Alistair Lexden: On this day 180 years ago – Sir Robert Peel’s great election victory

22 Jul

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

Politics proceeded at a leisurely pace in the first eight months of 1841. That suited the lethargic Whig government under Lord Melbourne, whose chief preoccupation was his devotion to the young Queen Victoria, then in the fifth year of her reign.

He had nothing much to say about policy, to the despair of the substantial contingent of radicals in his party.

The confident and well-organised Conservative opposition, with its new headquarters at the Carlton Club, led by Sir Robert Peel, then aged 53 and at the height of his very considerable powers, sensed that its time had come. But it did not come quickly.

On 18 May, the Whig budget was defeated by 317 votes to 28, partly because it broke with the existing consensus between the parties by proposing a revision of the Corn Laws, which shielded British agriculture from foreign competition, alienating Whigs with rural interests.

Nevertheless, ministers thought that they might be able to stagger on for a few more months, and managed to rally many of their demoralised MPs.

On 4 June, Peel carried a motion of no confidence in the Government by a single vote, something that would not happen again until March 1979 when, as in 1841, it proved the prelude to the election of a famous Conservative government, whose reforms would have a lasting impact. On 22 June, Parliament was finally dissolved.

Election results were declared rapidly in just over half the constituencies where candidates were unopposed, depriving a large proportion of the 800,000 electorate (about one in seven of the adult male population in England, one in twenty elsewhere) of the chance to go to the polls and cast their votes publicly. Secret ballots would remain a hotly contested issue for another thirty years, finally being introduced by Gladstone, a close friend and lifelong admirer of Peel, in 1872.

In borough constituencies, the vast majority of which had fewer than 1,000 electors (and rampant corruption), voting was completed in early July, bringing limited Conservative gains. It continued in the counties until the third week of the month, ultimately yielding 22 Tory gains in England, which proved the keys to victory.

By 22 July, this day 180 years ago, it was clear that Peel would be the next prime minister with an overall majority of 80. The Conservatives would not do so well again until 1886, and then only because of their alliance with Liberal Unionists, who had broken with Gladstone over Irish Home Rule.

In accordance with the then hallowed convention, the Whig government remained in office until the new House of Commons, which met on 19 August, delivered its verdict. On 27 August, after an intense four-hour debate, it was overwhelmingly defeated on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech.

On 30 August, nearly three and a half months after trouncing the Whigs so decisively in the budget debate, Peel was driven in a open carriage from his mansion in Whitehall Gardens to Windsor, where he kissed the hands of an unsmiling, unwelcoming Queen, distraught at the loss of Melbourne.

The election did not just part the young monarch from a much-loved premier and mentor. It brought to an end royal involvement in British general elections. Like her Hanoverian predecessors, the Queen had dug deep into her Privy Purse to help the governing party, which she wished to keep in office, with its election expenses.

This would never happen again. Under the guidance of the brilliant Prince Albert, monarchical power was redefined: it would now be used to help shape the governments that emerged after elections had taken place, and to sustain in office ministers of whom the monarch approved. Within months, ironically, Peel was at the top of the royal approval list, with Melbourne forgotten.

The significance of the change that occurred in 1841 was not lost on senior Conservatives. One of Peel’s colleagues told him: “Tis the first time in our history that the people have chosen the first Minister for the Sovereign.” Never before had a government possessing the monarch’s confidence and a Commons majority lost an election.

Peel, brimming with ideas for moderate reform, was determined to govern on his own terms after his great victory, which brought the Conservatives triumphantly back to power just nine years after their utter humiliation by the Whigs over the Great Reform Act. He had given no pledges. He had submitted no programme to the electorate for approval. The famous Tamworth manifesto of 1834 had no successor in 1841.

Speaking on the eve of the vote that finally removed the Whigs from office, he said: “If I exercise power, it shall be upon my own conception—perhaps imperfect, perhaps mistaken—but my sincere conception of public duty.” They were the words of a confident and dedicated public servant, who believed that he knew how to identify and advance the national interest better than anyone else.

He refused to admit that “a minister owed any personal obligations to those members who have placed him in government.” In politics, with its unending personal and party rivalries, such intense high-mindedness was bound to prove distinctly perilous.

For four years he carried all before him, untroubled by dissent within his party. Tariffs were swept away by this ardent champion of free market economics; income tax was imposed on the richest to compensate for the revenue lost by ending or reducing indirect taxes which hit the poor hardest; a great programme was drawn up for reform in Ireland.

Then, in 1845, Peel’s conception of public duty suddenly came into conflict with the commitments given of their own accord by so many of his MPs in 1841 to maintain protection for agriculture. It would have been wholly out of character for Peel to be deflected from his purpose, and so he passed the greatest of all his reforms, which created the basis for mid-Victorian prosperity, while splitting the party which he had led to the great victory of 1841.

(Lord) Robert Blake, the doyen of Conservative historians, described Peel as one of the two truly great 19th-century prime ministers, the other being Gladstone. He was right. But both of them also inflicted great damage on their parties.


Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (Fontana, 1985). Norman Gash, Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 (Longman, revised edition,1986) ; Politics in the Age of Peel ( Longman Green and Co, 1953); Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics 1832-1852( Clarendon Press, 1965). Douglas Hurd, Robert Peel: A Biography ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2007). Peter Jupp, The Governing of Britain 1688-1848: The Executive, Parliament and the People ( Routledge,2006). Jonathan Parry,” The Age of Peel” in Alistair B. Cooke (Lexden) ed., The Conservative Party: Seven Historical Studies (Conservative Political Centre,1997)

Alistair Lexden: A century ago today, King George V opened the Parliament of Northern Ireland

22 Jun

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

At 11 am on a grey, overcast morning, a 21-gun salute rang out across Belfast Lough as the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert, with King George V and Queen Mary on board, approached Donegall Quay in the City’s Harbour at the end of an overnight journey from Holyhead, accompanied by a magnificent naval escort.

The great shipyards, symbols of Ulster’s (now declining) industrial might, stood silent in honour of the royal visit, an event of momentous importance as a new chapter of Anglo-Irish history began.

Their Majesties were greeted by the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, arrayed proudly in tail-coats, white waistcoats “with Harbour Gilt Buttons” and top hats. These great men in Belfast life were a little taken aback when the glittering casket they brought on board with them was unceremoniously thrust aside, the illuminated address inside it unread, leaving the King without details of the port’s progress since his last visit in 1897. Their Majesties were in a hurry.

An open carriage, surrounded by large (and at times slightly disorderly ) cavalry contingents, sped through some of the principal streets en route to the Edwardian splendour of the City Hall, the temporary home of the new Parliament, elected on Empire Day, 24 May. Loyal Ulster’s joy was unrestrained. “We really got a wonderful welcome & I never heard anything like the cheering”, the King noted in his diary, that dry record of his activities which he maintained dutifully throughout his life.

Disloyal Ulster had its say two days later. A train transporting horses and men who had taken part in the royal procession was blown up. Three soldiers and a guard were killed, along with a large number of horses (others were mutilated).

Faint hearts at Buckingham Palace had urged the King to stay at home. Across Ireland as a whole, some 1,300 people – soldiers, policemen, terrorists and innocent civilians- had died since the beginning of 1919 when the IRA, then (as later) the terrorist wing of Sinn Fein, had unleashed a vicious guerrilla campaign, which historians now tend to dignify as Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’.

Britain’s response, which came to involve arbitrary reprisals for IRA crimes (summed up in three words “ Black and Tans”), stained its reputation, to the King’s great distress, as he made clear to his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, head of a coalition dominated by Unionists, as Conservatives were then known.

In Belfast, IRA attacks on property in 1920 helped reignite the sectarian violence, endemic in the city since the Nineteenth Century when industrialisation had attracted waves of Catholics from rural Ulster. In a particularly shocking incident, around 5,000 Catholics had been driven from their jobs in the shipyards in July 1920. Sectarian outrages, killing or injuring police and civilians, became depressingly familiar. Suffering was, as always, inflicted on Catholic and Protestant families alike.

No effort was spared to ensure the safety of the monarch and his wife. Cecil Craig, the devoted English wife of Northern Ireland’s new Prime Minister, Sir James Craig (later Viscount Craigavon), recorded the security precautions in her diary .

“Luckily [the City Hall] was not very far, and precautions had been taken of every description, trusted men stationed in each house, and on every roof top, and the closest scrutiny of all in the houses, and of course in the streets too. Every alternate policeman faced the crowd but as there were troops in front, this was not specially apparent.”

Lady Craig naturally had much praise for her husband on this great day. It was not misplaced. An unyielding opponent of Home Rule (as devolution was then known) before the First World War, the Ulster premier was now keen to make it a success in the six counties of Northern Ireland, for which he had become responsible. Lloyd George’s Home Rule scheme, passed into law in 1920, removed the spectre of uncongenial Dublin rule over northern Unionists, first created by William Gladstone in 1886 .

One country, two Parliaments (which might possibly want to merge at some undefined future point): that was Lloyd George’s prescription for Irish harmony in the years ahead. Craig was his conscientious associate in implementing the plan in Belfast; sadly Dublin, where Sinn Fein carried all before it, had other, subversive ideas.

Craig fought a campaign of studied moderation for the Empire Day elections, the first to be held in the United Kingdom under a system of proportional representation. Partnership between North and South, each respecting the other’s boundaries, was his theme. To the astonishment (and disquiet) of many Unionist voters, he went to Dublin during the campaign for discussions with De Valera, recently an inhabitant of British prisons.

He made clear that he would himself lead the Unionist delegation of ten on the Council of Ireland, a key feature of Lloyd George’s Irish settlement, when it was set up to oversee all-Ireland services like the railways and fisheries, and (if both North and South wished) work towards the reunification of Ireland under the Crown. Goodwill abounded. Craig declared that “they in the North would be only too delighted to see the harbours of Cork and elsewhere turned into great engines of industry, the same as they had in the North of Ireland. But having said so much, let it be clear that there was to be no tampering whatever with the rights of Ulster.”

On that basis, Craig won 40 of the 52 seats in the new Parliament, which was going to have to function without an official Opposition: non-Unionist MPs refused to take their seats.

That caused no disquiet among the loyal crowds as the royal carriage swept up to the Belfast City Hall on 22 June 1921, the tenth anniversary of George V’s coronation. The speech which the King delivered was like no other King’s speech in modern history. It contained no boring list of measures that would be debated and passed into law.

