September Assessment one: Conservative Supremacy

1. Sources one and two do provide an insight into the reasons for conservative ascendancy during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. However there is vast disparity, between the sources when discussing as to why this ascendancy occurred.

Source one attributes the rise in conservative support, and subsequent greater majority of votes, to their “die hard reactionary stance”. This implies that their success in the elections was largely due to their stable ideals and value system as well as being flexible enough to respond to any new situation or any action by the liberals. Contrastingly source two declares that this rise in proportion of votes was due to “voluntary abstention”. Therefore this source states that the conservatives did not enjoy success due to a rise of popularity with the masses, but with the liberal supporters refusing to vote because of their dissention with the party.

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Again there is discrepancy as both sources elaborate on their contrasting opinions. Source one points to examples of great conservative legislation such as the “free education in 1891 ” to the reason for their success. Source one therefore heralds the conservatives appeal to all sections of society. This is exemplified in their hypothesis of “villa tourism”, which appealed to the aristocracy and upper classes, and “slum” tourism, which attracted the working class. Contrastingly Source two does not acknowledge any conservative ingenuity instead it states that the conservative success was due to a liberal “lack of funding”. This was due to the split in the part, which was caused by the controversial home rule bill that questioned imperialism at its supreme peak.

Finally we see the bias nuances of each source through their language. They both agree to the notion that by the end of this period the liberals were in disarray due to leadership problems, however while source one declares this was due to “major coups”, source B credits the success to be rather “negative” as they only won due to liberal frailties. This shows that the main difference is due to predisposition as Winstanley is produces as thesis inclined towards the conservatives accomplishment being due to the conservatives while Blewet provides an antithesis to this argument asserting that the achievements were caused by liberal debility and naivety.

2. Through Source three the conservatives were trying to promote numerous hypotheses through the use of semiotics. The image itself carries numerous political connotations. As during this time imperialism was at its peak in Britain, the image is trying to promote the conservatives as being the ‘peoples party’. This image forms part of the conservatives’ policy of ‘slum tourism’ where they attempted, with great success, to appeal to the urban working class.

Initially we see Lord Salisbury, the conservative leader, flying the flag of Britain. Therefore this implies that the conservatives are the saviours of the empire as Salisbury holds the Union Jack, an icon of Britain and its empire. Also as the flag is off the United Kingdom, it emphasises the conservative rejection of the liberal Home Rule Bill. The notion of unity is further stressed by the repetition of “one” in the text at the bottom. Furthermore his position is elevated. This has two significations. One is that the conservative party is the leading party and is ‘above all others’ namely the liberals. However it maybe a subtle reminder that even though the conservatives are looking for working class support, they are still the party of the upper class and still instil a superiority complex.

The concept of gaining working class, or proletariat, support is evident throughout this image. Two stereotypes of the working class, a farmer and a factory worker, are shown to hold up Lord Salisbury. This implies nationalism and imperialism as well as showing the conservatives to have the working class vote. The working class theme proves paramount again as we factories in the background, epitomising the British worker and his environment. All these connotations are insinuated in source three.

3. Source three was promoted during this time due to the political context of the time. During the time at which this image was created, the British Empire was the largest in the world and subsequently the wealthiest. The empire covered a sixth of the world land percentage and had countries such as India, Australia and North Africa under its control. Therefore Imperialism and nationalist fervour was at its virulent peak. This patriotism filtered down even to the working class who took great pride on their nation. To exploit this fervour, the conservatives used patriotic semiotics. However the focal reason was not just pure nationalism but the prospect of the empire being compromised by the controversial Home Rule Bill proposed by the liberals, under the rule of the headstrong Gladstone. The passing of the rule would mean that Ireland would have self-government.

This policy was hugely unpopular due to a number of reasons, which the image in source three exploits. These were religious as well as political. The first was that at the height of Britain sovereignty it was very ‘unenglish’ and against the domineering nature of Britain at the time. This potential split could possibly lead to problems for the empire and had the prospective to be the ‘tip of the separatist iceberg’. In addition there was wide public opinion that it would not work as it did not give complete independence to Ireland, therefore was vague. Finally it had religious implications, as Ireland was predominantly Roman Catholic therefore there was a fear in England that they’re maybe a transition in rule from ‘home rule to Rome rule’.

This led to a split in the liberals, which was skilfully exploited, by Lord Salisbury and the conservatives. Therefore propaganda with an imperial spin was used to highlight to the people the conservatives’ anti-home-rule-bill stance.

