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Z0375723

WAS CONSERVATIVE ELECTORAL APPEAL IN


1924 BASED ON A “NEW CONSERVATISM”?

The 1924 general election was the largest ever independent Conservative1 victory. It is often
seen as the basis for the party’s interwar dominance. John Ramsden suggested that this success
was due to the development, during 1924, of a ‘New Conservative’ appeal.2 By using this term, he
focused attention on debates that took place in the aftermath of the December 1923 election
defeat. This debate, he argued, was largely produced by the destruction of protection in the
previous election and by Labour’s growing electoral potency. Yet, while these were factors to
growing receptivity towards the policies adopted in 1924, they only partly explain the long-term
development of Conservative ideas.
Studies of the Conservative party in the last two decades have reflected a wider interest in
ideas.3 It is ironic that Ramsden – whose own interests are in structures and organisation –
suggested the idea of ‘New Conservatism’. The phrase was not contemporary; it arises from
Ramsden’s desire to demonstrate that the period 1921-1924 was a ‘turning point’. This has to be
tested against divergent contemporary perceptions: for example, The Economist suggested in
October 1924 that ‘the Conservative programme only breaks new ground in minor directions, and
is in effect an appeal for a stable Government’.4 A significant problem with the term is that the
‘newness’ of the platform in 1924 is not defined: Ramsden dwells upon ‘New Conservatism’ as a
set of ‘attitudes and responses’ but does not consider the ideas that Conservative appeal in 1924
was a vehicle for. ‘New Conservatism’ is, in any case, an over-used phrase. It has been applied to
Conservatives after 1945,5 to the 1980s (by Habermas) and even to the thought of Burke.6 Given
the limitations of the idea of ‘New Conservatism’ that this essay suggests, Ramsden is much more

1 Although until 1925 the party’s official name was the ‘Unionist party’, from 1922 the labels ‘Unionist’ and
‘Conservative’ were used interchangeably. The term ‘Conservative’ is used here except when referring to the
party before 1922.
2 John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940 (London, 1978), ch. 8.
3 See Michael Freeden, ‘The Stranger at the Feast: Ideology and Public Policy in Twentieth Century Britain’,

Twentieth Century British History 1 (1990), pp. 9-34; Martin Francis and Ina Zweiniger-Bergielowska (eds.),
The Conservatives and British Society, 1880-1990 (Cardiff, 1996).
4 Economist, 18 October 1924, p. 599.
5 David Willetts, ‘The New Conservatism? 1945-1951’ in Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball (eds.), Conservative

Century: The Conservative Party since 1900 (Oxford, 1994), pp. 169-91.; Martin Francis, ‘"Set the People Free"?
Conservatives and the State, 1920-1960’, in Francis and Zweiniger-Bergielowska (eds.), Conservatives and
British Society, p. 59.
6 C.B. Macpherson, ‘Edmund Burke and the New Conservatism’, Science and Society 22 (1958), pp. 231-9.
‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election Z0375723

plausible in his account of organisational change. He suggests that these changes were modest,
constructive and based upon earlier Conservative success.7 This is also a much more accurate
description of shifts in Conservative ideas in 1923 and 1924.
It is a reflection that the study of ideas in British political history is relatively novel that no one
has yet critically examined ‘New Conservatism’. It has proved enduring, adopted by several
historians,8 and while Conservative ideas have received renewed attention, that ideas in the
period 1918-1924 have received scant attention reflects the pervasiveness of Ramsden’s term.
Dutton and Ridley have both examined social reform in the Unionist party before 1918,9 Francis
and Zweiniger-Bergielowska have considered the development of conservative ideas in the
twentieth century10 and Williamson has drawn attention to the importance of leading
Conservatives’ public statements and rhetoric, although his emphasis is largely on the period after
1924.11 Scholars have also considered Conservative attitudes to the welfare state and to
collectivism.12 Critically, no one has integrated the idea that social policy is a long-term
development with the concept of ‘New Conservatism’.13
The emphasis on 1924 has meant ideas before 1924 has not received the attention they merit.
Perhaps the reason that there is no ‘adequate’ account of the ‘rebirth’ of Conservatism in the
1920s is that historians have been looking in the wrong place for its origins.14 Moreover, Ramsden
is unable to explain why ‘New Conservatism’ was so easily adopted in 1924 when protection had
previously been so divisive. One explanation is that the conflicts between different Conservative
ideas had already been resolved when Baldwin abandoned protection after the 1923 general
election.
This essay investigates the origins of Conservative ideas over a longer period than ‘New
Conservatism’ suggests. Its evidential starting point will be speeches and pamphlets ‘written for
the moment’.15 The Conservative platform in 1924 was consistent with that in preceding years and
‘New Conservatism’ describes ideas that had been part of discourse within the party that had
come to the fore in specific circumstances. These ‘new’ ideas had been part of Conservative debate