The dreary language invariably used on such occasions was replaced by striking eloquence, thanks to Edward Grigg, then one of Lloyd George’s Private Secretaries and later Lord Altrincham, an ardent proponent of responsible self-government within the Empire, who redrafted the speech four days before the King left London. George V’s official biographer, Harold Nicolson, recalled its reception: “Those who actually heard the speech never forgot the intense conviction with which it was delivered or the emotion it aroused.”

No one indeed could have listened without emotion as the King appealed “to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill.” He ended by recasting in memorable, idealistic terms the theme of partnership which Craig had deployed during the election campaign:

“The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves. May this historic gathering be the prelude of the day in which the Irish people, north and south, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundation of mutual justice and respect.”

It was the most significant royal intervention in Irish affairs since George III blocked Catholic Emancipation at the time of the Act of Union in 1801, and so utterly different with its wholly constructive purpose. The speech received the national and international applause it deserved. When the King and Queen returned to London by rail the following day, Lloyd George and his Cabinet were at the station to meet them. “We have been deeply moved by the devotion and enthusiasm with which You were greeted”, the Prime Minister told the King.

Lloyd George was also impressed by an upsurge of public support in Britain for negotiations with Sinn Fein to end the armed conflict in Ireland on honourable terms. On 8 July, a formal truce with the IRA was signed in Dublin, paving the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921,which conferred dominion status on the 26 counties of Southern Ireland. The Belfast visit proved the key to Anglo-Irish peace outside Northern Ireland.

As the royal couple boarded their yacht at the end of the visit, the King said to his Ulster premier: “I can’t tell you how glad I am I came, but, you know, my entourage were very much against it”. James Craig replied: “Sir, you are surrounded by pessimists, but we are all optimists over here.”

Their number diminished sharply during the months that followed. The truce in the South enabled the IRA to turn the full force of its enmity on the North. By the end of 1922, the death toll in Belfast amounted to 428 with another 1,766 injured, all now virtually forgotten by the English with their gift of historical amnesia. Dr A.T.Q Stewart, the doyen of Ulster historians, sought to remind them:

“Grenades were thrown into crowded tramcars, into pubs, into churches and even into groups of children playing at street corners…Whole streets were burned down, and in Belfast some of the main roads became like sections of the Western Front, still vivid in the memory of many of the combatants.”

The IRA also killed – deliberately – the spirit of partnership which Craig had fostered in the Empire Day elections. Power, which might in time have come to be shared, was confined to the Unionist majority as long as the Northern Ireland Parliament lasted. The voice of Catholic complaint was never silent. Could this polarisation have been reduced, perhaps overcome? Only by the continued participation of the Westminster government and the exercise of its restraining hand.

The legislation under which the Northern Ireland Parliament operated stated that “the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished.” Partnership within Ulster required a partnership of parliaments. But Westminster in a telling phrase that has become current preferred to “devolve and forget”. It was a tragic error. It is a pity that the King did not warn against it in his great speech a century ago today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – D.G. Boyce, Englishmen and Irish Troubles : British Public Opinion & The Making of Irish Policy 1918-22 ( Jonathan Cape,1972). Patrick Buckland, Ulster Unionism and The Origins of Northern Ireland 1886 to 1922 (Gill and Macmillan, 1973 ). Alistair B. Cooke/ Lexden, Ulster: The Origins of the Problem ( Conservative Political Centre, 1988) and “ Lloyd George and an Anglo-Irish Centenary: The Government of Ireland Act 1920” in Journal of Liberal History (2020). St John Ervine, Craigavon, Ulsterman ( Allen & Unwin, 1949). Alf McCreary, Titanic Port: An Illustrated History of Belfast Harbour (Booklink, 2010). Harold Nicolson, King George The Fifth: His Life and Reign ( Constable,1952). Susannah Riordan, “ Politics, Economy, Society: Northern Ireland, 1920-1939” in Thomas Bartlett (ed,), The Cambridge History of Ireland Vol. IV 1880 to the Present ( Cambridge University Press, 2018). A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground : Aspects of Ulster,1609-1969 ( Faber & Faber, 1977). C.J.C. Street, Ireland in 1921 ( Philip Allan, 1922). Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland : Government and Resistance since 1848 ( Clarendon Press, 1983

Alistair Lexden: We should have listened to “the great Lord Salisbury” on reform of the upper house

22 May

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

2021 has not only brought the 140th anniversary of Disraeli’s death in April 1881 (about which I have written elsewhere): in the following month, his successor, Lord Salisbury, then aged 51, began his 21-year stint as Tory leader, sharing power uneasily during the first four of them with Sir Stafford Northcote in the Commons, a man he had little difficulty in displacing to become Prime Minister for the first time in 1885-6. The longest-serving Tory leader, Lord Derby, who held the post for 22 years (1846-68) only narrowly surpassed him, though unlike Salisbury he was in sole command throughout.

The third holder of the Salisbury Marquessate (often given to using the French version, Marquis), he achieved lasting fame as “the great Lord Salisbury” and deservedly so: the most formidable intellectual ever to occupy the Tory leadership, he devoted his powerful mind chiefly to preserving Britain’s Union with the whole of Ireland, maintaining its pre-eminence in world affairs and enlarging its Empire, most notably in southern Africa (where his name was long recalled), during a total of thirteen and a half years in power (1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902), frequently combining the Foreign Office with the premiership.

Assisted by the Liberal split over Irish Home Rule in 1886, he secured large majorities at three general elections while losing two by small margins( after which Irish Nationalist MPs held the balance of power), a record of Tory success unknown since Lord Liverpool’s uninterrupted premiership of fifteen years in the early nineteenth century. He never thought his governments’ social reforms, important though they were, contributed much to his long political ascendancy, and was puzzled that some people, like his Liberal Unionist colleague Joe Chamberlain, should have thought that they did. For his part, he was rather more interested in strengthening the constitutional role of the House of Lords.

Nowhere, during this glorious Tory era, was Salisbury’s ascendancy more evident than in the Lords, whose steadily increasing membership  reached nearly 600 by the end of his premiership. The last Prime Minister to speak from the red benches rarely failed to impress. Lady Monkswell, married to a junior Liberal minister, thought him infinitely superior to anyone on her own side—or elsewhere. In 1894 she recorded in her diary that he spoke “with a charm, finish and grace that no one else possesses.” The following year she heard him make “a most brilliant and amusing speech; he is certainly the best speaker in the Lords.”

Salisbury also won unstinting praise from Sir Henry Lucy, the leading parliamentary reporter of the day, for his command of the House. In 1889, Lucy listened to him “explain the details of the arrangement concluded with Portugal for the settlement of contending claims with Africa. It was an exceedingly intricate affair…precisely the case in which the most practised speaker would gratefully have taken refuge in a sheaf of notes. The Premier had not a scrap of paper in his hand as he unwove the tangled skein, and when he sat down, after talking for 12 minutes, he had made the whole case clear to the perception of the dullest lord in the assembly.”

Throughout, Lucy added, Salisbury spoke in an easy, conversational style, but “with what command of his subject, what vigorous and well-ordered sentences, what irresistible argument, and now and then with what delicate, refreshing rain of cynicism.” Salisbury knew how to avoid making great affairs of state sound unduly solemn or wearisome to their lordships –or to the country at large.

He gave much thought to the role of the House which he dominated  until his retirement in 1902, the year before his death. The nineteenth century produced no stronger champion of the constitutional rights of the Lords. Salisbury completely rejected Walter Bagehot’s influential contention that since 1832 the Lords had become “a revising and suspending House” with no more than “a veto of delay”. He exercised no restraining influence when the Lords found itself  in serious and sustained conflict with the  Commons – as it did in 1884-5 over the Third Reform Bill, and in 1893 over the Second Home Rule Bill for Ireland; on both occasions Salisbury carried the day, overwhelmingly so in 1893 with a majority of 378, the largest in the history of the Lords (a great crowd outside sang Rule Britannia).

From the moment  he entered the Lords in April 1868, Salisbury argued that it should be prepared to use its powers in defence of the  nation’s interests, which it should never leave to the sole judgement of the Commons. Speaking in the Lords in July 1868, he said:

“I am quite sure…you will never consent to act except as a free, independent House of the Legislature, and that you will consider any more timid or subservient course as at once unworthy of your traditions, unworthy of your honour, and, most of all, unworthy of the nation you serve.”

Though unelected, it had a direct responsibility to the nation fully equal to that of the Commons. In discharging it, the Lords had a right to demand that the people’s will should be tested in a General Election to settle disputes between the two Houses on great national issues.

Salisbury readily accepted the Lords’ “subordination to the nation”, but not to the Commons. This view of the constitution came to be known as Salisbury’s “referendal theory” and it attracted widespread interest (along with widespread opposition among Liberals). It was put to the test most notably in 1868. Salisbury and the Conservatives in the Lords withdrew their fierce opposition to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland when Gladstone won an overwhelming election victory on the issue.

This tireless advocate of the rights of the upper house was, however,  far from complimentary about most of its members, even though they provided him  with an impregnable majority throughout his long years as its Tory leader. During his earlier  career writing brilliant articles packed with pungent phrases for leading periodicals (he needed the money), he had described it as “the paradise of bores”, though in fairness he did not think that the Commons where he  had sat for fifteen years was much better. Participation in the affairs of the upper house did not rouse any greater enthusiasm. “A Quaker jollification, a French horse-race, a Presbyterian psalm, all are lively and exciting compared to an ordinary debate in the House of Lords”, he wrote unkindly, adding that little more could be expected from it than from “a debate in one of Madame Tussaud’s showrooms.”

He deplored the House’s “scanty attendance and microscopic division-lists and perfunctory sittings.”For far too many of its members,” he complained, the Lords was merely “a place for passing an idle hour or two before dinner.” In 1891, he told Queen Victoria’s Private Secretary that “the circumstance which most threatens [the Lords’] continued influence is the paucity and insignificance of its debates, an evil which is growing every year.. It is difficult to find men who can speak, and who will go into the House of Lords.” He feared that the House would fall badly in public esteem if its real character and shortcomings should begin to attract wide attention. Fortunately, in the late nineteenth century only extreme radicals scrutinised its work closely, searching for material in order to rail against it.

Salisbury did not exaggerate in his criticisms of the Lords’ deficiencies. During his long period as leader, the House usually met at 5pm and did not often sit later than 7pm (when it did, peers were expected to express regret for speaking “at this late hour “). There were one or two occasions in the early 1890s, recorded by Henry Lucy, when proceedings began at 4.15pm for private business which was dispatched in a few minutes, after which silence fell until 4.30pm when, in the absence of any public business, the House adjourned for the day.