4. Lord Salisbury was the conservative leader during their ascendancy into power during the twenty-year period. He was certainly a factor in the ascendancy of the conservatives, however there is great argument as to whether his role was pivotal or peripheral. He was certainly not the only factor as there were other reasons such as conservative strengths and liberal weaknesses.

Salisbury was an obvious strength of the conservatives. Originating from a wealthy background he did not have the stereotypical attributes of a widely revered leader. Indeed on the contrary, he was anti democracy, believed in right wing ideals of superiority and believed that government should have a restricted role in the country. Therefore the aim of the government was simply to govern and not necessarily to instigate social reform. His pessimistic attitude towards reform shows this. However despite all these attributes he was labelled as the “most formidable politician the conservatives have ever had”.

This was mainly due to many reasons. Firstly his almost Machiavellian style of exploitation of liberal weaknesses was ingenious. An example of this was when he changed the name of the conservative part to the “unionists”, when the liberal defectors (liberal unionists), to emphasise his belief in the unity of Britain and Ireland to the public, an opinion which was held by a large percentage of the population. Further more he held the party together when prominent ministers such as Chamberlain threatened to unsettle the harmony within the party. His momentous time as leader (twenty one years) demonstrates his supremacy over the party. He may have not been loved but was respected.

The conservative legislation, overseen by Salisbury, also consolidated conservative power. However this is curious, as the reforms made were neither dramatic nor adventurous. Indeed, Salisbury disliked reform1. However the legislation was just enough to keep the socialists reasonably happy and the upper classes comforted by the lack of change. An example of this is the Workers Compensation Act 1897 which gave the workers the right to compensation without having to prove negligence. Even though it appeared to be radical legislation the reality was that it was simply a compromise to keep Chamberlain muted. Undeniably, Chamberlain wanted social reform in the mould the Pensions Act. However Salisbury did not grant him this, showing his lack of faith in social reform.

However there were obviously other factors to the conservative success. They developed a fresh image to their party that not only identified with the ever-faithful aristocracy but also appealed to the working class. This ‘working class conservatism’ was successful due to a number of reasons. In heavily urbanised areas such as Liverpool, there was great animosity with the workers and the Irish. Therefore the anti home rule bill appealed to them greatly. Also there was a popular hypothesis that the conservatives were ‘better’ then the working class so had a preordained right to run the country. Also the notion of imperialism sands its links with the artillery industry helped capture much needed working class votes.

However the party did not only obtain a broader appeal but its workings were revolutionised by Richard Middleton, who was appointed by Salisbury. He re-organised the constituency associations, recruited professional agents and built a remarkable propaganda machine as is shown in source three. Finally the new electoral system, which was exploited by Salisbury, allowed single member constituencies so other voters did not swamp pockets of middle class conservative supporters in suburbs 2.

Contrastingly the liberals were riddled with weaknesses, which Salisbury exploited repeatedly. Initially they were electoral weaknesses, which were created by the split in the party. The liberal unionists defection to Salisbury’s conservatives led to a financial crisis so great that during the 1886 election they did not field candidates for 116 seats, therefore conservative victory was inevitable. Also a lack of motivation in a disgruntled party could therefore not raise support in important areas of great political significance. Instead their political footholds were in Scotland and Wales, areas that had very little significance outside their proximities.

Problems were created even right at the pinnacle of the party with Gladstone resigning in 1894. This led to a leadership struggle that caused “serious divisions3” in the party. When the eventual successor, Rosebury, was chosen the radicals in the party despised him due to his Whig origins. These fundamental fractures in the party led to a ‘crisis of identity’. Even though the party wanted to maintain its support from the working class its lack of funds meant that it needed support from the upper classes. Its lack f professionalism meant that this was virtually impossible. A majority of these problems stemmed from the Home Rule Bill and the divisions engineered by Salisbury.

Subsequently in conclusion I disagree with the statement made that Salisbury had very little to do with the conservative ascendancy. Even though the liberal weaknesses were fundamental and reached the very dizzy height if the leadership, it was only due to Salisbury that they were brutally exposed. Therefore albeit there were other factors contributing to the conservative success, without the direct or indirect input of Salisbury these would not have been as fatal as were. Therefore the role of Salisbury proves paramount when exploring reasons for the conservative ascendancy during the period between 1886-1906.

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