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The Party of Patriotism

The Conservative Party and the First World War 


Nigel Keohane 


Farnham: Ashgate, 2010

Hardcover. x+ 250 pp. ISBN: 9780754663249. £65.00 


Reviewed by Jules Gehrke

Saginaw Valley State University


Through six extensively researched and analytical chapters, Nigel Keohane offers a complex examination of the experiences of the Conservative Party in the era of the First World War as it not only made the most of commitments to patriotic sentiment, but also re-conceptualised its attitudes toward Ireland, the empire, the spectre of radical socialism, the expansion of the electorate, and new trends toward collectivism. Keohane writes that it was the unifying theme of patriotism that helped to bind the party together (as its Liberal and Labour counterparts were not) and to evolve with respect to a number of key issues that would strengthen its position in the interwar period. Well-documented research in caches of private papers and under-utilised local party records make Keohane’s work a valuable contribution to the increasing depth of work on the early twentieth-century Conservative Party. The book is weakened by an insufficient analysis of the term “patriotism,” which the author uses as a net to explain Conservative unity, and a complexity engendered by chapters more suggestive of individual studies that a narrative whole. Yet, Keohane is largely successful in elucidating the many ways in which the Conservative Party struggled with the demands of wartime and the coalition, all the while maintaining relatively united and coherent support for its own political leadership and the government’s war strategy.

Early in his analysis, Keohane contends that patriotism and a commitment to “total war” allowed Conservatives to establish a much stronger political front than their opponents. Criticisms levelled at Herbert Henry Asquith in 1914 and 1915 were blunted in 1916 as the accession of David Lloyd George reduced tensions among Conservative backbenchers and helped to sublimate potential division by ensuring the coalition became a mechanism through which the party could support national unity and the sustained exploitation of the “consumptionist” approach to war. Keohane argues that in 1916 and after, in spite of appearing weak, Andrew Bonar Law effectively mediated between Lloyd George and his own party, acted with resolve at critical moments, and took advantage of the very real divisions within and among marginalised groups that might challenge his leadership. Given pre-war tensions, perhaps no other issue was of such significance as that of Home Rule. Keohane contends that despite frustration regarding the placement of Home Rule upon the statute book in September of 1914, Conservatives at the local and parliamentary levels accepted the legislation, putting the nation and the exigencies of war ahead of what had once been a critical domestic issue. The inability of disaffected groups to cause significant disruption in September 1914 speaks to the strength of the political truce and the Conservative emphasis on the war, itself.

In the middle portion of his work, Keohane turns to both issues of patriotism and Conservative attempts to respond to a changing electorate. He argues that the Conservative Party worked to actively promote and shape a patriotic language in the context of war that not only reflected its core beliefs, but went on to re-shape the party and activate an anti-socialist message that would be particularly important in the 1920s. In addition, Conservatives were able to fashion a political rhetoric that (often using the word empire rather than England) effectively employed patriotism to support anti-alien and anti-trade union efforts. Conservatives carefully considered how changes in the electorate would affect the understood necessity of creating a bulwark against socialism, moved to include women within the operations of the party, sought to protect plural voting, and worked to secure the party’s interests in the redistribution of seats. Keohane depicts a party that was active and generally unified later in the war and prepared to confront the electoral challenges of the postwar world. Conservatives had come to believe that the wartime Tommy had bonded with his comrades in the trenches and was now less prone to manipulations by socialist and trade union interests, and that the sacrifices of wartime merited a place for young British men in the electoral system. Though Keohane’s integration of local party material re-directs few of the historiographical currents he addresses, his work invigorates discussions of national politics at a number of points in his work. Here, he concludes with regard to electoral changes,

…research of constituency archives demonstrates that grassroots Conservatives were to the fore in driving the adoption of the service vote as a focal aspect of the party’s approach to electoral reform…. These grassroots’ steps in the early years of war showed the motivations behind the service vote to be electoral politics and wartime conscience, rather than an outcrop of a parliamentary struggle for power. [137]

In directing his final analysis toward Conservatives and the nature of collectivist endeavours in wartime, Keohane suggests that they were indeed a party of ideas that had recognised both the changes brought by the war and the dilemmas of the postwar era. Rejecting the notion that Conservatives were supportive of a continuance of wartime state intervention as a means of effecting postwar social transformation, he does suggest that Conservatives had become more open to means of controlling the population and the economy during the war. In the war’s aftermath, they saw efforts that called for greater efficiency as both fending off the more radical demands of labour and ensuring social solidarity. Nationalism and patriotism were inherent in the agendas of various party members and suggest a party that in Keohane’s eyes continued to be much more coherent in its aims and policies than its competitors. Nonetheless, Conservative support for significant investment in postwar reconstruction was economic rather than social. While Conservatives did support efforts that would provide greater support to returning veterans, they did so in the context of the civic service that had been provided and remained distrustful of governmental bureaucracy. The existence of a significant national debt did raise the issue of grappling with financial concerns, according to Keohane. Here, although specific remedies from Conservatives could remain vague, they were careful to eschew anything that might smack of the confiscation of wealth and often turned to wider efforts in the international arena such as tariff reform that would protect Britain’s taxpayers and rebuild the stability of the empire.

Keohane stops short of advertising the First World War and the coalition as an extended catalogue of successes for the Conservative Party. Party organisation did suffer and the loss of Ireland punctured prewar Unionism. Nonetheless, within the context of war, Conservatives were able to reconfigure their attitudes toward Ireland, extend and enliven their patriotic commitment, and establish a firm foundation for anti-socialist and anti-Bolshevik campaigns of the postwar era, even while adapting to a new era of extended franchise. Keohane has created a richly detailed and well-researched study in a field where the points of historiographical debate have become extraordinarily nuanced. Yet, there is difficulty in following the line of his argument through richly analytical chapters that respond to a diverse number of historiographical debates, delve into the myriad and often divergent views of MPs and party activists, and integrate the responses and, occasionally, impacts of local party organisations. What emerges is a detailed, but somewhat unwieldy composite that builds a significant case for an active and innovative party and establishes a web of historiographical connections to academic scholarship, but may overwhelm the non-specialist. Nonetheless, Keohane’s assiduous research provides a valuable contribution to a still developing component in the historiography of British politics and is recommended. 




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