7 Ramsden, Balfour and Baldwin, pp. 195-7.


8 Most notably, Robert C. Self, Tories and Tariffs: The Conservative Party and the Politics of Tariff Reform,
1922-1932 (New York, 1986); Neal R. McCrillis, The British Conservative Party in the Age of Universal
Suffrage: Popular Conservatism, 1918-1929 (Columbus, 1998).
9 David Dutton, ‘The Unionist Party and Social Policy, 1906 - 1914’, Historical Journal 24 (1981), pp. 871-84;

Jane Ridley, ‘The Unionist Social Reform Committee, 1911-1914: Wets before the Deluge’, Historical Journal 30
(1987), pp. 391-413.
10 Francis and Zweiniger-Bergielowska (eds.), Conservatives and British Society.
11 Philip Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Leadership and National Values (Cambridge, 1999).
12 Jose Harris, ‘The Transition to High Politics in English Social Policy, 1880-1914’, in Michael Bentley and John

Stevenson (eds.), High and Low Politics in Modern Britain: Ten Studies (Oxford, 1983), pp. 58-79; Matthew
Fforde, Conservatism and Collectivism, 1886-1914 (Edinburgh, 1990); Jose Harris, ‘Political Thought and the
Welfare State 1870-1940: An Intellectual Framework for British Social Policy’, Past & Present 135 (1992), pp.
116-141.
13 Harris, ‘English Social Policy’, p. 58.
14 McCrillis, British Conservative Party, p. 4.
15 Lewis Rockow, ‘The Political Ideas of Contemporary Tory Democracy’, American Political Science Review 21

(1927), p. 13.

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Z0375723 ‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election

up to two decades before 1924. Change in the Conservative party was a gradual process and the
significance of pre-war developments should not be overlooked. This suggests that Conservatism
may have included an ‘ideology of social reform’16 earlier than has been suggested, and may have
had more electoral potential than has been assumed. The existence of competing ideas within the
Conservative Party that this essay demonstrates also emphasises Green’s point that it is more
accurate to see the Conservative Party in terms of multiple ‘Conservatisms’ than a single
‘Conservatism’.17 If the 1920s were the source of later Conservative dominance,18 then this study
provides the foundations for a more sophisticated understanding of that domination. The
conclusions it suggests imply that the dichotomy between Bonar Law’s and Baldwin’s leadership
has been overstated and that the policies they both adopted reflected the circumstances of their
leadership. The first section of this essay considers the debate surrounding Conservative ideas in
1923-4 and demonstrates the coherence of this with earlier debates. The second considers why a
platform such as that adopted in 1924 was not adopted earlier.

The coherence of debates over Conservative ideas that took place during 1924 with earlier
debates demonstrates the potential of these ideas to contribute to Conservative appeal earlier.
Skelton’s eponymous book is often seen as an important element of the shift to a strategy of
‘Constructive Conservatism’. Constructive Conservatism argued that Conservatives in a ‘new era’
should have four aims:
To make democracy stable and four-square; to give the wage-earner property and status; to bridge
the economic gulf set between labour and Capital; to present a view of life in which private
property… will be recognised to be an essential vehicle for the moral and economic progress of the
individual.19
These essays were first published in Spectator in May 1923. Their importance was, therefore, as a
contribution to a long-term debate rather than as a reaction to the 1923 general election. The
debate was joined in 1924 by a debate in The Times,20 party publications such as Looking Ahead
and Aims and Principles21 and a series of speeches by Baldwin in spring 1924.22
But the idea of an appeal based on detailed social policy was not new. In 1923, Austen
Chamberlain had advocated a ‘clearly defined policy’ in the face of Labour’s ‘subversive