“Absenteeism is the first great recognised blot of the Upper Chamber”, wrote George Curzon, a future Marquess and Lords leader, in 1888. No more than 15 to 20 per cent of members put in an appearance on average per session. Just 18 members spoke in debate in 1897.  The party whips thought they had done remarkably well if they persuaded as many of 40 peers in total to turn up for major legislation that was not unduly contentious. It was sometimes hard to ensure that even Tory Bills got through the House. What redeemed its reputation was the eloquence displayed in impassioned debates on controversial issues, like Irish Home Rule, when virtually all  its most talented speakers participated, and peers turned up in large numbers to vote. Salisbury’s daughter and authorised biographer, Lady Gwendolen Cecil, wrote:

“On field-days in the Lords … the galleries, the Bar, and the steps of the Throne, would be thronged with  Commons’ members taking refuge from the dreary loquacity of mediocrities or the interminable interludes of Parnellite [Irish] obstruction. The superiority of the Lords’ debates became a commonplace of newspaper criticism.”

Salisbury was clear that the answer to the Lords’ problems of torpor and poor attendance was a change in its composition. In 1869, the year after his introduction, the former Liberal Prime Minister, Earl Russell, brought forward a Bill providing for the creation of life peerages, with an upper limit of 28. Salisbury gave the measure vigorous support through all its stages;  it had an uncontested passage up until its final stage, third reading, when it was defeated. He said:

“We belong too much to one class, and the consequence is that with respect to a large number of questions we are all too much of one mind.”

Life peers from industrial, commercial and professional backgrounds  would provide the different attitudes that were needed – and, though he did not say so publicly, help redress the dismal attendance records of most hereditary peers. Why then limit the proposed life peers to so small a number, he was asked? Salisbury replied that “all change to be wholesome must be gradual.” It would, in good Tory fashion, develop further over time.

Gwendolen Cecil, who knew her father’s mind extremely well, insisted that “he anticipated fundamental change” – in other words, ultimately a significant contingent of life peers alongside the hereditaries. “The vital need for a strong and independent Second Chamber obscured all lesser issues in his eyes.” Salisbury made another attempt to get the process of reform under way when he was Prime Minister: in 1888 he introduced a Bill to create 50 life peerages. Unexpected  opposition in the Commons from his own side put paid to it. He was forced to accept that “life peerages are likely to be the creations of the imagination for some time to come.” Gwendolen Cecil stressed, however, that “his attitude towards it [reform] never changed.”

70 years would pass before a Tory government finally altered the composition of the Lords in the way Salisbury believed to be essential for its survival; his grandson, the 5th Marquess, leader of the Lords in1957-8, overcame its continuing opponents among hereditary peers.

No limit was placed on the number of life peers that could be created, as “the great Lord Salisbury” had proposed; if it had been, the Lords might today be considerably smaller than it is, sparing it the constant criticism it now attracts for being so bloated (though it was even larger in the past before all but 92 of the hereditaries were removed by Tony Blair). Since the start of Blair’s government in 1997, peerages have been created on an astonishing scale that is historically without precedent: 775 in under twenty-five years.

“The great Lord Salisbury” would not have approved.

BIBLIOGRAPHY –Lady Gwendolen Cecil, Life of Robert Marquis of Salisbury, Vol. II 1868-1880 & Vol. IV 1887-1892 ( Hodder and Stoughton, 1921, 1932).  Hon.E.C.F. Collier(ed.), A Victorian Diarist: Extracts from the Journals of Mary, Lady Monkswell 1873-1895 ( John Murray,1944).  A.B.Cooke[Alistair Lexden], ‘ The Great Lord Salisbury’ in The Salisbury Review, Vol. I (1982). Joseph Donner, ‘The Newcomers: Victorian Peers of First Creation in the House of Lords’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Columbia, 1985).  Henry W. Lucy, A Diary of the Salisbury Parliament 1886-1892 ( Cassell,1892). Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).  E.A. Smith, The House of Lords in British Politics & Society 1815-1911 ( Longman,1992).  Corinne Comstock Weston, ‘ Salisbury and the Lords,1868-1895’ in Clyve Jones and David Lewis Jones (eds.), Peers, Politics and Power: The House of Lords 1603-1911 ( The Hambleton Press,1986).

Alistair Lexden: At the top of the greasy pole – Disraeli 140 years on

4 Apr

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

On 25 February 1868, Mary Anne Disraeli, whose adoration of her husband knew no bounds, wrote excitedly to her friend, Lady Charlotte de Rothschild: ‘By the time this reaches you, Dizzy will be Prime Minister of England!’ (the letter would have been delivered by the then highly efficient Post Office within a few hours).

The prospective new premier shared his wife’s attachment to the nickname by which he was widely and affectionately known; indeed, he often used it himself. By coincidence, he also wrote on that momentous day in his career to Lady de Rothschild, who had sent him a note asking who the new prime minister would be. He replied laconically: ‘ Your devoted Dizzy.’

He always appreciated, and responded warmly, to kindness, perhaps because he had to bear so many insults, even from within his own Party. A senior Tory backbencher, Sir Rainald Knightley, never ceased cursing ‘that hellish Jew.’ To his great credit, Disraeli uttered no public word of protest or complaint. He accepted that in Victorian England those of Jewish descent could not expect much general goodwill, unless they possessed great riches, like the Rothschilds.

In the afternoon of that memorable 25 February , the formal announcement of his appointment by Queen Victoria was made in the House of his Commons by his closest political friend at that time, Lord Stanley, eldest son and heir of the 14th Earl of Derby, who had led the Party for over twenty years and dominated its affairs.

Though Disraeli had been indispensable to him in the Commons, Derby had always had the last word on policy and tactics, supported by his lieutenant in the lower house who loyally deferred to him. The Party had no wish to change this long-standing state of affairs, despite its leader’s increasing ill-health. For some weeks, Derby dithered, but, racked by gout which made even the writing of a letter impossible, it finally became obvious to him that he could not go on. For months Disraeli had run the government, receiving and replying to long letters dictated by the immobile Derby at his ancestral seat, Knowsley in Lancashire, with Stanley, who in 1862 had been thought of as a candidate for the Greek throne, acting as messenger between them. (Ten years later, as the 15th Earl of Derby, he would resign as Foreign Secretary after a bitter clash with Disraeli, and go on to become a Liberal cabinet minister.)

When Derby told the Queen that he would have to resign, she immediately agreed, without seeking the views of anyone else, that there was only one possible successor. It has been argued recently that in such circumstances consultation within political parties had now become a settled duty; yet no one in 1868 seems to have expected it to occur. Everywhere, Disraeli, then in his sixty-fourth year, was accepted as the inevitable choice. At no point did he actively seek the premiership. His words on achieving the highest political office (he was the twenty-ninth person to occupy it) were to become famous: ‘Yes! I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.’

Did he actually say these words? They appear only in an unreliable book by a deeply distrusted figure on the fringe of Disraeli’s circle, Sir William Fraser, but it was exactly the kind of thing Dizzy would have said.

The existing, extremely competent cabinet, which included three dukes (Buckingham, Marlborough and Richmond), three other peers and two sons of peers, remained almost entirely unchanged, reflecting Disraeli’s unalterable view that government was a task for the upper classes, in which he confidently included himself (believing, wrongly, that he was descended from a family of high birth). A voluntary departure reduced the total size of the cabinet to fourteen.

The new premier wasted no time over his one and only sacking. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chelmsford, immediately after the announcement of his appointment , telling the unfortunate man peremptorily that ‘it is not in my power to submit your name for the custody of the great seal to the Queen.’ Chelmsford’s offence was insufficient partisanship: his speeches had lacked Tory passion and he had made judicial appointments impartially instead of reserving them for Tory lawyers. His very able successor from Belfast, Hugh Cairns, who both knew the law and loved party strife, was a man after Disraeli’s heart, and quickly became one of his most trusted colleagues.

The cabinet also gained a new Chancellor of the Exchequer, the post which Disraeli had held under Derby. The following day, 26 February, the Queen was informed that his successor would be the junior Treasury minister, Ward Hunt. ‘He is more than six feet four in. in stature’, Disraeli wrote, ‘but he has the sagacity of an elephant, as well as the form.’ From the start, it was clear that the new premier would not be altering his vivid, novelist’s prose.

The most important formality of all was completed on 27 February. There was no question of the monarch, who was at Osborne, Prince Albert’s creation on the Isle of Wight, coming up to London in a considerate gesture to a busy new premier (in July 1886, Lord Salisbury had to trek 600 miles to Balmoral). At least Disraeli had a warm welcome when he reached Osborne at 7pm on the 27th ,as he told his devoted Private Secretary, Monty Corry, in a letter the following day:

‘I was standing in the Closet when the door opened & the Queen came in, radiant with smiles, & holding out her hand, saying “ You must kiss hands” which I did, immediately & most heartily, falling on my knee, & saying I kissed her hand in faith & loving loyalty. Then she sat down, which she only does with the chief minister, I still standing, & talked so long, that I had hardly time to dress. I dined with her quite alone—i.e. Princess L[ouise] & Dss of Ath[ole] & I dine again with her today.’

It was the start of a remarkable relationship, applauded by Tories but excoriated by their opponents. On 29 February, the Queen told her eldest daughter that ‘the present man will do well, and will be particularly loyal and anxious to please me in every way. He is vy. peculiar, but vy. clever and sensible’. She wrote again on 4 March with rapturous comments: ‘He is full of poetry, romance & chivalry’.

Within weeks, abundant consignments of spring flowers, primroses prominent among them, started arriving at the Disraelis’ house off Park Lane. A view was taking hold, thanks in large part to Walter Bagehot, that the monarch should be an impartial, ceremonial figure, entirely above politics. Neither the Queen nor Disraeli accepted that doctrine. Monarchs do not readily abandon the powers they have inherited. Victoria, though wilful and obstinate like her Hanoverian predecessors, was shrewd, perceptive and, after thirty years on the throne, extremely knowledgeable. Disraeli subdued her more unfortunate prejudices (though not as regards Gladstone), and profited from her sharp insights into people and affairs, particularly in relation to the Church of England, then a source of many problems as well of major patronage (five sees including Canterbury had to be filled in 1868) which she understood and he did not, thinking always in Party terms (‘Another Deanery! The Lord of Hosts is with us!’).

