The Stupid Party: Reconsidering Conservative Political Thinking in Twentieth-Century Britain

Session Abstract : John Stuart Mill’s oft-quoted dictum, that the Conservative Party was the ‘stupid party’—full of opportunism but bereft of intellectual direction—has cast a long shadow over the history of British Conservatism. That theorists and practitioners of Conservatism were happy to revel in their supposed ‘pragmatism’ or bemoan colleagues for being ‘too clever by half’, only seemed to reinforce the point. Over the past two decades, historians and political theorists have resisted such views and instead demonstrated that Conservatism has long had its own core values and guiding principles; that, for example, the claim to be non-ideological is itself an ideological claim. Yet, the desire to ‘decode’ Conservatism—whether to celebrate or condemn it—has all too often obscured the very elements of Conservative thinking that made it distinctive (and often popular) in the first place.

By contrast this panel examines Conservatives’ claims that they and their ideas are rooted in ‘tradition’, ‘ordinariness’ and ‘Empire’ not merely as masks for supposedly more ‘real’ ideological thinking (like a belief in inequality), but as important objects of study in their own right. The panel will re-examine and historicize these concepts and trace the shifting ways in which they have been understood and employed by C/conservatives over the past 120 years: from the start of the twentieth century—when Edmund Burke was first canonised as the founder of conservative thought—through the Second World War and Mass Observation, to, finally, Thatcher, free markets, and beyond. It will show that such an approach can tell us much about the development of British Conservatism as well as its interaction with wider currents in British political, intellectual, and cultural life. In an era when, as recent political developments have shown, Conservative malleability and radicalism have taken many by surprise, the panel suggests that it is only by taking the breadth of Conservative intellectual claims seriously, as well as sceptically, that we can hope to understand this most mercurial of political traditions.

Session Chair: Gary Love,  Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Paper 1 Abstract : The Edwardian Constitutional Crisis and Conservative Political Thinking, 1906-1914
Emily Jones, University of Cambridge

The late Victorian and Edwardian period witnessed a dramatic surge in writing which sought to construct genealogies and principles of ‘C/conservatism’ as both a political and intellectual tradition. This writing aimed to offer practical inspiration and express the beliefs of politicians and the educated ‘public’. My paper introduces this broad new research area by examining the texts produced by Conservative writers, politicians, journalists, and historians in the 1906-1914 period. This was both the aftermath of a crushing electoral defeat and a period of intense constitutional crisis. It inspired a number of Conservatives to put pen to paper in an attempt to equip their party with fresh intellectual direction. Many commentators offered specific definitions on what their preferred type of Conservatism, Toryism, or Unionism really meant. But commentators also offered solutions and counter-arguments to contemporary issues, such as ‘socialism’, House of Lords reform, the potential uses of the referendum, and women’s suffrage. To contemporaries, ‘constructive conservatism’ had more angles than just the promotion of protective tariffs and social reform.

One principal beneficiary of this process was Edmund Burke. As my previous work has highlighted, this was the period in which Burke was firmly established as a conservative political thinker and used with enthusiasm by political Conservatives in Britain. Beyond Burke, it is equally clear that this was also the period in which Conservatives of all stripes began to conceive of their principles in a really novel way. This was of paramount importance to a generation of Conservatives acutely aware of the need to both accommodate their Liberal Unionist allies and to respond intellectually to their Liberal and socialist rivals. It is here, in the Edwardian constitutional crisis, that we find the foundations of the later, inter-war, ‘battle of ideas’.

Paper 2 Abstract : The Awesome and the Ordinary: The Emotions of Everyday Conservatism in Mid Twentieth-Century Britain
Emily Robinson, University of Sussex

Most of the canonical writers of twentieth-century conservatism emphasise the way that their philosophy draws on common sense and everyday experience; it seeks to reflect, rather than to shape human nature, and derives its power from its innate connection with the ‘national soul’. Moreover, they emphasise its ‘love of the familiar’, its preference for ‘fact’ over ‘mystery’, and ‘the actual’ not ‘the possible’. This is the stuff of the concrete, the quotidian, the small. However, these characterisations sit uneasily alongside conservatism’s grander aspects; they obscure its predilection for reverence, majesty and awe. In Burkean terms, they focus on the beauty and familiarity of the customs that cloak power, rather than the sublime terror on which it is based.

The sublime and the beautiful are both bodily, affective experiences, and are therefore amenable to a political tradition which prioritises the certainty of experience over the abstractions of theory. Yet they are not the same. Indeed, Burke’s contempt for the ennervating nature of the beautiful would seem to make him an unlikely inspiration for a political tradition that claims to be rooted in the simple pleasures of sociability, community and the domestic – in which fox-hunting is to be preferred to politics. This paper explores the ways in which the tension between these two elements of conservative thought was navigated in both grassroots Conservatism and wider cultural conservatism in mid twentieth-century Britain. It draws on source material from Conservative magazines and the Mass Observation archive, as well as recent academic work on the history of the emotions and understandings of ‘ordinariness’. Its conclusions are relevant not only to the historical study of mid-century conservatism, but also to our current political situation, in which elements of both right and left are seeking to invoke the supposedly simple emotions of ‘faith, flag and family’.

Paper 3 Abstract : Thatcherism’s Imperial Origins?
Kit Kowol, University of Oxford

The first post-colonial British political ideology or a product of the trauma of the loss of Empire; the relationship between Thatcherism and Imperialism has long intrigued historians. Likewise, the link between Thatcher herself and the Empire remains uncertain. The enthusiasm the young Margaret Roberts showed for Imperial unity after WWII dismissed in her memoirs as a form of both personal and national ‘self-deception.’ It is an attempt to get to the bottom of this seeming paradox which is at the heart of this paper.

The paper does so by exploring how Conservatives understood the Empire and its relationship to the British people in the years during and immediately after WWII. Specifically, it examines the political thought of a group of self-declared ‘advanced’ Imperialists who grouped themselves around the former Colonial Secretary Leo Amery MP during the period. It examines how these imperialists believed that the war had created a broad-based ‘Empire-mindedness’ among the British people as well as how they came to believe this national commitment to Empire had been betrayed both by the organised working-class and a disorganized Conservative Party. The paper then details, how, in response to this perceived betrayal, these imperialists worked to reconceptualise the Empire as an anti-communist alliance and sought to rewrite its history as one of capitalist development. Sketching their approaches to issues such as inflation, European unity, and colonial development it suggests that a nascent ‘imperial neo-liberalism’ began to be developed in these years and how quintessential policies associated with the Thatcher governments—including the ‘right to buy’ and privatization—were in fact first articulated by Imperialists. As such, the paper argues that there was remarkably little conflict between the way in which Conservatives understood Empire and neo-liberalism in post-war Britain; a fact that explains why quite so many imperialists, including Thatcher herself, were attracted to both.