16 Michael Freeden, The New Liberalism: An Ideology of Social Reform (Oxford, 1978).
17 E. H. H. Green, Ideologies of Conservatism: Conservative Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century (Oxford,
2002), p. 280.
18 McCrillis, British Conservative Party, pp. 227-8.
19 Noel Skelton, Constructive Conservatism (Edinburgh, 1924), p. 23.
20 ‘Unionist want of ideals’, Times, 6 March 1924, p. 13; ibid., 8 March 1924, p. 11; ‘Conservative Beliefs’, ibid., 14

March 1924, pp. 13-14.


21 Times, 20 June 1924, pp. 9-10; National Union Gleanings and Memoranda, v. 60, pp. 11-15.
22 e.g. Stanley Baldwin, speech, 12 Feb 1924, Times, 12 Feb 1924, p. 12; Stanley Baldwin, speech, 4 May 1924,

Times, 5 May 1924, p. 8.

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‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election Z0375723

doctrines’23 and his brother, Neville, was ‘convinced that the Conservative party could not succeed
unless it had a constructive policy’.24 The desire for a more constructive Conservative policy was
significant earlier, in 1906 when Balfour concluded that the election heralded ‘a new era’.25
Arguments for a policy of substance continued throughout the pre-war period.26 When the
Unionist Social Reform Committee (USRC) was set up in 1911, The Times noted that ‘for some
time past it has been felt in the Unionist Party that their programme of social reform should be
more clearly defined’.27 The demand for a constructive policy after 1923 had precedents and, as in
1906, this demand was amplified by short-term setbacks.

That an increased role for the state was increasingly advocated in 1924 reflected the defeat of
protection in 1923 and long-term shifts in attitudes. Yet state intervention remained contentious,
and many continued to argue for retrenchment. These divisions demonstrate in particular the
importance of Green’s suggestion that the party contained multiple ‘Conservatisms’.
A new generation of MPs was important in bringing these ideas to the fore. While economy
remained important, they were more willing to consider intervention: the state, Skelton
suggested, could no longer be seen simply as ‘administrative’.28 This debate was closely linked
before 1918 with the USRC, who produced reports suggesting action on housing, poor law,
agriculture, education, industrial unrest and health. Many of the ‘young men’29 of the USRC had
substantial influence in the interwar period. Ridley has noted pervasiveness of the dictum that
‘above all stands the State’30 and Conservatives were fond of pointing out that they had little
doctrinaire attachment to laissez-faire.31 That the USRC was suggesting radical state intervention
suggests that ideas that were important in 1924 had their roots in debates before 1914.32 The
similarity between the policies set out in Looking Ahead and those set out by the USRC is
striking.33
The idea of increased state intervention did not go uncontested. Some dismissed social reform
as ‘opportunis[m]’,34 and many continued to argue for retrenchment. Often, however, such
sceptics suggested an ‘alternative’ that was so bland that it was useless as a guide to practical
policy.35 In this period, Conservative views about the acceptability of state intervention were

23 Times, 20 March 1923, p. 14.


24 Quoted in David Dilks, Neville Chamberlain (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 265, 286.
25 Dutton, ‘Unionist Party and Social Policy’, p. 871.
26 e.g. Times, 29 January 1907, p. 12; Times, 5 April 1911, p. 9.
27 Times, 5 April 1911, p. 9.
28 Skelton, Constructive Conservatism, p. 15.
29 75% of the USRC’s active members had been first elected in 1910-11. Ridley, ‘USRC’, p. 392.
30 Ibid., pp. 394-5.
31 Dutton, ‘Unionist Party and Social Policy’, p. 872.
32 Fforde, Conservatism and Collectivism, p. 101.
33 Looking Ahead (1924), reprinted in Times, 20 June 1924, pp. 9-10.
34 ‘Conservative Ideals’, Times, 8 March 1924, p. 11.
35 e.g. ‘Lord Salisbury on Conservative Principles’, Morning Post, 27 July 1922 in National Union Gleanings and

Continuations, v. 55, p. 309.