Naturally, Gladstone and his supporters complained bitterly about Disraeli’s rapport with the monarch and the political benefits it brought him. It was up to his great rival to find ways of overcoming it, but he never had the faintest idea of how to go about the task of building a successful relationship with her.

The Queen’s new friend, her first premier not to have a title, took his seat in the Commons as Prime Minister for the first time on 5 March. The Times reported that the galleries ‘were unusually crowded, and peers, ambassadors, and distinguished strangers overflowed into the lobbies and corridors.’ A gay Liberal MP, Lord Ronald Gower, recorded that ‘when he entered John Stuart Mill [then MP for Westminster] was on his legs, but he had to interrupt his speech for several minutes on account of the ringing cheers that Disraeli’s appearance evoked.’

The new premier delivered no magnificent oration, as many had hoped. He spoke only briefly, promising ‘a policy of peace’ abroad and ‘a liberal policy’ at home, leaving his listeners perplexed, a frequent Disraelian ploy. He told the Queen that he had been ‘very guarded, &,in that respect, so successful, that it prevented all discussion. At least, the leader of the Opposition was silent.’ A taciturn Gladstone was a source of particular pleasure to him.

‘Will you lend your reception rooms to my wife?’, Disraeli asked Lord Stanley, his Foreign Secretary, on 9 March. ‘There must be some high festivals on a very extensive scale–& she can do nothing with D[owning] S[treet]: it is so dingy and decaying’ (the Disraelis continued to live at their own London home). A great celebration of the new premiership with several hundred guests duly took place in the gleaming new Foreign Office building on 26 March; even the Gladstones came. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who was there, wrote in his diary:

‘Dizzy in his glory, leading about the Princess of Wales; the Prince of Wales, Mrs Dizzy’. It recalled scenes in Disraeli’s novels. In the words of George Buckle, the official biographer of Disraeli’s later years, ‘it was such a party as the author of Coningsby and Lothair loved to describe, with half enthusiasm and half satire; and this time the author himself and his wife were the leading figures in the show’.

The glittering Foreign Office reception with its royal guests did not help inaugurate a memorable, if brief, period of Disraelian government. He had a year of political glory behind him, and would not know another until the start of his second administration in 1874. The Tories’ capacity to direct the course of events in the late 1860s, while in a minority of sixty without a coalition partner – a situation inconceivable today – depended entirely on keeping Gladstone’s Liberals in total disarray.

That is what Disraeli achieved in 1867. Having brought the Liberals’ right wing into the Tory division lobby in opposition to a modest parliamentary Reform Bill harmful to Tory interests and demolished the Liberal government in July 1866, Disraeli, as Derby’s standard-bearer in the subsequent minority Tory government, then abandoned his first set of Liberal allies and passed a radical Reform Bill giving the vote to the urban working class – which no one, least of all Disraeli, had even contemplated at the outset – with the support of the Liberal left. The Bill was a gamble as regards the new urban electorate (‘a leap in the dark’, in Derby’s famous phrase), but greatly strengthened the Tories’ prospects in their heartlands, the county constituencies, which was the government’s principal objective.

It was a breath-taking triumph which only Disraeli could have brought off. It required mastery of political manoeuvre and intrigue combined with bravura performances at the despatch box. Disraeli, the finest debater of his time, never faltered during his annus mirabilis of 1867. No wonder Gladstone disliked him so much.

In 1868, Gladstone had his revenge. Ireland provided the means. The country itself was not a source of grave anxiety. It was largely peaceful after sporadic violence the previous year. Disraeli had complete confidence in his ministers, both of them Irishmen (an unusual occurrence), in Dublin: the Chief Secretary, the Earl of Mayo, who was rewarded with the Viceroyalty of India in July (four years later he was assassinated on a visit to the Andaman Islands), and the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquess of Abercorn, whose frequent pleas for a dukedom were answered at the same time. In April, the Prince and Princess of Wales made a successful visit to Dublin which Disraeli hoped would be followed by the establishment of a permanent residence for them, an Irish Balmoral, but the Queen vetoed the scheme. Gladstone, who later took up the scheme, had no more success .

It was the eruption of Irish violence in Britain on a serious scale for the first time which enabled Gladstone to regain the political initiative and ruin Disraeli’s chances of a successful premiership. Politicians at Westminster were shaken by incidents in late 1867 associated with the shadowy (and consequently much feared) Fenian terrorist movement, funded from the United States.  A policeman was killed in Manchester; an explosion at Clerkenwell jail in London, set off to enable Fenian prisoners to escape, killed twelve people and injured 120. (Disraeli was incensed by the Met’s incompetence, and demanded the Commissioner’s dismissal.) Rumours of further outrages abounded.

Disraeli wrote to Derby on 16 December 1867 about ‘a plot, quite matured, to blow up the Houses of Parliament by gunpowder introduced through the gas-pipes.’ Ships were said to be on their way from America to kidnap the Queen at Balmoral. That level-headed woman dismissed the story as a hoax, which indeed it was.

In the wake of the Fenian threat, both Parties agreed, as they would again and again in similar circumstances over the next century and a half, that greater attention must be given to Irish policy. They would try to pretend that their response was wholly unconnected with Irish violence (dismissing terrorism in the late 20th Century as ‘ mindless’), but it was of course the shadow of the gun and the bomb that they sought to remove by taking new initiatives. In the atmosphere of crisis in 1868, Disraeli showed that he knew how to serve Irish interests as a whole rather better than Gladstone, though the latter would emerge with all the credit.

It was common ground between them that there were three issues above all which required urgent attention. First, a new university needed to be established, incorporated by charter, to provide for Catholic students (complementing Protestant Trinity College, Dublin). Second, the privileged position of the established Anglican Church of Ireland, which served no more than an eighth of the population, could not remain unchanged. Third, the unduly high rents which some, but by no means all, Anglo-Irish landowners charged their tenants should be brought down and kept under effective control. It was the final question which aroused the deepest feeling throughout Ireland (and from it sprang within ten years a mass movement, the Land League, which swiftly provided Irish nationalism with wide public support for the first time.)

At the beginning of 1868, the Tory government already had serious work in hand on all three, as well as on other issues including primary education and the extension of the railway system ‘affecting beneficially every part of the country’ as Disraeli told the Queen on 4 March after a two-day cabinet meeting devoted to Irish affairs. It was agreed at that meeting that, since the land question was more important than the others, a Bill to begin the process of improvement (no one expected a swift resolution of long-standing agrarian discontent) which Mayo, the Irish Chief Secretary had drafted, should be introduced in the Commons.

Twelve days later Gladstone made his dramatic move, which transformed the entire political situation and brought doom to Disraeli and his minority government. Though he had no quarrel with the Tory programme of action and fully acknowledged the importance of the land question, he suddenly insisted that the Church of Ireland must take precedence over all else. On 14 March, Disraeli told the retired, but still closely involved Derby that Gladstone was ‘in a furious rage.’ Late in the evening of the 16th, he vented his rage on the Anglican Irish Church, calling it ‘an insult to every Roman Catholic’ which ‘as a State Church, must cease to exist.’

Tories were swift to point out that just three years earlier he had assured his Oxford constituents that the Irish Church question was ‘remote and apparently out of all bearing on the practical politics of the day’. Now, suddenly, it was overwhelmingly urgent. How lucky Gladstone has been that there have always been historians ready to take at face value his insistence that he acted at all times from the purest motives untainted by Party political considerations. (It is a view that Professor John Vincent, who died recently, and I challenged in a detailed study of another serious Irish crisis – over Home Rule – in the mid-1880s.)

Inconsistencies count for nothing when the political stakes are high. A single radical reform, unexpectedly produced and offered with all Gladstone’s eloquence as the solution to Irish discontent, seemed to many infinitely preferable to Disraeli’s complicated package of measures, which would take time to produce results. Gladstone encouraged them to believe that disestablishment of the Church of Ireland would put an end the Fenian threat to British peace and, in his well-known phrase, pacify Ireland.

George Buckle described it as ‘Gladstone’s most brilliant and successful stroke as a party leader.’ It brought the squabbling groups within his Party, who had pulled in different directions over parliamentary reform, together again. Harmony reigned for the first time since 1865. The Liberals were back in full possession of their sixty-seat majority. When asked why out of the blue his Party had taken up the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Gladstone’s friend and cabinet colleague, the Duke of Argyll, replied with refreshing candour ‘there really was no other way of getting Dizzy out of office.’ Just three weeks had passed since Disraeli had knelt to kiss the royal hand so fervently, taking it in ‘both his’, as the Queen had noted with surprised pleasure.

Gladstone’s demarche had come, said Disraeli, ‘like a thief in the night.’ During the rest of March and April, Irish disestablishment dominated Commons debate. It was now the Tories’ turn to fall apart, as they tried to work out a response to Gladstone. English love for the embattled Irish Church was in short supply. The cabinet could not agree whether to defend it a`outrance , to reform it, to endow Catholics and Presbyterians as well, or to disestablish it themselves (an option that only a few supported). Disraeli settled for a vigorous defence of the principle of Church establishment which, if completely breached in Ireland, would lead ineluctably to its abrogation elsewhere, and destroy the constitutional settlement of 1688.

The first of three Gladstonian resolutions demanding disestablishment was passed with a majority of 65 in the early hours of 1 May. Some cabinet ministers wanted to resign; Disraeli ignored them, and, with the Queen’s vigorous support, announced on 4 May that Parliament would be dissolved ‘as soon as the public interests permit, and that an earnest endeavour should be made by the Government that such an appeal should be made to the new constituency.’ In other words, the government intended to remain in office until new electoral registers including those enfranchised under the 1867 Reform Act were ready. Disraeli made clear that meant an election in November, unless Gladstone carried a motion of no confidence in the government ,which would precipitate what Disraeli called ‘a penal dissolution’ without delay.

Gladstone, relishing his new-found political strength, was happy to let the Tories remain in office without power. A Gladstonian Bill, paving the way for Irish disestablishment, passed the Commons in June (but made no progress in the Tory-dominated Lords). Measures acceptable to the Liberals proceeded. Bills implementing parliamentary reform in Scotland and Ireland were passed. Public executions were abolished. The first nationalised industry was created; the telegraph service passed into public ownership so that the Treasury could acquire its anticipated profits (they never materialised).

