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Conservative splits: lessons from history?

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In the last few months, the news agenda has focussed on the growing splits within the Conservative Party. First, pressure came from the right of the party over Europe, forcing David Cameron to promise a referendum on Britain's continuing EU membership after the next General Election, which alienated the Europhile left of his party. Then in early May, a poor Conservative performance against the staunchly Eurosceptic UKIP put further pressure on the embattled Conservative leadership.

Splits have also been emerging on other issues, including same-sex marriage and public spending cuts. On 20 May Cameron was forced to seek Labour votes in Parliament to defeat wrecking amendments (proposed by his own backbencher Tim Loughton) on the government's flagship legislation to introduce same-sex marriage. Splits between those on the backbenches, who demand deeper spending cuts, against ministers on the front bench, who prefer limiting further austerity, are also souring relations within the Conservative Party.

Analysis of who the rebels are suggests that this developing split on the right of British politics is deeper and broader than many originally thought. Conservative opposition towards same-sex marriage and Europe is not based purely on ethical grounds; it has a political and ideological basis too. The voting records of Conservative backbench rebels appear remarkably consistent on such issues. Many vote against them more in protest at Cameron's entire modernizing programme, than on the pros and cons of particular policies.

Increasingly frequent backbench rebellions look like they will have serious electoral consequences for the Conservative Party, often involving over 100 MPs, of the size and scale faced by Prime Minister Robert Peel in 1846 when he fought to repeal the Corn Laws. This legislation was designed to protect cereal farmers in Britain and Ireland from cheap grain imports. But failed harvests leading to the Irish potato famine contributed to Peel's decision that the Corn Laws should be repealed.

Landowners in the House of Commons resisted what they saw as an attack on their interests and many Conservative backbenchers refused to support Peel. Eventually, with support from the Whigs and the Radicals, the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. Peel was defeated on another Bill in the Commons that day and resigned.

In contrast to the 1846 split, for most of the twentieth century, Conservative unity against a fractured opposition helped it become the 'natural party of government' in Britain. This occurred through the consolidation of the right of the political spectrum into the Conservative Party in the early 1900s. Driven partly in fear of the sudden rise in popular support for the Labour Party, the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists merged in 1912, later entrenched by the move of many middle-class Liberal supporters to join the Conservatives in the 1920s.

Conversely, the split on the left of British politics between the old Liberal Party and the emerging Labour Party in the early-twentieth century aided the growth of Conservative political hegemony throughout the rest of that century. Margaret Thatcher capitalized on this by winning huge majorities in the 1983 and 1987 General Elections as the left of centre vote splintered between the Labour Party and the Liberal-SDP alliance.

However, Conservative unity has been put under pressure since the party began to splinter in the 1980s, between the more right-wing 'Dry' Conservatives who tended to be Eurosceptic, and the more moderate and more pro-Europe 'Wets'.

This split has re-opened since the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010. 'Wet' and 'Dry' influences are now splitting the right of the political spectrum into three groups. Under the Coalition, the Lib Dems have revealed an outlook closer to Wet Tories, such as John Major, than to Labour - manifested in their support of moderate austerity, social liberalism, and a pro-Europe policy. Indeed, in a 2010 speech, Major argued that the Lib Dems should merge into the modernized Conservative Party because their ideas were so similar.

On the other hand, UKIP has inherited the more extreme beliefs of the 'Dry' Tories, championed by Thatcher in the 1980s, when she promoted free market economics, social conservatism and Eurosceptism. In the middle remains what is left of the Conservative Party, in an existential crisis between frontbench modernizers who view coalition with the Lib Dems in a positive light, and backbench rebels who want a shift to the right to beat off the threat from UKIP.

Such a deep ideological split within Conservatism also occurred in 1846, with disastrous electoral consequences. Whereas modernizing front benchers under Peel believed that traditional Conservative ideas, such as trade protectionism and anti-Catholicism, should be dropped in favour of proto-Liberal attitudes, strong government and low tariffs to boost prosperity, backbenchers believed that the Conservative Party should hold fast to traditional Conservative ideas.

After the split, the front benchers became known as the 'Liberal Conservatives' and backbench rebels the 'Protectionist Conservatives'. Eventually, the frontbenchers dropped the Conservative suffix and became known as the Liberal Party (and later still the Liberal Democrats). The rebels later dropped the 'Protectionist' prefix and evolved into today's Conservative Party.

The stark lesson for them now is that neither group won a workable majority in Parliament for 22 years, until William Gladstone's success in the 1868 election. He managed to unite a disparate coalition of centrist groups, including Peelites, Whigs, Liberals, and non-conformist MPs, but even this soon fell apart over education, Irish church disestablishment, and Irish university policy, leading to defeat in the 1874 General Election.

History suggests that unity, not division, is the recipe for electoral success for political parties in British political history. The events of 1846 and after show that this is particularly true for the Conservative Party and that they can also provide food for thought for its leaders today.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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