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Popular Conservatism and the Culture of National Government

in Inter-War Britain




Geraint Thomas


Cambridge: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. vii + 360 p. ISBN 978-1108483124. £75


Reviewed by Roland Quinault

Institute of Historical Research, University of London



This study, which grew out of a doctoral thesis, is well written, fully referenced and extensively researched amongst both primary and secondary sources. As such, it is a scholarly and valuable contribution to the study of inter-war electoral politics. It is also a useful corrective to over concentration on the views and policy of the national party leadership.  At the core of this enquiry is a detailed investigation of the activities of grassroots Conservatives in twelve varied constituencies. They have been selected as broadly representative of five different kinds of constituencies: urban industrial, suburban, rural and Scottish and Welsh. These case studies provide a wealth of interesting quotes and detail.

The local focus of the book has, however, limitations. Some issues, such as the empire and tariffs, get relatively little attention although they were central to Conservative concerns in the period. Nor is there any specific attention paid to the Tory Right as examined, for example, in Neil Fleming’s recent study: Britain’s Zealots volume I, Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right. Grassroots Conservatism, moreover, was not always the product of purely local concerns. Tory activists were influenced not only by local issues but also by widely disseminated party propaganda from Central Office and the Tory press. Moreover it cannot be automatically assumed that party activists shared the same mindset as ordinary Conservative voters, about whose political outlook there is relatively little evidence outside of election results.

Thomas claims that historians have unduly attributed the dominance of the Conservative Party in the inter-war period to Baldwin’s brand of consensual Conservatism. Instead he argues that the unique circumstances of a cross-party National Government enabled the Tories to revive the local roots of popular Conservatism. That claim, however, is not entirely convincing. A genuinely national cross-party government did not survive the 1931 election. Thereafter the National Government was simply a coalition between a large Tory majority and a very small minority from the Labour and Liberal Parties. In that respect it was similar to Lord Salisbury’s Unionist government from 1895 to 1902 and Lloyd George’s coalition government from 1916 to 1922. Nor was it the first time that a genuinely cross-party national government had been proposed to deal with a political crisis. In the late 1880s the threat of Irish Home Rule had led Lord Randolph Churchill and Joseph Chamberlain to briefly suggest the creation of a national party, while Lloyd George had favoured an all-party coalition during the constitutional crisis before the First World War. More generally, the rhetorical concept of a national government had been anticipated by Disraeli’s ‘one nation Conservatism’ in the Victorian era. 

     The ideological outlook of the Conservatives did not change significantly in the inter-war years. As Thomas concedes, both before and after the 1931 general election the Tories remained a stridently anti-socialist party. But he overstates the novelty of the National Government’s focus on issues of employment and industry, which had been prominent issues in the 1920s as well. The increase in attention paid to such issues in the ‘thirties was hardly surprising in the wake of the Slump. Also the Tory focus on public health in the ‘thirties had been evident in the ‘twenties when Neville Chamberlain had been Minister of Health. Likewise the divergence between a predominantly Labour north and a Tory dominance in the south reflected what had long been a partisan fault line. The Tory wooing of the Liberals during the 1931 and 1935 general election campaigns was reminiscent of their stance at the 1924 general election. On all these occasions the tactic proved successful.

Popular Conservatism and the Culture of National Government in Inter-War Britain is a valuable addition to our knowledge of grassroots activity but it overstates the impact of the National Government on the party’s fortunes.



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