Disraeli was given just one cause for celebration. On 26 April, news arrived of a British triumph in Abyssinia, to which an army had been sent the previous year to rescue a group of British subjects, consisting chiefly of missionaries, held in chains in the remote mountain fortress of Magdala. Glad tidings of victory, achieved with insignificant casualties, were delivered to Disraeli at home, where he was found ‘gorgeously arrayed in a dressing-gown and in imposing headgear’. Having released the prisoners, the British forces withdrew .A barren and unprofitable territory was not added to the British Empire.

Disraeli naturally made the most it all, rejoicing that ‘ the standard of St. George was hoisted on the mountains of Rasselas.’ He continued:

‘We have asserted the purity of our purpose . In an age accused, and perhaps not unjustly, of selfishness, and a too great regard for material interests, it is something, in so striking and significant a manner, for a great nation to have vindicated the higher principles of humanity. It is a privilege to belong to a country which has done such deeds.’

The expedition cost twice as much as the government had estimated. Disraeli was unrepentant, writing airily ‘ it certainly cost double what was contemplated, and that is likely to be the case in all wars for which I may be responsible. Money is not to be considered in such matters: success alone is to be thought of.’

Naturally, Gladstone did not make life easy for his great opponent’s government. Disraeli wrote to the Queen on 18 July that ‘Parliamentary work has been so protracted, severe, & exhausting: amounting to upwards of twelve hours a day.’ The main item of business, as the Parliament elected in 1865 drew to a close was, he told her, ‘the bill for the prevention of the Cattle plague, by establishing separate markets for foreign meat at the ports of embarcation.’

Parliament was prorogued, prior to its dissolution, on 31 July. The speech from the throne read on behalf of the Queen invited the nation to reject Irish disestablishment (and by implication the Liberals) at the forthcoming election. She expressed the hope that the people’s verdict ‘on those great questions of public policy which have occupied the attention of Parliament and remain undecided, may tend to maintain unimpaired that civil and religious freedom which has been secured to all my subjects by the institutions and settlement of my realm.’

Disraeli always supervised Tory election campaigns in some detail, not unlike a 20 Century Party Chairman (a post created in 1911). In 1868, he scrutinised intently the work of the Conservatives’ election management committee, composed of grandees and apparatchiks. He solicited £10,000 from each of his cabinet colleagues (the three dukes were very reluctant to pay up) to put towards an election war chest of £100,000, which, to his disappointment, he came nowhere near achieving.

He seemed to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the recent electoral history of each county constituency, and the prominent local families from whom Tory candidates had been drawn. Many received letters from him, urging them to keep the faith and hinting at knighthoods and baronetcies in return. Advice was offered about how local difficulties could be overcome. Those who needed financial help were put in touch with wealthy neighbours. Throughout the summer he hardly rested. ‘I have written so much today that I am almost blind & can’t guide my pen any more’, he told Lord Stanley on 21 August. This was an era in which Prime Ministers wrote nearly all their own letters, delegating only the most humdrum matters to private secretaries

Unlike Gladstone, however, Disraeli did not set off on the campaign trail. For this, he was chided by the official biographer of his later life, George Buckle:

‘He had given the vote to a hitherto unenfranchised million of his fellow countrymen, belonging in the great majority to the working classes ; but so absolutely incapable was he of demagogic arts that he neglected, almost to a culpable degree, to endeavour to utilise his great legislative achievement to secure their support…Gladstone and several of his colleagues undertook impassioned electoral campaigns in which the new Irish policy of their party was eloquently expounded. But Disraeli contented himself with issuing an address, undoubtedly of some length and elaboration, to the electors of Bucks’, his constituency.

This was one of the greatest contrasts between the two famous adversaries. Disraeli was an outstanding Parliamentarian who rarely spoke on public platforms; Gladstone was formidable in, and outside, Westminster. Even Disraeli’s election address, dominated by disestablishment, contained nothing to make the new working-class electors feel that he would improve their lives. ‘One nation’ was conspicuous by its absence, but then he never claimed to be in the business of trying to create it, or even used the term.

Disraeli always viewed the world and public affairs with tremendous optimism, one of his most attractive qualities. As the election approached, he was confident of victory. On 28 October, he told the Queen that the government ‘may reasonably calculate on the return of 320 supporters’, giving the Tories their first Parliamentary majority since 1841. He was utterly confounded when the election took place in November. Gladstone won a majority of over a hundred. Disraeli had done significantly worse than Derby in 1865. It was, he told the Queen on 24 November ‘a strange & most unforeseen result.’ On the 28th, Lord Stanley recorded that the cabinet ‘all agreed, without one dissentient voice, in the policy of immediate resignation’, setting aside the age-old convention that after losing an election an incumbent government would wait to be defeated in Parliament before leaving office.

On 1 December, Disraeli tendered his resignation to the Queen at Windsor. On the same day, the London Gazette announced that Mrs Disraeli ‘had been granted the dignity of Viscountess Beaconsfield, of Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckinghamshire.’ The Queen told him that she ‘can indeed truly sympathise with his devotion to Mrs Disraeli who in her turn is so deeply attached to him’. The new Viscountess wrote of her ‘happiness’ at knowing that she owed her honour ‘to Your Majesty’s appreciation of Mr Disraeli’.


Three significant overall conclusions can be drawn from this account of Disraeli’s first, brief premiership, which make it a suitable subject for a commemorative essay.

First, it shows that, to an extent not widely recognised, he was an accidental Prime Minister. In an age of elderly premiers, Derby had absolutely no wish to retire in 1868. He was 69, eleven years younger than Palmerston when he died in office in 1865. He wanted to be the first Conservative leader since 1841 to win a Parliamentary majority, and leave a lasting mark as head of a successful government.

It was Derby’s gout that made Disraeli Prime Minister in 1868. At no stage had Disraeli said that he expected to get to the top of the greasy pole; there are some indications that he did not. If Derby had stayed on for several more years, as he intended, Disraeli, five years his junior, might well have been overtaken by another senior Conservative – Lord Salisbury, for instance, his own ultimate successor, who at this stage loathed Disraeli as a man who was betraying true Conservative principles and ought to be ousted.

Second, it shows that Disraeli did not neglect, or misunderstand, Irish affairs, as has been widely alleged. They had their place on the government’s agenda before Fenian attacks in Britain gave them extra urgency. Disraeli then intensified the work that was then in hand, particularly on the land question which was at the heart of the Irish problem. Gladstone outmanoeuvred him by launching an onslaught on the Church of Ireland, reuniting his divided Party and sweeping the country at the November 1868 election.

Third, and most important, his first short spell at the top of the greasy pole in 1868 did him no good at all. His one substantial achievement was to make the Queen a Tory. The Party in Parliament was in a much weaker state at the end of 1868 than at the beginning. The beneficiaries of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act voted Liberal. Tories hate failure. In 1872, he nearly lost the leadership; only two of his ex-cabinet colleagues opposed a plan to replace him by the new 15th Earl of Derby. Disraeli himself lost heart. In 1872, his wife died; he said ‘I am totally unable to meet this catastrophe.’ Then suddenly Gladstone’s government ran into difficulty, and two years later the Tories reversed their 1868 humiliation.

The essential point here is that it was only at a very late stage in his career that Disraeli started to attract his Party’s acclaim. He was lauded after 1874, particularly as a result of his great triumph at the Congress of Berlin, from which he returned proclaiming ‘peace with honour’. The Tories now at last took him to their hearts. His sudden death in April 1881 produced an outpouring of feeling for him, which led, two years later, to the creation of the Primrose League , the two-million strong organisation that ensured his political immortality as the best-known and most loved Conservative of the nineteenth century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – Robert Blake, Disraeli ( Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966) and The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (Fontana,1985). George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, Vol. IV 1855-1868( John Murray, 1916) and Vol. V 1868-1876 (John Murray,1920). Michel W.Pharand et al., Benjamin Disraeli Letters, Vol X. 1868 (University of Toronto Press,2014).Richard Shannon, The Age of Disraeli 1868-1881 ( Longman,1992). J.R. Vincent ed., Disraeli Derby and the Conservative Party: The Political Journals of Lord Stanley 1849-69 ( Harvester Press,1978) and his essay ‘ Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield’ in Herbert van Thal ed., The Prime Ministers Vol. 2( George Allen & Unwin, 1975).

Alistair Lexden: The Conservatives and the Carlton Club – in partnership for nearly 200 years

30 Jan

Alistair Lexden is the Carlton Club’s official historian. His publications include ‘The Carlton Club 1832-2007’ (with Sir Charles Petrie,2007) and ‘A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League,1983-2004’ (2010). In preparing this address, he drew heavily—and with gratitude– on Seth Alexander Thevoz, ‘Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs’ ( I.B.Tauris,2018).

On 28 January, Lord Lexden spoke to some 100 members of the Carlton Club by Zoom about the Club’s history. The text of his address follows.

There would have been no Carlton Club without that excessively overweight, spendthrift, arts-loving monarch, King George IV.

There would undoubtedly have been a powerful Conservative club, but it would have been called something else – perhaps the Wellington Club in tribute to the great Duke, who was leader of the Party when the plans for its establishment were made after 1830. In that case, history would have been robbed of one of Wellington’s celebrated quips: “never write a letter to your mistress, never join the Carlton Club”.

It was a very odd thing for him to say, despite its having his characteristic terseness and, as regards the first bit, good sense. He was after all the Carlton’s founding father and, although he played no large part in its affairs, he must have observed its success with considerable satisfaction. Perhaps, like many phrases supposedly uttered by famous people, it was attributed to him, but actually coined by someone else.

In no sense was George IV a founding father of the Club, though one of his brothers, the Duke of Cumberland, a man widely reviled as a murder suspect, was one of the original members, along with a cousin, the Duke of Gloucester; no one at that time thought the royal family should be politically impartial. The King made his contribution unwittingly. In the 1820s he decided to demolish Carlton House, a palace in all but name, where he had lived in splendour as Prince of Wales, and to turn the then unpretentious Buckingham House into a residence fit for kings.

Carlton House Terrace, itself not lacking in splendour, was built over what had been the royal gardens. While it waited for its permanent home to be made ready for it in Pall Mall, the Club found a temporary abode in the Terrace, renting the house of a Tory supporter, Lord Kensington. It was in this way that the famous name was acquired. The indirect royal link was commemorated through the incorporation of the Prince of Wales’s feathers into the Club’s symbol. (At least I think that was the case; in the absence of any surviving records bearing on the point it is impossible to be sure.)

