian years, but also underestimated the limits to, and fragility of, the late-Victorian Conservative Party's electoral dominance. In doing so the article also calls into question the stark historiographical juxtaposition between the late-Victorian tory hegemony and the so-called Edwardian 'crisis of Conservatism': the latter, it is argued, has been much exaggerated. The second part of the article emphasizes just how active, creative and integrative the Conservative Party was in the face of democratization, and not just in the late-Victorian period. The third section argues that popular Conservatism was from being the irrational, unthinking ideological void that it has traditionally been presented as by labour historians: ideas and issues were often to the fore in popular Conservatism. The article concludes with some possible suggestions for future research.


Narratives of transformation have dominated interpretations of the late-Victorian Conservative Party.6 This is hardly surprising as the party dominated government for some 20 years after 1886, except for a brief period when the Liberals returned to power between 1892 and 1895. The Conservative electoral ascendancy reached its apogee with the general election of 1900, when the party won its second victory in succession and became the first government since 1865 to win a second term. Thus, the Conservatives had won three of the four general elections held since 1886. This transformation appears all the more dramatic when set against the relatively [End Page 388] poor electoral performance of mid...


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pp. 387-410
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2008
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