Duncan Bowie considers previous Tory divisions and sees nothing new about nationalism and protectionism
Having for fifteen years written the Our History column on the history of the British labour movement, it seems odd to turn to the history of the Tory party. As the Conservative party has had its biggest split in nearly a century, it is perhaps the time to reflect on previous Tory divisions.
Although the issue of Europe has caused divisions within the Conservative party for at least the last forty years, successive Conservative leaders have until recent months held the party together – despite the party having both pro-EU leaders (Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Hume, Heath, early Thatcher, Major, Hague, Howard, Cameron, May) and anti-Europe leaders (late Thatcher, Duncan Smith).
It is generally accepted that the modern Conservative Party (or at least the Conservative Party as we have known it) was founded in 1834 with the Tamworth manifesto speech of Sir Robert Peel, which is widely regarded as the first statement of conservative principles, intended to distinguish his position from that of the previous Tory prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, who had strenuously opposed the 1832 Reform Bill. Peel accepted that reform measure, seeing it as final with regard to suffrage. He nevertheless recognised that the need for further reform of civic and religious institutions would be kept under review, proven abuses corrected and real grievances redressed.
The Conservatives would reform to survive, but opposed ‘a perpetual vortex of agitation’. The new party was however to split in 1846 when, following two years of famine in Ireland, Peel pushed through parliament a repeal of the Corn Laws, a tax on the import of corn. Many Conservatives were protectionists and after losing their case over keeping the Corn Laws, voted with the Whig opposition against Peel’s Irish Coercion bill. This forced Peel to resign as Prime Minister and Conservative party leader. The Whig Lord John Russell became Prime Minister and Peel and his supporters – including the Earl of Aberdeen and William Gladstone, both future Prime Ministers – joined the Whigs and Radicals to create the Liberal Party. Edward Stanley (later Earl of Derby) became leader of the protectionist Conservatives, supported by Benjamin Disraeli; both were later to promote the 1867 Reform Act, with Disraeli advocating ‘One Nation’ Conservativism – a relatively centrist position that was to act as the basis of the Conservative party for the next century. This was despite the emergence of hardline groups, such as the ‘diehard’ opponents both of House of Lords reform and Lloyd George’s radical budget in 1910, and the imperialists led by the 5th Lord Salisbury (colonial secretary and leader of the Lords) in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Conservative party did not however split over either of these issues.
The second major split was also over tariff reform. Joseph Chamberlain split the Liberal Party in 1886 over the issue of Irish Home Rule, and together with Lord Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) established the Liberal Unionist Party, which operated in coalition with the Conservatives between 1895 and 1905 and formally merged with the Conservative party in 1912 to create the Conservative and Unionist Party, which remains the formal name of the Conservative Party today. However in 1903, Chamberlain, at the time colonial secretary, instigated a new campaign for tariff reform, supported by the Tariff Reform League, arguing that imperial trade should be given preference over foreign trade. When Balfour’s cabinet refused to endorse imperial preference, Chamberlain resigned from the cabinet. The divisions then led to Balfour’s resignation as prime minister, leading to the Liberal victory in the 1906 election, with the Liberals (previously split between anti-imperialists and imperialists) united around the free trade banner.
From 1911 to 1916, the Conservatives had separate leaders in the Commons and the Lords, with Bonar Law, a supporter of tariff reform and opponent of Irish home rule, only becoming overall party leader in 1916. He was succeeded in 1921 as Commons leader by Austen Chamberlain, a tariff reformer like his father, but was reinstated in 1922 as overall party leader when Stanley Baldwin led a backbench revolt which withdrew the Conservatives from the Lloyd George coalition government, in which Chamberlain served as chancellor of the exchequer.
The issue of protection and common markets remains an issue within the Conservative party, with many Brexiteers advocating a return to preferential treatment for trade with the Commonwealth. This represents a somewhat nostalgic view of the historic imperial tradition of the pre-modern Conservative Party. Boris Johnson is now seeking to promote himself as a one-nation Tory in the Disraelian tradition but finding this difficult to combine with his attempt to revive the somewhat older tradition of the Conservative Party as the defenders of Britain as an imperial power – the Trumpian Britain First and Britain can be Great again!
Disraeli perhaps succeeded in combining these two notions, and Joseph Chamberlain sought to present himself as an advocate of both social reform and imperialism. In the modern era this is proving a little more difficult for Boris Johnson and perhaps a much more significant split in the Conservative Party than those of 1846 and 1906 is now unavoidable. We can only hope so, though we should not gloat and be conscious that as in the 1886 split in the Liberal Party, the Labour Party is also at risk of splitting over those issues of protectionism and nationalism that also bedevil the Brexit debate.