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the establishment of the Carlton Club in the history of British party politics. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, there were in existence two great clubs, Brooks’s and White’s, linked to the historic Whig  and Tory Parties respectively. But by the 1830s, the two Parties needed far more than their long-standing London bastions could supply. They simply were not large enough. Some MPs had begun to resort to non-political Clubs, like Boodle’s in St James’s Street, giving rise to the following merry ditty: ‘In Parliament I fill my seat/With many other noodles/And lay my head in Jermyn Street/And sip my hock at Boodle’s’.

Such exile from the political mainstream soon became unnecessary. Politics entered a new era, in which the two Parties, which evolved in the 1830s and the two subsequent decades (acquiring new names, Conservative and Liberal), expanded their activities greatly. They needed London accommodation on a generous scale in premises which provided  a variety of rooms, large and small.

That is what the Carlton Club supplied. In 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession, it opened its first Clubhouse in Pall Mall on the corner of Carlton Gardens, yet another reminder of the gross, bloated monarch, George IV (114 years later a slim Miss Margaret Roberts would depart from the next door house in Carlton Gardens en route to her marriage to Mr Denis Thatcher).

The Club remained on its Pall Mall corner site until a Nazi bomb fell on it in October 1940. The original Clubhouse underestimated the Party’s need for space. It was enlarged in the 1840s as Sir Robert Peel brought the Party first to election triumph in 1841, and then to political disaster and division as a result of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. To assist the Party’s recovery from the split that the Corn Laws’ repeal brought about, the enlarged building was demolished and replaced by an even bigger one in 1856.

Members stared from the Club’s windows across Carlton Gardens at the Reform Club, founded in 1836, four years after the Carlton, to equip the Tories’ opponents with the same range of services, social and political, that the Carlton  pioneered. (It should be noted in passing that in the new nineteenth-century political world the Conservatives put themselves at the forefront of organisational change, where they were to remain until Tony Blair’s day.)

The close proximity of the two rival Clubs meant that they kept each other under close observation. In the early days, the Reform took a great interest in the volume of mail posted by servants of the Carlton, who retaliated by waiting until darkness fell before venturing forth. During a political crisis in 1884, blinds were pulled down at every window of the Carlton Club’s library after a member  noticed two figures across the road in the Reform Club spying with the aid of opera glasses. Members of the Carlton noted with satisfaction that their Club eclipsed the Reform in size and grandeur.

The Reform Club’s interior today gives some idea of what the Carlton would have been like inside. The Carlton’s atrium, immediately inside the entrance, at over 100 square metres was larger than the Reform’s. It was there that Conservative Members of Parliament and at least a sprinkling of peers would meet with some regularity to be addressed by their leaders over the next century, the most famous such meeting occurring in 1922 when Lloyd George’s coalition was brought to an end. With all visitors to the Club banned, absolute privacy would have been guaranteed if MPs, then as now, had not leaked so readily to the press.

The smaller premises in St James’s Street could not accommodate such meetings, which must, I think, be a cause of some regret. The Parliamentary Party had to settle for a large Commons committee room or Central Hall, Westminster.

The most important cause of the fundamental political changes, of which the formation of the two great political clubs was such a significant consequence, was the reconstruction of the electoral system, brought about by the Great Reform Act of 1832. It is no coincidence that the Carlton was established in that year following earlier, more modest attempts to give the Party a new London base in Charles Street, off St James’s Square, by a group of leading Tories, known unsurprisingly as the Charles Street Gang.

The 1832 Reform Act created, for the first time, a set of common qualifications for the right to vote in borough seats on the one hand and for county seats on the other, based on stiff property tests – designed as a permanent measure, not as the first step on the road to full democracy. The total number of voters increased, though not hugely so; the new electorate numbered around a million. The Tory Party needed to locate and enlist its supporters in order to get them on the electoral registers, which the Reform Act brought into being for the first time. This often involved long and expensive battles in the courts.

Of course, then as now, most of the work had to be done in the constituencies themselves, where solicitors became the first agents of the Conservative Party, in effect if not always in name. The Carlton provided a centre in London, where nationwide activity could be co-ordinated and, where necessary, supplemented.

Finance was a constant requirement at a time when general elections cost a million pounds and more, colossal sums in today’s values. From the outset, the Carlton had no more important function than to maintain a substantial Political Fund, for which its Political Committee was given responsibility. Lurid accounts appeared in the non-Conservative press about the flow of Carlton gold, as it was called, to constituencies for corrupt purposes, of which there were plenty of examples under the reformed electoral system, down to the 1880s.

There was no doubt much exaggeration in the stories of Carlton-financed malpractice, put about by opponents and included in the political novels of the period. To the historian’s deep regret, It is impossible to establish the truth because the records of the Club’s Political Committee do not survive for any part of the Nineteenth Century. How good it would have been to have had the inside story of the Carlton’s role in the colourful history of nineteenth-century electioneering.

(May I mention in parenthesis at this point the means by which the Conservative Party finally broke away from high, often corrupt, election expenditure? It was achieved through the Primrose League, founded at the Carlton in 1883. The League produced a whole army of election workers, half of them women, who happily toiled for votes, constituency by constituency, without receiving a penny piece in return. Beginning its life at the Carlton, the League returned to it in the years of its decline, occupying a small office at the Club in the 1970s. The Carlton at its height had some 1,800 members; the League at its zenith some two million. I am glad that Primrose League banners, and some examples of the extensive regalia worn by its members, are now on permanent display at the Club, along with a short sketch of its history which I wrote for the Club some years ago.)

Like Conservative headquarters today, the Carlton was sometimes accused of imposing candidates on constituencies. That was rarer then than now. What normally happened is that constituencies with vacancies to fill turned to the Carlton for recommendations, the nearest thing to today’s official candidates’ list.

It was in this way that a remarkable Tory who fascinated his contemporaries, and continues to fascinate posterity, got into the Commons after a succession of unsuccessful contests. An ardent supporter of the candidate recorded what happened:

“At the General Election in 1837 a Committee of the Conservative party in Maidstone had determined to run one candidate only, namely Wyndham Lewis Esquire (an intimate friend of the Duke of Wellington). At the end of the first day’s canvas, on casting up the promises, they so far exceeded the number contemplated, that the Committee determined to apply to the Carlton Club for another candidate, and three of our Committee went up to London, and with the aid afforded at the Club, Mr Disraeli was selected, and he consented, and went down with our three friends at once, and entered upon the canvas on the following morning. He soon became a great favourite with the voters.”

(At the 1837 election Maidstone had 1,399 electors.)

This important role in election management was supervised from ‘dark little rooms under the Carlton Club’, as an election agent put it in 1853. Above, in the infinitely more comfortable rooms of varying size, MPs gathered in some numbers when the Commons was in session. It was almost unheard of for an MP not to join the Carlton. The Commons was an unattractive place to spend any length of time at this period. Destroyed by fire in 1834, rebuilding work continued for some 30 years, and the place often smelt horribly because the Thames was little more than an open sewer until ‘the great stink’, as it was known, was finally subdued by Disraeli’s versatile political skills in 1851.

Travel between Commons and Club was easy. An MP recorded that “there is a cab stand at the very door of the House, and the whole process of going for, and returning with, an honourable gentleman does not occupy more than eight minutes.” The Carlton provided everything MPs needed: accommodation, food, drink (that indispensable element of club life), stationery, newspapers, a postal service and that essential ingredient of political life at all times and in all places, gossip. Sir Robert Peel as Party leader spent much of his time at the Carlton, as did Disraeli who called in most days. Never before had Tory MPs seen so much of their leaders, or been on such close terms with them.

The Club’s Committee, dominated by titled grandees, was kept busy ensuring that services were up to scratch. Who among today’s Committee members would be willing to sort out maintenance problems on Christmas Day as their noble predecessors did in the early days? In 1839 they ordered that “holes in water closet seats throughout the House be cut larger.” Britain’s leading political Club did not neglect its members’ comfort.


“In a progressive country”, said Disraeli, “change is constant”. How has the Carlton changed over nearly two centuries? The election managers and agents, supervised by the Party Whips (there was no Party Chairman until 1911), departed from their dusty basement for the newly established Conservative Central Office in 1870, for they now needed more room for the work of election organisation with the arrival of working-class voters in borough constituencies as a result of Disraeli’s Second Reform Act of 1867. But Carlton gold, raised by the Political Committee, continued to help fill the Party’s election coffers for the rest of the Nineteenth Century.

Almost all  MPs remained members of the Club until the First World War, happily paying its ten-guinea subscription, fixed in 1832 (equivalent to nearly a thousand pounds today), which remained unchanged until  the 1930s. But as the Commons developed its refreshment and other services, MPs tended to make less use of the Club .

No longer could they expect to rub shoulders on a daily basis with their Party leader. Disraeli, who died in 1881, was sorely missed. His successors spent little time in the Club, appearing only when they had meetings to address. Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour positively disliked it. Affection at the highest level was not seen again until after 1945, when Churchill and Macmillan resumed the habit of making fairly frequent visits, a practice continued by Mrs Thatcher who was to become the Club’s second President (Harold Macmillan, who was devoted to the place, having been the first). Perhaps in the future serving Conservative Party leaders will  be drawn once again to visiting the Club with some frequency .

Cause for serious complaint arose in the early Twentieth Century. The Club’s standards, maintained by Christmas Day Committee meetings in the early years, fell sharply. A great crisis erupted in 1912. Lord Balcarres, then Tory Chief Whip, recorded in his diary on 1 April 1912 that:

“the club is rapidly falling from its high state. Not only is the food bad, the waiting atrocious and the normal comforts of club life quite deficient, but with the steady deterioration in its social qualities the Carlton which in old days was at the very centre of political activity now almost ceases to count…The management and control have fallen into weak hands with deplorable results.”

Could the decline be reversed? The Club’s Secretary, who had been in his post for 35 years, was sacked, and a Club Chairman was appointed for the first time. Marked improvement occurred. MPs attested to the high quality of the catering during the inter-war years by eating in the Club in considerable numbers; they were well represented when the Nazi bomb arrived at 8.30pm on 14 October 1940. Cuthbert Headlam MP noted in his diary the following day that “there were over 100 members in the Club at the time and not one of them was scratched which seems to indicate that God approves of Conservative legislators.”

The real test for the Club was whether it could revitalise its serious political work. That did not happen for a long time. The Political Committee, on which all such work depended, had ceased to exist by 1912, and was not reconstituted until 1949. Even then, it did not do much, apart from arranging for Churchill to address a packed Club through loud speakers. The final completion of the  Political Committee’s resurgence was noted as late as 1983 when the Club’s AGM was told that “the Carlton Club was back as a strong political force”, as it had demonstrated by raising £50,000 for that year’s election campaign. The Committee had returned to its central position in Club life, where it remains today.

