Thursday, 30 June 1983

Thatcher and Friends: Chapter 8 - The Curve of Tory Development

By John Ross
The processes enabling the Conservative Party to build up its mass base after 1846, and thereby the mechanisms which led to its decline after 1931, can be very clearly traced. In Britain major economic and social divisions correspond to geographical areas of the country, and constituency results can be correlated against data from censuses and other sources. These facts mean that, even before opinion poll and other studies become available, the social base of Conservative Party support can be traces accurately. This is confirmed rather strikingly when opinion poll and the other modern types of analysis do become available after the Second World War: they correlate very precisely with the earlier geographical studies. We will follow in this chapter, therefore, the actual processes of the rise of Conservative support and in the next discuss the social forces underlying it.

The English countryside

If we take the original Conservative vote of 1847 then it is extremely easy to show its character. The original core of the Conservative Party, the impregnable bastion from which it has never been shifted, is its domination of the English countryside – a domination completely consistent with the original Tory landowner base. Between 1847 and 1865 the Conservatives won between 62 and 75 per cent of the English country seats in every election. The Tories were a minority but significant force in the smaller town seats - winning 28-47 per cent of the town constituencies with fewer than 2,000 voters. In the big city constituencies with more than 2,000 voters the Conservatives were virtually irrelevant, taking only 9-17 per cent of the seats. No clearer picture of a party with its original base in the countryside than the Conservatives can be imagined.

In 1983 the Conservative Party vote in the English counties averaged 50 per cent - 8 per cent above its average in Britain as a whole. By contrast, in the eight Metropolitan counties of England the Tory vote averaged only 37 per cent - 5 per cent less than its average in Britain as a whole. The unification of the English, and later British, countryside under the unchallenged domination of the Conservative Party is the most permanent of all the political conquests of Toryism.

The South of England

Tory strength in the countryside is matched by its position in the South and South East of England. If a line is taken across England from the Humber estuary in the North East to the Bristol Channel, and then extended downwards to the South Coast, the Tories had a majority to the south of that line, excluding London, in every general election of the nineteenth century except for 1832 and 1885. From 1832 to 1865 the Tories never had a majority north of that line. If we turn to the 1983 election then the Conservatives gained 51 per cent of the vote in East Anglia, 51 per cent in South West England, and 55 per cent in South East England outside London. In contrast, they gained only 28 per cent of the vote in Scotland, 31 per cent in Wales, 35 per cent in North East England, and 39 per cent in Yorkshire.

Defeat in Scotland, Ireland and Wales

The three other nations that have historically been within the British state are all areas of fundamental Tory failure. This failure is all the more complete because, at its formation, the Conservative Party commanded very considerable support in Wales and Ireland, inherited from the old pre-1846 Tory Party. In three out of the four elections between 1847 and 1865, the Conservatives actually won a higher proportion of seats in Wales than in England. They also won a majority of seats in Ireland in 1859. Only in Scotland was the Conservative Party massively unpopular even at its birth - with the Tory proportion of the Scottish seats being only 15 per cent in 1847.

After 1859, however, any semblance of balance in the Conservative position between the different nations of the British state totally collapsed. In 1859 the Tories won 46 per cent of the seats in England, 52 per cent in Wales, 28 per cent in Scotland, and 54 per cent in Ireland. By 1885 they won 47 per cent of the seats in England, but only 16 per cent in Wales, 11 per cent in Scotland, and 16 per cent in Ireland. By 1885 the Tories had become an almost exclusively English party.

If we take the trends since the inception of the Conservative Party then the Tories have been defeated in the vote in Wales in every single election since 1859. In Ireland by the 1870s the Tories had been reduced to a rump holding only the North East Protestant Unionist seats, together with a few supporters of Britain in Dublin. When this link with the Unionists broke in February 1974, the effect on the Tory Party was major: without those seats Edward Heath was unable to lead the largest party in Parliament and Labour came to power.

In Scotland the Conservatives had one period of success, lasting roughly for the first half of the twentieth century. After 1955, however, Conservative support rapidly declined again. By 1983 the Tories gained only 28 per cent of the vote in Scotland - 14 per cent below their level in Britain as a whole. In England, by contrast, the Tories have had a higher proportion of the vote than in the British state as a whole in very election since 1859.

Nothing could be more historically ridiculous, therefore, than the Conservative Party's claim to be a "British", as opposed to a merely English, party. Apart from Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century, the Conservative Party has never had any serious support in any part of the British state outside of England and the Protestant enclave of the North of Ireland. In 1983 the Conservative Party gained 46 per cent of the vote in England, but only 31 per cent in Wales, 28 per cent in Scotland, and 0 per cent in the North of Ireland.

The English regions

So far, we have looked at areas where Tory success or failure has been constant. The struggle for the English regions, however, is the process which has historically marked the rise and fall of Tory support. This struggle only extended into Scotland at the very peak of the Conservative vote.

The first English region in which the Conservative Party gained support in its rise was Lancashire and Cheshire - the North West of England. The chronology of this was clear. Even in 1859 the Tories won only 42 per cent of the seats in Lancashire and Cheshire, compared to 47 per cent in Britain as a whole. However, by the mid-1860s the number of seats won by the Tory Party in the North West of England had become a gigantic Tory fortress - the Conservatives won 87 per cent of the seats in 1895 and 81 per cent in 1900.

