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Britannia's Zealots

Volume I: Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right


N.C. Fleming


London: Bloomsbury, 2019

Hardcover. x+320 p. ISBN 978-1474237833. £88


Reviewed by Philip Murphy

Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London



This fine monograph focuses on the first four decades of the twentieth century. Its title, however, suggests that it is the opening volume of an ambitious attempt to chart the development of the Right of the Conservative Party from 1900 to the present day. As such, a subsequent volume will presumably take in the EU referendum result of 2016, something Fleming flags up at the end of the work as ‘arguably the Conservative Right’s greatest triumph’ [212]. While it will probably take some time to establish whether this tentative judgement is correct, it is difficult to resist the temptation to read the book with one eye on the present. Certainly, as of the final months of 2019, the Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservatives has achieved the sort of ascendency over the Party that their various counterparts before 1940 could generally only have dreamt about (and which would, indeed, have been virtually unthinkable less than a decade ago).

These sorts of contemporary analogies, however, point to one of the problems with which Fleming has had to grapple: there simply isn’t a single ‘Conservative Right’ which neatly coheres throughout the previous 120 years, or even across the briefer period of his current study. Indeed, it has come in so many different varieties that, as Fleming insists, it has ‘never been able or willing to articulate or develop a comprehensive ideology’ [1]. In a series of separate chapters, Fleming considers the periods 1900-14, 1914-18, 1918-22, 1922-35 and 1935-40. During each of them, Fleming identifies a number of what Rodney Barker has termed ‘themes’ in Conservative politics, around which the Right of the party organised. These changed over time in line with the evolution of both the domestic challenges from radicals and ‘progressives’, and the putative opportunities and dangers facing Britain on the international stage. The positions adopted by the Conservative front bench also changed, and Fleming’s book is essentially a study of those rebels who were prepared to defy the leadership of their party. As such, the notion of the ‘Right’ here is essentially relational and fluid. Organisations associated with particular issues came and went, as did figures who connected a number of different strands of right-wing thought. Yet no single organisation served as a vehicle for the activities of the Right. Nor did any single individual aspire to lead the Right during any of the various periods considered by Fleming, never mind over a significant proportion of the book’s total time-span. The few genuinely commanding characters associated with the politics of the right in this period, such as Edward Carson and Winston Churchill, were too idiosyncratic to be able or willing to lead the Right over a broad spectrum of issues before 1940. The activities of the MP for Bournemouth, Henry Page Croft (1881-1947) probably spanned a greater range of right-wing causes than any other individual considered by Fleming. Yet Croft’s relative obscurity says a great deal about the marginalisation of the Right for much of this period.

Against that shifting backdrop, Fleming does an excellent job in identifying broad patterns and continuities. One is that right-wing dissidents tended to enjoy a support among the Conservative ‘grassroots’ and the popular press which was out of all proportion to their generally meagre strength within the House of Commons. Hence, although opposition to constitutional reform in India provided them with a potent cause in the first half of the 1930s, their efforts were undermined in 1933 when the shaping of legislation was devolved to a parliamentary Joint Select Committee, a move that placed the issue ‘out of the reach of the voluntary party’ [169]. Again, it is difficult not to think of the contrast with the extraordinary opportunity that the EU referendum presented to the extreme Eurosceptic fringe of David Cameron’s party in 2016, allowing them to bypass their more pragmatic colleagues in Westminster and exploit their support in the tabloid press and the local constituency associations. One can only imagine the delight and energy with which some of the right-wing rebels considered by Fleming would have responded to such a generous gift from their party leader.

Opposition to the India Bill points to another longer-term feature of the story: the Right tended to find it far easier to unite around Imperial rather than domestic issues. On the domestic front, religion had ceased to be a significant rallying point by the outbreak of the Second World War. A High Anglican defence of the Protestant constitution had characterised Conservative ‘Ultras’ for much of the nineteenth century. Yet while the coalition with the Liberal Unionists in 1886 may have raised the prospect of a new politics of ‘Pan-Protestantism’ [20], and anti-Catholicism remained part of the Conservatives’ electoral toolkit, by the 1930s, religion ‘was as likely to divide as define the diehards’ [164]. Imperialism became, from the final quarter of the nineteenth century, virtually the new religion of the Conservatives, with Ireland, defence and protectionism increasingly being subsumed within an imperial framework. In terms of defence, the years preceding 1914 saw organisations such as the Navy League and the Imperial Maritime League offering powerful platforms for promoting a right-wing militarist message. Meanwhile, agricultural protectionism became less about ‘Pastoralism’ and more about forging an ambitious imperial economic strategy, one that appeared to bear fruit with the Ottawa trade agreements of the early 1930s. The Baldwinite embrace of democratic constitutionalism in the interwar period was a domestic dispensation which the diehards broadly accepted, something that distinguished them clearly from the more extreme elements of the ‘radical right’ (and Fleming is keen to downplay the degree of overlap between the Conservative Right and fascism). For that very reason, however, the Empire provided them with an alternative outlet for their longstanding ‘habit of authoritarianism’. The experience of the First World War served to blunt the edge of the Right’s militarism (as Fleming nicely puts it, ‘the diehards no longer clung on to a belief in the redemptive quality of waging war against a rival European power’ [180]). This helped to sow divisions in their ranks over the appeasement of Germany and Italy. But the diehards were able to unite around opposition to the return to Germany of former colonies. Indeed, in an unlikely echo of the current scholarly focus on colonial-era atrocities, Croft even cited evidence of the ‘merciless destruction of the Hereros’ under German rule when opposing the return to Hitler of South West Africa [191].

Even in the field of Imperial affairs, however, the diehards of the interwar years had only limited influence. Their attempt to challenge the 1931 Statute of Westminster’s recognition of the autonomy of the Dominions proved to be a damp squib. The government’s failure to mention dominion status in the 1935 Government of India Bill may have been an attempt to mollify them. Otherwise, however, as we have seen, they were outmanoeuvred on the issue. Part of the problem, Fleming argues, was that Churchill and the diehards simply lacked a coherent critique of the government’s policy towards India. This was the policy espoused and sanctified by the liberal imperial intellectuals of the Round Table movement, which stressed the need to adapt to adapt to changing circumstances in India and elsewhere in the Empire. ‘Change’, as Fleming notes, ‘could be promoted as consistency’, and by comparison, the arguments of the diehards in favour of maintaining the status quo ‘were often inconsistent and contradictory’ [168].

This is a rich and revealing piece of work, underpinned by exhaustive research in a very wide range of archives, and a firm command of the extensive secondary literature. In less skilled hands, the plethora of transient right-wing groups and long-forgotten knights of the shire might have proved bewildering and exhausting. But Fleming’s chronological and thematic framework clearly signposts the broader issues at stake and nicely teases out a series of patterns, discontinuities, mutations and contradictions. His conclusions are persuasive and often entertainingly barbed. Let’s hope he eventually gets round to the Brexiteers.



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