But for the Club as a whole that was by no means the most serious problem which had to be overcome in these years. Even before members arrived at 69 St James’s Street in 1940, longing for the moment when their Pall Mall home could be rebuilt and complaining about the cramped quarters in which they were now confined, membership had been falling alarmingly. By 1976, it was down to just 845, with only a handful of MPs among them. The spectre of closure loomed. It was removed by the one of the greatest of all political magicians, Harold Macmillan, then aged 83. In 1977, he achieved in months what had eluded everyone else: the amalgamation of the Carlton with the Junior Carlton, founded in 1864, which had been clinging obstinately to its independence in Pall Mall while its membership also plummeted. Not since the days of Disraeli had the Carlton had such unstinting support from an outstanding Conservative – and it came just in time.

As the Club was climbing back to financial stability, rebuilding its membership and regaining its political role in a form suited to our times, it suffered its second physical assault. It came from the IRA on 25 June 1990, fifty years after the Club had been bombed out of its Pall Mall Clubhouse. Half the ground floor, a quarter of the first floor and a significant area in the basement were damaged. In 1940 no one was killed; in 1990 a member, Lord Kaberry, and a porter, Charles Henry, died as a result of their injuries, a source of infinite sadness to members.

Everyone was astonished by the speed with which the Club patched itself up, and, having done that, began to lay ambitious plans for refurbishment which, evolving over the years, have brought the Club to its present handsome state. The grand building in Pall Mall was certainly imposing, but no one ever said it was a thing of beauty.

Happiness within the resplendent walls of 69 St James’s Street was impaired for some years after 1990 by a division of opinion over whether women should be full  members, having been associate members since 1977. The issue was finally resolved in 2008. Who today is not glad of the great contribution which women are making to the Club?

Long- established institutions must always remain conscious of the traditions of which they are custodians. Writing to Winston Churchill in 1948, the then Club Chairman, Lord Sandford, stressed that ‘members should realise the traditions attaching to their membership, and be prepared to shoulder those responsibilities which commit them to an unstinting support of the Party and its work.’ In that essential respect, the Carlton has remained unchanged over nearly two centuries.

Alistair Lexden: On this day, 75 years ago – VJ Day at Westminster

15 Aug

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here

The American atomic bombs, which were to bring  the Second World War to an end, fell first on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later. Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced on 14 August.

Clem Attlee’s Government, formed after Labour’s landslide election victory the previous month, had been in office for under three weeks. The dramatic news from the Far East reached the new Prime Minister in a rather haphazard  fashion. During the evening of 14 August, Jock Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary who had stayed on temporarily to help his successor, “saw on the tape-machine at No 10 that Japan had surrendered. I brought the news into the Cabinet room where Attlee was closeted with Lord Louis Mountbatten[ later Earl Mountbatten of Burma] who was professing Labour sympathies.”

To Colville’s amusement, Mountbatten, the left’s new recruit and a byword for vanity, later told everyone that it was he who had broken the news to a grateful Attlee.

At midnight, the Prime Minister announced the terms of Japan’s surrender. All Japanese forces had been ordered  “to cease active operations [and] to surrender arms.” VJ Day had begun.

The thoughts of many grateful people in London turned at once to Churchill, who was living temporarily in a block of flats, Westminster Gardens (where 34 years later the bomb that was to kill Airey Neave would be placed under his car for subsequent detonation as he left the House of Commons). Early on VJ Day, a crowd gathered there “to see Papa and cheer him”, as Mrs Churchill wrote to her daughter, Mary. Later “ he got mobbed in Whitehall by a frenzied crowd.”

At 11am, Churchill, along with MPs of all parties, was in the House of Commons, which met that day in St Stephen’s Hall, normally used as a  thoroughfare from the St Stephen’s entrance to Central Lobby and beyond. The Speaker told the assembled members of “a strange coincidence. Curiously enough, the last time the House sat in St Stephen’s Hall was on 15th  August, 111 years ago exactly.”

The cause on that occasion was the fire that destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster. On 15 August 1945, the Commons used this temporary refuge because the chamber of the House of Lords, where they had been meeting since the destruction of their own chamber in the Blitz, was needed for another purpose.

By happy chance, VJ Day coincided with the State Opening of the new Parliament, elected in July. The ceremony, severely curtailed during the years of war, was “restored to something of its pristine splendour by the revival of a carriage procession”, as George VI’s Private Secretary, Tommy Lascelles, noted in his diary.

“For the first time in history”, wrote George VI’s biographer, John Wheeler-Bennett, “two Speeches from the Throne were prepared, and signed by the Sovereign for the opening of Parliament” because the moment of Japan’s surrender had been impossible to predict. “ One version of the Speech alluded to the surrender, the other omitted any reference to it.”  Lascelles had “ a nervous moment lest Bill Jowitt, now Lord Chancellor, should produce the wrong speech out of his embroidered bag.”

The scene in the Lords chamber was recorded with characteristic panache and sharp eye for detail by the gay Tory MP, Chips Channon, in his famous diary: “It was crowded with peers and peeresses. The Ambassadresses, all wearing extraordinary hats, sat on the right with the Duchesses. Mme Massigli, the French, wore a white tea tray.”

No ermine was on display: “the many new Socialists looked dazed and dazzled, and I was sorry for their sake that the peers were not in robes.”

It was very much  a dress-down occasion: “the King [was] in an Admiral’s uniform and with his cap on. The Queen, in aquamarine blue, though dignified and gracious, was dwarfed by her Mistress of the Robes, the Duchess of Northumberland, who looked far the more regal of the two. The Crown was carried on a cushion.”

Would the King be able to control his stammer? Though troubled by it much less severely than in his youth, he was always the subject of some worry on the occasion of a major speech. Channon praised him:

“His voice was clear, and he spoke better than usual and was more impressive. But they say that the word Berlin had been substituted for Potsdam [scene of the recent conference of the victorious powers], which he could not have articulated.”

Lascelles called it “a dull speech” which put it firmly in the tradition of such declarations over the centuries, noted chiefly for the absence of fine, memorable language.

Apart from details of practical issues stemming from the end of hostilities, Parliament was told that it would shortly be asked to ratify the Charter of the United Nations in order “to maintain peace in accordance with justice and respect for human rights.”

The King’s Speech went on to make clear that the Labour Government’s legislative programme would fulfil the commitments that all parties had given during the war (and repeated during the recent election campaign), to the Beveridge proposals for full employment, a comprehensive social insurance system and a national health service. To them were added Labour’s own plans for nationalisation (including the Bank of England), housing , planning, and more generous trade union laws.

Looking back on the ceremony, Channon reflected that “the Labour people were subdued and impressed and everybody behaved in an exemplary manner.” A further speech was to be required from the King later in the day when he broadcast to radio listeners at home and abroad. It went particularly well. “Everybody commended it”, Lascelles recorded, “and agrees that he has never spoken so fluently and forcefully.”

During the afternoon the King had the less arduous duty of receiving at Buckingham Palace a delegation of ministers and service chiefs, led by Attlee. Churchill was asked to join them, but “said he wouldn’t come unless he could bring with him those of his former colleagues who had served in the War Cabinet”, as Lascelles noted in his diary. It was the only instance of party political difficulty during the day. “He came alone, half an hour after the others had gone.” The King commented later, “I wish he could have been given a proper reception by the people”, by which he meant an appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony.

The Commons reassembled, back in the Lords chamber once again, at 4pm when Attlee repeated the Japanese terms of surrender “for I feel that it is fit and proper that they should be for ever on record in the annals of this ancient and honourable House.”

Attlee then moved “that this House do now attend at the Church of St Margaret, Westminster, to give humble and reverent thanks to Almighty God on the victorious conclusion of the war.”

Nothing marred the scene, which Channon recorded in his diary. “The Speaker, in full robes, led us through a good-natured crowd of cheering citizens. He was followed by Winston, who had a tremendous reception, and who walked with Eden, Attlee and Herbert Morrison.” After a short service, in which the Speaker’s Chaplain “moved the congregation to Thanksgiving and Dedication”, the bells of St Margaret’s were rung “in celebration of Victory.”

The last business of the House on this historic day began at 5.18pm. Attlee moved an address to the King “on the achievement of final victory.”  The new Labour Prime Minister used  his speech to extol the blessings of constitutional monarchy in Britain. “It is the glory of our democratic Constitution that the will of the people operates and that changes which, in other countries, are often effected through civil strife and bloodshed, here in this island proceed by the peaceful method of the ballot box.”

Churchill himself could not have put it better. He added a few characteristically extravagant comments, proclaiming that “a brighter radiance illumines the Imperial Crown than any which our annals record.” With the two front benches expressing full accord, the House adjourned at 5.35pm.

BIBLIOGRAPHY – John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, Volume Two October 1941-55 ( Septre edition, 1987).  Martin Gilbert, ‘ Never Despair’: Winston S. Churchill 1945-1965 ( Heinemann, 1988). Hansard, Fifth Series, Vol. 413, First Vol. of Session 1945-46. Duff Hart-Davis(ed.), King’s Counsellor : Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006). Robert Rhodes James (ed.), Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon( Penguin edition, 1970. John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI: His Life and Reign ( Macmillan, 1958).

Alastair Lexden: On this day, 75 years ago – Churchill’s unexpected election disaster.

26 Jul

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here

On the previous day, 25 July, Winston Churchill and his superb Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had flown back to London from Potsdam, where they had been taking part in the last great conference of the Allied leaders of the Second World War. For security reasons, they used separate aeroplanes.

So too did the Labour leader, Clem Attlee, whom Churchill had invited to Potsdam to show (in his words) “ we were a united nation”, despite the end of war-time coalition in May. Many Conservatives had wanted to extend it until after the defeat of Japan, or even longer, and defer the election. Churchill argued for this strenuously, suggesting a referendum to get the nation’s approval for delay , but the Labour Party refused to agree. He formed a new government without it, and prepared for an election.

Everywhere a resounding Tory victory was expected on 26 July 1945. No one was more confident of it than “Uncle Joe” Stalin (the war-time affection would soon wear off). Wholly unable to understand that an election might be free and fair, Stalin told Churchill’s Private Secretary, Jock Colville, at Potsdam that the British poll would of course be “fixed” to ensure a Tory majority.