No such progress was made in Yorkshire - to take another key area of the North of England. Only in one election, 1900, did the Conservatives win even 50 per cent of the Yorkshire seats - a freak due to the impact of the Boer War. Even by 1895 the conservatives could only win 40 per cent of the seats in Yorkshire when they were winning 61 per cent in Britain as a whole.

The second are into which the Conservative Party expanded was London. Here the Tory breakthrough came in the 1870s. In 1859 and 1865 the Tory isolation in London was complete - the Conservatives did not win a single seat. Even in 1874 the percentage of Tory seats in London - although by this time significant - was still below the average for Britain as a whole. The Tory seats in London caught up with the British average in 1880 and then went on to massively exceed it. By 1895 and 1900 the Conservatives won 86 per cent of the seats in London.

The third English region into which the Conservative Party expanded was Birmingham and West Midlands. In this case, however, the Tory breakthrough was not gradual and cumulative, but sudden and abrupt - a product of the political crisis produced by the 1886 split in the Liberal Party. In November 1885 the Tories had been defeated in ten out of the eleven seats in Birmingham. In July 1886, less than a year later, the Tories with their new "Liberal Unionist" allies under Chamberlain won all eleven seats in the Birmingham district. From then on, until the First World War, the Tories won every single seat in Birmingham in every single general election - one of the most complete and violent party transformations in electoral history. Not until 1945 did the Conservatives lose their majority of seats in Birmingham.

The conquest of Scotland

The victory of 1886 in the West Midlands, with all its direct and indirect consequences, sealed Conservative electoral supremacy in Britain as a whole. Nevertheless, there was one further area to be added to achieve the absolute inter-war peak of the Tory vote. This was Scotland.

As we have already noted, at the time of the creation of the Conservative Party Scotland was the one area where Toryism had no real support. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, significant new trends appeared in Scottish politics. Scotland, unlike Wales, proved itself susceptible to the chauvinist campaign of the Tories in the 1900 "Boer War" election. In that year the Tories actually won a majority of the Scottish seats for the first time since 1832. However, the gap between Tory and Liberal votes in Scotland had been narrowing throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, decreasing from 65 per cent in 1868 to 1 per cent in 1900.

Furthermore, once established, this strengthening Tory position in Scotland continued for a definite historical period. The Tory vote in Scotland was actually higher than in England in 1945, and the Conservatives repeated this is 1950 and 1955. Strange as it may appear today, in the period from roughly the beginning of the twentieth century up to 1955 Scotland was actually an area of growth and strength for the Tory Party at the electoral level.

The Tory decline

The decline of the Tory vote after 1931 is simply a mirror-image of the period of upswing. The only significant difference is that, in the rise, the West Midlands was won by the Tory Party after the North West of England was lost before the Tory position in the West Midlands began to be affected.

Table 7

Table 7 shows the percentage of the vote gained by the Conservative Party in the different regions and nations of the British state at the time of its post-war peak vote of 1955.

These figures clearly show the cumulative effects of the period of conservative rise we have just looked at. The highest Tory vote of all in 1955 was in the Protestant enclave in the North of Ireland. After this came the traditional Conservative bastions of Southern England, the North West of England, Scotland, London, and the West Midlands. At the lowest levels of the Tory vote were the traditional Conservative disaster areas - Wales, Yorkshire and the North of England.

Table 8

Table 8 shows the electoral results for 1983, and the new order of regions indicates the fall in the Conservative vote since 1955. (The figures for falls are slightly affected by roundings of

As can be seen, the decline of the Tory vote since 1955 is by no means an even process. In certain areas of the country, Conservative support has scarcely declined at all. In others, it has collapsed - the most striking of these latter cases being the disappearance of the Conservative base in the North of Ireland, the 22 per cent fall in support in Scotland, the 11 per cent fall in support in Northern England and North West England, and, less severely, the 6 per cent fall in Yorkshire, 5 per cent fall in London and 4 per cent fall in the West Midlands. In effect, Tory support has remained virtually constant in its traditional bastions and origins in the South of England, together with certain other areas of the country; at the same time, the areas which the Conservative Party gained in its rise in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been progressively lost.

This trend becomes even clearer if we now turn to the other fundamental aspect of the Tory advance during its period of rise - the move from the countryside and small towns into the big cities. In Table 9 we show the percentage of the vote gained by the Conservative Party in the largest cities, outside Ireland, in 1955 and 1983 and the fall in its vote between the two elections.

Table 9

The pattern is obvious. In every single big city, except for London and Bristol, the Tory vote has declined since 1955 by more than in Britain as a whole, In other words, the Conservative Party originated in the South of England, the countryside and the smaller towns. In its period of rise the Tory Party marched into the big cities and into the North of England and Scotland. In its decline the Conservative Party has been thrown out of Scotland and the big cities, and is in the process of being thrown out of the North of England. Support is, so to speak, "disintegrating at the edges" - the Tory Party is maintaining itself in its original areas of strength, but losing those which were gained in its rise.

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