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Z0375723 ‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election

changing. The movement for a more interventionist policy was gaining momentum after 1914,
even if Conservatives advocated state intervention on different terms and for different reasons to
their opponents.36

The ideas of a moral policy and of a harmonious society were given importance by Baldwin
when he became Conservative leader, but these were not new. ‘High churchmen’ such as Salisbury
and Wood advocated a moral stance as an alternative to increased intervention. Wood argued that
the party could only generate the ‘real conviction’ needed to defeat Labour through Christian
morality,37 and Salisbury continued to argue this after 1924.38 The idea of industrial harmony was
important to such Conservatives in the light of the strife of the 1920s39 and Baldwin’s success
owed much to the fact that he ‘tapped and stimulated the forces of a morally conservative and
religious nation’.40 Skelton’s idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’ had more to do with the
creation of social harmony than the creation of working-class housing.41 But the idea of using
ownership to create social stability was not new. ‘Occupying ownership’ was advocated before
1914, and was at the heart of many Conservative policies (for example, on housing) in 1924.

Conservative ideas in 1924 had striking similarities with those in earlier years. But debates
about Conservative ‘principles’ were not always what they seemed. ‘Principles’ were used
strategically, and Cowling has suggested that rhetoric such the ‘national interest’ was largely a
‘contentless’ appeal to an imagined Disraelian heritage.42 It was often implied that a ‘principle’
embodied an immutable tradition. Yet, ‘principles’ were open to manipulation. Salisbury claimed
that Conservatives were the ‘true social reformers’ and Baldwin suggested that the ‘welfare of the
people’ had always been central to Conservative thought.43 This was frequently linked with a
‘Disraelian legacy’ in Baldwin’s speeches and the USRC claimed in 1911 that all problems could be
solved ‘on the principles… which inspired the great reforms of Lord Beaconsfield, Lord Salisbury,
Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Balfour’.44 Yet virtually any contemporary would have defined
‘Disraelian Conservatism’ in terms of the Union, the empire and the constitution. Few would have
agreed with Horne’s characterisation of the nineteenth-century Tory as ‘a person who was actively

36 Ian Packer, ‘The Conservatives and the Ideology of Land Ownership, 1910-1914’, in Francis and Zweiniger-
Bergielowska (eds.), Conservatives and British Society, p. 53.
37 Edward Wood, The Great Opportunity (London, 1918), quoted in Campaign Guide 1922 (London, 1922), p.

805.
38 Salisbury, ‘An Outline of Christian Anti-Socialism’, Nineteenth Century and After 97 (1925), pp. 161-174.
39 e.g. Salisbury, speech, 8 April 1922, NUG&C, v. 55, p. 511; Salisbury, ‘Conservative Policy’, Times, 18 March

1924, p. 15 and Times, 19 March 1924, pp. 15-16.


40 Philip Williamson, ‘The Doctrinal Politics of Stanley Baldwin’, in Michael Bentley (ed.), Public and Private

Doctrine: Essays in British History presented to Maurice Cowling (Cambridge, 1993), p. 208.
41 Philip Williamson, ‘Skelton, (Archibald) Noel (1880-1935)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford,

2004).
42 Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour, 1920-1924: the Beginning of Modern British Politics (Cambridge,

1971), p. 407.
43 Times, 12 February 1924, p. 12.
44 Times, 5 April 1911, p. 9.