All leading British politicians ( with the single exception of Rab Butler) anticipated such a result without any sinister helping hand for the Tories. On the flight from Potsdam, Eden speculated: “would the government get a majority of 50 or more; or perhaps less?” as his Private Secretary, Nico Henderson, recorded. Labour did not dissent. Attlee told Jock Colville that “ in his most optimistic dreams he reckoned that there might be a Conservative majority of only some 40 seats.”

When Ernest Bevin arrived in Potsdam as the new Labour Foreign Secretary on 28 July, he told his stunned colleagues that the “result of the general election was quite unexpected. He thought that Churchill’s popularity would have assured him of a majority of 50”, as an official Foreign Office minute noted.

Churchill himself never had the slightest doubt that “ the British people would wish me to continue my work.” The campaign strengthened that conviction. He was acclaimed wherever he went. He spent four days touring constituencies in the Midlands, the North of England and two great Scottish cities by train and open-top car. “ He addressed vast and enthusiastic crowds at Leeds, Bradford and Preston”, Colville recorded in the final stages.

“The train moved to Glasgow where he made ten speeches to deafening applause. He drove to Edinburgh along roads thronged with cheering men, women and children, and when he finally returned to the train, after a reception in Edinburgh as warm and moving as in Glasgow, he said to me that nobody who had seen what he had that day could have any doubt as to the result of the coming election.” Conservative Central Office promised him a majority of 211.

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The votes that confounded the confident predictions of Tory victory, and gave Labour an overall majority of 146, had been cast three weeks earlier on 5 July. The count was delayed to enable the postal ballots of servicemen and women spread across the globe to be collected and delivered to their constituencies. The Times reported that “the task of carrying the ballot papers and election addresses to and from[ their destinations] was performed by R.A.F. Transport Command. The loss in transit of completed papers was negligible.”

Over half of those in the armed services also voted through proxies. The Times explained that “ the dual system of service voting involved a check before the count to eliminate proxy votes where the elector had also voted by post.” This seems to have been completed successfully, thanks to the use of coloured paper for proxy votes.

In the aftermath of their shock election defeat, many Conservatives came to believe that men and women in the services, indoctrinated by left-wing lecturers in the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, had contributed decisively to their humiliation.

The diarist and MP, Harold Nicolson, noted on 13 June that “ the Tories feel that the Forces will all vote Labour.” “ This cannot be true”, Professor John Ramsden concluded in his detailed history of the Conservative Party in this period. “The total number of service votes cast was far less that Labour’s lead in the national popular vote, and since some of these anyway went to Conservative and Liberal candidates, the votes of servicemen may contribute to an explanation of the result, but they cannot explain it on their own.”

They were part of an immense tide of votes that swept the Tories away. Henderson watched it from the Foreign Office. “ The results of the election started coming through by 10 o’clock on Thursday morning, 26 July. All of us in [Eden’s] Private Office were eagerly hanging on to the news. Never modish, the room still had no radio, but people kept dashing in saying, ‘[Brendan] Bracken’s out, Labour gains 30’, then 40 and so on. ‘Macmillan’s out’. By 11.30 it was clear what the overall result would be.”

Ten years earlier, the Tories, with over 50 per cent of the vote (never to be seen again in a British election), had won 432 seats. On this day 75 years ago, they fell to 213. For the first time in British history, the total Labour vote at just under 12 million was higher than that of the Tories who got just under 10 million. (The Liberals’ 2.2 million votes brought them just 12 seats.) Turnout at 72.7 per cent was only slightly above the 71.2 per cent of 1935 (it was to rise sharply in the 1950s).

At Number 10, Mrs Churchill, a lifelong Liberal supporter, had a much-quoted exchange with her husband. “ It may well be a blessing in disguise”, she said. “ At the moment”, replied Churchill, “ it seems quite effectively disguised.” At 7 pm he was driven to Buckingham Palace, where he tendered his resignation to the King, who offered him the Garter. Churchill declined it. “ I felt that the times were too sad for honours or rewards.” His refusal was made public; Eden insisted that his decision to decline the Garter should not be made known.

After Churchill had departed in his chauffeur-driven Rolls, Mrs Attlee drove her husband into the Palace forecourt in their small family car at 7.30pm. A very different style of government was about to begin.

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To what extent was Churchill himself responsible for his election disaster? During the campaign he pursed a baffling, erratic course, so common during his long career. At some points he was the epitome of moderation; at others he was the embodiment of right-wing recklessness.

On policy issues, bipartisanship ruled. Churchill’s election manifesto (a personal, not a Party, document) made clear that he would implement the plans for peace formulated by the war-time coalition, rather than striking out in a new distinctively Tory direction. The scene was set for co-operation between the parties in the work of post-war reconstruction, ideally, in Churchill’s view, through another broad-based coalition government after the election.

He wrote that “ my hope was that it would be possible to reconstitute the National Coalition Government in the proportions of the new House of Commons.” Having argued strongly for the retention of the coalition after the defeat of Germany, Churchill looked forward to remaining prime minister after the election at the head of another such government. Conservatives would share power again, just as they had done since May1940 when he first gained the premiership.

In all that has been written about the 1945 election, this crucial point has been missed, permitting the false assumption that his victory would have been followed by a purely Tory administration. “ People liked the late Coalition Government”, he said on 30 June, “and would have been well pleased to give it a vote of confidence .”Churchill wanted to give them another opportunity to enjoy the benefits of coalition.

Agreement on a post-election coalition programme would have caused little difficulty. The Times noted that the parties “fought the election on programmes which contained very much in common. [They were] at one in promising to give early legislative effect to the social reforms agreed by the Coalition Government, particularly those for a comprehensive and extended system of national insurance and for a national health service.

All of them adopted the Coalition policy of accepting as a prime responsibility of the Government the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment; and all pledged themselves to apply emergency methods to the provision of houses.” These were the things that mattered most to the electorate.

It seemed that the election would be conducted in a mood of sweet reasonableness . Churchill, the arch-coalitionist, suddenly shattered it in a manner that was never to be forgotten. In four election broadcasts he attacked the Labour Party in fierce, lurid language. During the war, families had become accustomed to gathering round the radio for the latest news. On 4 June, they were warned by their prime minister that in order to carry out plans to impose full-blooded socialism on Britain, Labour “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo“(he pronounced the word as menacingly as he could) as they gathered “ all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders.”

To ensure that no one missed the parallel with evil regimes in Europe, he added that “there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State.” Some blamed two reckless political buccaneers, Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook, who were alongside him during the campaign, but the notorious “ Gestapo” speech was written by Churchill himself.

His wife and senior colleagues were horrified. Nevertheless, there was more in a similar vein in his subsequent broadcasts. Amongst the wider radio audience, the reaction of the poet and novelist, Vita Sackville-West, was not untypical. “ You know I have an admiration for Winston amounting to idolatry”, she wrote to her husband, Harold Nicolson, “so I am dreadfully distressed by the badness of his broadcast election speeches. What has gone wrong with him? They are confused, woolly, unconstructive and so wordy that it is impossible to pick out any concrete impression from them. If I were a wobbler, they would tip me over to the other side.”

Churchill’s defence was that politicians should be free to insult one another during an election without harming their prospects of working together in government thereafter. His critics were not disarmed. Despite his war-time glories, the view persisted at Westminster, particularly among Tories( some of whom always distrusted and disliked him), that Winston had no judgement when it came to domestic politics. The 1945 election reinforced that view.

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Churchill did not of course plunge from what seemed inevitable triumph to disaster simply because of a bad campaign. Colin Coote, Deputy Editor of The Daily Telegraph, said that he had “ seen ten elections, but never one conducted with more phenomenal imbecility than this”, and yet judged that defeat represented “ a vote against the Tory party and their records from 1920 to 1939”, by which he meant appeasement and unemployment.

An addiction to condemning the inter-war Tory governments retrospectively was in 1945 to be found everywhere . No one seriously contested it, least of all Churchill himself with vivid memories of his “ wilderness years”. But it was a gross travesty all the same. It could only be sustained by ignoring Neville Chamberlain’s great inter-war social reforms (which gave the country the most advanced social services in the world), Britain’s economic recovery in the early 1930s on a scale that dwarfed Roosevelt’s New Deal, house-building at the rate of 350,000 homes a year and the rearmament programme of the 1930s carried through in the teeth of Labour opposition. All were indeed ignored, and swelling anti-Tory sentiment went unchecked.

Within days of defeat on 26 July, the conviction that Churchill could not lose was replaced by an equally strong conviction that he could never have won. People woke up to the fact, hitherto largely unremarked, that the Party organisation was in many places virtually non-existent; Labour, for the only time before 1997, was in much better shape. Rab Butler, ever perceptive, added a further key factor: “six years of left-wing propaganda accompanied by a virtual cessation of right-wing propaganda”, so very different from the years before 1939 when Chamberlain, Butler’s mentor, had carried all before him.

Eden, then at the height of his powers and ready to take over the Tory leadership (which Churchill had said he would give up), reflected judiciously in his diary on this day 75 years ago: “ We fought the campaign badly…It was foolish to try to win on W’s personality alone instead of on a programme. Modern electorate is too intelligent for that, and they don’t like being talked down to. Finally, while there is much gratitude to W as war leader, there is not the same enthusiasm for him as PM of the peace. And who shall say that the British people were wrong in this?”

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BIBLIOGRAPHY – Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (Jonathan Cape,1992). Lord Butler, The Art of the Possible (Hamish Hamilton,1971). John Colville, The Fringes of Power :Downing Street Diaries, Volume Two October 1941-1955 (Septre edition,1987). Martin Gilbert, ‘ Never Despair’: Winston S. Churchill 1945-1965 ( Heinemann, 1988). Nicholas Henderson, The Private Office: A personal view of five Foreign Secretaries and of government from the inside (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984). Scott Kelly, ‘ “The Ghost of Neville Chamberlain”: Guilty Men and the 1945 Election’ in Conservative History Journal ( Autumn 2005), pp 18-24. Alistair Lexden, Neville Chamberlain: Redressing the Balance ( A Conservative History Publication, 2018). Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945, edited by Nigel Nicolson (Collins,1967). John Ramsden, A History of the Conservative Party: The Age of Churchill & Eden 1940-1957 ( Longman,1995). The Times House of Commons 1945 ( The Times Office, 1945). D. R. Thorpe, Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden First Earl of Avon, 1897-1977 ( Chatto & Windus, 2003). Victory: War Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill O.M.,C.H.,M.P. 1945,compiled by Charles Eade( Cassell,1945).