To what extent and for what reasons did the Conservative party become the party of the business interests 1867-1931

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The Conservative party had dominated the 19th Century, with their influence stretching over most of the policies implicated during that time. However, their political power seemed destined to remain in the wilderness following the Liberal’s landslide in 1906 and the huge enfranchisement appeared to have finally engulfed the Tory aristocratic supporters. Instead, the party amassed a huge victory in 1922, and went on to shape the political life of the 20th Century as well. This would not have been possible if were not for a new class of supporters which came their way, most notably the business class.

The first thing we need to identify is why the business interests did not vote for the other parties. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the Liberals were dogged by problems, such as weak leadership, poor organisation, unpopular policies, the Home Rule crisis and many other equally disastrous dilemmas, which all led to lengthy periods in opposition. Following a huge process of enfranchisement, the upper class were no longer the only class wielding political power, and therefore it was expected that the Liberals would gain these new voters.

However, historians have noted that there was a gradual shift of the middle classes away from the Liberals towards the Conservatives. This could already be discerned in 1868 and even more so in 1874, despite a weak business element of MPs and a large number of men still without access to the suffrage. Thus by 1885, the Conservatives and Liberals were level-pegging in the English boroughs. Liberal governments were proving unpopular and their policies, such as the 1891 Newcastle Programme, even more so.

Professor Cornford explained that, “with the extension of the suffrage, class was becoming the most important single factor in deciding political allegiance. ” The problem for the Liberal party in the 1890s, therefore, was to try and hold onto its middle-class supporters, whilst increasing its support amongst the new working-class voters. However, this proved impossible due to a certain degree of snobbery, and a desire from the business classes to be disassociated with the working classes, i. e. support the Conservatives instead.

Another reason for the Liberal’s lack of support was the Irish problem and the agricultural depression which caused much violence and crime, leading to a general increase in annoyance and thus Conservative voters. Commercial wealth now surpassed landed wealth, and their political party was the Tories. This was not helped by the decline of the Liberal party, which was more or less eroded by the 1920s and businessmen were not going to transfer their vote to Labour. The up and coming workers’ party therefore failed to attract the business interest, more self-explanatory, due to the deep-rooted fear of Socialism.

This was seen as ideology for the working classes, not the commercial element of society, and such revelations as Zinoviev’s (fake) letters in 1924, led to a widespread eluding of any party other than the Conservatives. The decline of the aristocracy was another key factor in why the Conservatives became the party of the business interests. The franchise acts, the corruption acts, the 1911 Parliament Act, Local Government Acts and many other factors, had left the upper class with very little political power. Traditionally, the Conservatives had been their party, whilst the lower classes generally supported the Liberal party.

However, as the upper class fell away and the rise of the expert flourished, plus commercial wealth became equally important as landed wealth, the business classes subsequently formed the base of the party. As Belchem explained in his book, “The decline of the landed interest in the later nineteenth Century – psychological perhaps even more than economic – made it inevitable that the Conservative party should accept for its own good the blood transfusion of energy, ability and, above all, wealth that the middle class plutocracy could provide.

Thus, the Conservative party were no longer merely the party of the landed interest, they were now the party of the business interest. However, the blame cannot be solely directed at everyone else, because the Conservatives did indeed strive to capture the middle class vote, and the party did appeal to businessmen. As already mentioned, they benefited hugely from class alignment, whereby the middle classes felt compelled to vote for the Conservatives, rather than vote for the so-called working class parties. This was quite probably the single most important reason for the Conservatives success during this period of time.

However, their policies were also purposely intended to appeal to their area of supporters. At the turn of the Century, the party’s main policies were largely dictated by Lord Salisbury and A. J. Balfour, who were generally uninterested in seeking popularity through social reform. They saw the rights of property as being far superior and protected their wealthy supporters by avoiding redistribution of wealth -as Lord Cecil said, “it was plain that to take what one man has and to give it to another is unjust, even though the first man may be rich and the second man poor. In addition, to combat the Liberal’s “Newcastle Programme”, the Conservatives introduced the idea of Tariff Reforms, which proved popular amongst the business classes. This strived to keep taxes low by introducing tariffs on imports, although the Liberals made much play of the “dear loaf” and the Conservative’s policy to tax food. Basically, the Conservative policies were not considered beneficial to the working classes, such as their long-term victory over the Taff Vale strikes.

For these reasons, the business element found themselves well catered for under Tory rule, and would not switch their allegiance to any other party. Having now identified the reasons behind why the Conservative party became the party of the business interests, it is now necessary to discuss the extent of this statement. The initial argument would be to say that the Tories were predominantly supported by the business classes. As the rate of industry increased, so did the number of Conservative voters – evident in the 1868 and 1874 elections, and especially in the 1880s.

This is probably best reflected in the composition of the Houses of Parliament, where by 1899 “The Economist” had noted an “atmosphere of money in the lobby of the House of Commons. ” Following the 1885 election, for the first time members of the industrial and commercial interest outnumbered members of the landed interest in the House of Commons. However, the vast majority of these were still Liberal, although their steady demise subsequently occurred as the Liberal party never won an election by themselves after 1914.

Therefore, it is the rise of business related MPs in the Conservative party that is the most interesting – 31% in 1868 and 50% in 1885. Salisbury’s 1885 Ministry was the first to contain 20% of these such people, and the figure never fell again. The House of Lords was not quite the same story, although there too the number of new peers with business backgrounds was on the increase – only 4 before 1886 and more than 70 by 1914.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the business element within the Conservatives was increasing tenfold, and was on its way to shaping the entire party. However, the party still held support in other class sections. Obviously, this primarily included the upper class, or the landed classes, who had traditionally been the backbone of Conservative support. While we talk of the decline of the aristocracy, we must not forget that they did not just die out and that their votes still counted, even more so under the plural vote system.

In addition, they still formed a large part of the House of Commons, even by the First World War, and as for the House of Lords, it is still hugely aristocratic at the end of the 20th Century. There was also the lower middle classes, an evolved class towards the end of the 19th Century, who wished to disassociate themselves with the working class. So therefore, while not being business orientated, their input at election time also helped steer the Conservatives towards success. For all property related classes, their common home tended to be with the Unionists.

There was, however, one other area of support – one third of the working class voted Conservative at the peak of the party’s success. Despite the non-existence of social reforms and worker-friendly policies, through support of the union and through a large amount of deference, the Conservatives could rely on their votes in the urban areas. Therefore, the Tories were not merely the party of businessmen – their support stayed loyal with the upper classes and, maybe surprisingly, blossomed into the lower middle classes and even some of the working class.

To conclude, I would say that the Conservative party managed to attract the votes of the business interests from 1867-1931, through a number of reasons. Firstly, they did not want to vote Liberal, with their unpopular policies and image problem, and they certainly did not want to vote Labour with its association with socialism. In addition, the decline of the aristocracy led the Tories to a new financial base – the wealthy businessmen, and their input replaced what had been lost.

Finally, the Conservatives strived to entice the very class we are talking about, with their right-wing policies such as Tariff reforms, and their reluctance to adopt such measures as redistribution of wealth. To what extent this business element dominated the party is relatively unquestionable – the commercial and industrial gentlemen formed the bulk of the supporters, politicians and even broke into the House of Lords. While classes above and below them also voted Tory, there is no doubt that the Conservative party had become the party of the business interests.

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