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‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election Z0375723

trying to pass measures for improving the conditions of the mass of the people’.45 Social reform
had never been a central issue in nineteenth-century politics, and Disraelian practice was much
more modest than Baldwin’s rhetoric implied. This suggests that the Conservatives’ emphasis on
principles was more important for image than it was in substance. ‘The party of Salisbury and
Balfour,’ Smith notes, ‘can hardly be described as Disraelian, still less the party of Bonar Law,
Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain’.46 The rhetorical use of the Conservative party’s past says less
about its ideas than the way it sought to make them plausible and legitimise policies that were
alien to its traditions. There were good grounds for Rosebery’s claim that Disraelian Toryism was
merely ‘the wolf of Radicalism and the sheepskin of Toryism’.47

The circumstances of the elections before 1924 explain why the features of the 1924
Conservative appeal did not become part of its appeal earlier. Long-term trends are important to
understand the extent to which the imperatives for a more interventionist social policy had been
growing for some time. The problems that government dealt with were understood consistently.
Both Bonar Law and Baldwin saw unemployment as their priority and gave it precedence in
speeches. Bonar Law professed scepticism about the extent the government could alleviate
unemployment without economic improvement48 and Baldwin questioned the extent it could be
solved without ‘safeguarding’.49 The Conservative party in this period consistently recognised
other problems: agricultural distress, housing, public health, and the need for social insurance.
Yet these themes – which were set out in Looking Ahead – were largely consistent with the
reports produced by the USRC before 1917.

If the ideas that had created the 1924 Conservative appeal were present earlier, why had they
not been adopted as part of the party’s electoral strategy earlier? One reason these ideas were
becoming more important was the changing political context. It has been suggested that a more
structured Conservative thought was emerging in the early twentieth century.50 But although the
responses to defeat in 1906 and 1923 were similar, defeat in 1923 took place in a different context.
The two decades before 1924 represented a shift in the Conservative party towards a more
programmatic policy. Before 1914, Unionists had been preoccupied by Ulster51 and between 1918

45 Horne in Skelton, Constructive Conservatism, pp. 4-5.


46 Paul Smith, Disraelian Conservatism and Social Reform (London, 1967), p. 3.
47 Quoted in Times, 6 February 1907, p. 7.
48 e.g. Bonar Law, speech, 23 November 1922, Daily Notes, 30 October 1922, p. 2, Archives of the British

Conservative Party, 1922/38; Bonar Law, speech, 26 November 1922, ArchBCP, 1922/76.
49 Baldwin, speech, 11 February 1924, Times, 12 February 1924, p. 12.
50 E. H. H. Green, ‘Radical Conservatism: The Electoral Genesis of Tariff Reform’, Historical Journal 28 (1985),

pp. 667-92; John D. Fair and John A. Hutcheson, ‘British Conservatism in the Twentieth Century: An Emerging
Ideological Tradition’, Albion 19 (1987), p. 550.
51 Jeremy Smith, ‘Conservative Ideology and Representation of the Union with Ireland, 1885-1914’, in Francis and

Zweiniger-Bergielowska (eds.), Conservatives and British Society, p. 35.

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Z0375723 ‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election

and 1922 Unionist identity was subsumed to the Lloyd George Coalition.52 It was only after 1922
that the circumstances made it possible for the Conservative party to consider a more
interventionist social policy.

The dominant theme of the 1922 election was ‘tranquillity’, and the reaction against the
Coalition was an important factor in the result. Blackwood’s Magazine noted, with relief, that ‘we
may at last look forward to some years of quiet government, reduced taxation, and a return to the
life that was led before the war’.53 This statement, from an admittedly Conservative publication,
was nevertheless indicative of the climate in which the election took place. The Conservative
manifesto emphasised the need for stability above all else.54 Given the nature of the campaign in
1922, it is unsurprising that it has become a cliché to see Bonar Law’s leadership as negative. But
even he argued that his approach might have been different had the circumstances been different
and his speeches should be seen in their partisan context. The success of the Conservatives in
1922 owed a great deal to the decision to adopt a consciously negative strategy. Bonar Law’s
‘essentially negative’ leadership was central to Conservative victory.55 At the same time, Bonar
Law always dismissed the idea that his policy would be reactionary.56 He had told the 1917
National Union conference that ‘our Party on the old lines [after the war] will have no future in
the life of this Country’.57 Cowling has argued that Bonar Law recognised the need for ‘an
attractive long-term policy framework’ even before in 1922.58 Moreover, Bonar Law has not been
sufficiently credited for the promotion of ‘young men’ such as Neville Chamberlain, who were
often associated with a more substantial role for the state.59 The imperatives for a more
interventionist social policy after 1922 were probably also increased by return of younger
Conservative MPs from the trenches.

