chapter  3
39 Pages

CONSERVATISM AND THE PROPERTIED

For the greater part of the nineteenth century the social base of the Conservative party was relatively homogeneous. Drawing its leadership from the aristocracy and its Parliamentary cohorts from the county squirearchy, and gaining its most rock-solid and rock-headed support from the English counties, the Conservative party represented, above all else, the political arm of the landed interest. The party was never exclusively landed, but the interests of the land and British agriculture were the focus of Conservative politics from the time of Lord Liverpool to the time of Lord Salisbury. However, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century urban politics and urban interests took on a new significance for the Conservative party. In particular, the Conservatives benefited from a steady gravitation of urban propertied wealth to the political Right, which provided them with a strong core of support in urban areas and saw the emergence of a greatly-expanded urban Tory elite. These developments contributed to what has been termed ‘the transformation of Victorian Conservatism’,2 a process which saw the Conservative party become less the party of the land and more the party of property in general. The great climacteric of the Conservative party’s emergence as the party of property came in 1886. Exploiting general unease in the Liberal ranks at the apparent leftward drift of Liberal politics, and benefiting from more particular concerns over Gladstone’s conversion to Irish Home Rule, the Conservatives succeeded in drawing the bulk of the Liberal right wing, and a handful of Radicals, into an alliance with the forces of Conservatism. For many Conservatives the Liberal split in 1886 was not wholly unexpected, in that they had worked to secure just such a development. Soon after the Conservative defeat at the general election of 1880, Sir Stafford Northcote noted that ‘it is likely enough that a Conservative cave may be formed on the Liberal side…[and] if we manage our opposition discreetly we may often join hands with them, and perhaps ultimately bring some of them to take part in a Conservative cabinet’.3