The 1923 general election was dominated by protection: its uncomplicated ‘doctrinal integrity’
downplayed other issues.60 As a result, issues of social reform had a fairly modest role in the
election campaign.61 Although the election left the party unprepared to articulate ideas with which
it was later associated,62 defeat provided an opportunity to reconsider both policy and strategy.

52 Fair and Hutcheson, ‘British Conservatism’, p. 553.


53 Blackwood’s Magazine (1922), pp. 837-8.
54 NUG&C, v. 55, pp. 515 – 517.
55 Ramsden, Balfour and Baldwin, p. 174.
56 Bonar Law, speech, 23 October 1922, NUG&C, v. 55, p. 497.
57 Ramsden, Balfour and Baldwin, p. 118.
58 Cowling, Impact of Labour, p. 247.
59 Ridley, ‘USRC’, p. 411; John Charmley, A History of Conservative Politics, 1900-1996 (London, 1996), p. 67.
60 Robert C. Self, ‘Conservative Reunion and the General Election of 1923: A Reassessment’, Twentieth Century

British History 3 (1992), p. 258.


61 e.g. Baldwin, speech, 30 October 1923, ArchBCP 1923/123.
62 Self, ‘Conservative Reunion’; Nick Smart, ‘Debate: Baldwin's Blunder? The General Election of 1923’, Twentieth

Century British History 7 (1996), pp. 110-139; Robert C. Self, ‘Baldwin's Blunder: A Rejoinder to Smart on
1923’, Twentieth Century British History 7 (1996), pp. 140-155.

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‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election Z0375723

Skelton reflected that ‘defeat has been no unmixed evil. 1922 preserved Conservatism: 1923
consolidated it’.63
The King’s Speech of January 1924 demonstrated the extent to which social reform issues had
been subsumed during 1923.64 It set out policies on unemployment, pensions, working
conditions, housing and criminal justice. Even if these had not been thoroughly considered, it
demonstrated a willingness to think more widely about social problems. The speech came just a
month after polling day but set out areas of policy that would form the Conservative appeal in
1924: the Economist called it ‘an elaborate programme of domestic reform’.65 The strong
consistencies between this speech and the 1924 manifesto would suggest that the ideas central to
the latter had already developed by 1923. Speaking in the aftermath of the defeat, Baldwin
confirmed that the speech would form the basis of the social reforms henceforth to be pursued by
the party.66

The period between the 1923 and 1924 elections demonstrated the receptivity of the
Conservative party to ideas that had previously been debated within the party but not officially
adopted. One factor in this receptivity was the defeat of 1923. Another was that protection – the
source of a distinctive Conservative policy – had been discredited. A third was the tone of
Baldwin’s leadership. He emphasised the challenges that the party faced, the need for a new
strategy, and the outlines around which policy could be organised.67 He signalled an intent to
develop policy in a multiplicity of areas, and established the conditions in which debates that had
so far taken place on an ‘unofficial’ level could influence official policy.
This rethinking of official policy was largely complete by the time Looking Ahead was
published in June 1924.68 There is good reason to accept Looking Ahead’s claim that it was a
‘restatement’: on unemployment, empire, economy, industrial relations, agriculture, housing,
pensions and education it brought together policies that had been previously advocated by
Conservatives in various forums. It retained a commitment to the ‘most rigid economy’, promised
pensions only ‘as soon as national finances permit’ and argued that ‘the only real remedy for
unemployment is… trade at home and overseas’. There were strong parallels between this and
Cecil’s 1919 pamphlet A New Outlook.69 Looking Ahead was a substantive statement of policy that
set the agenda for any future government, but what it contained was not new.70

63 Skelton, Constructive Conservatism, p. 3.


64 HLDebs., 15 January 1924, cols. 6-9.
65 Economist, 19 January 1923, p. 83.
66 Baldwin, speech, 11 February 1924, Times, 12 February 1924, p. 12.
67 ibid.
68 Looking Ahead (1924), reprinted in Times, 20 June 1924, pp. 9-10.
69 Rockow, ‘Contemporary Tory Democracy’, p. 14.
70 Self, British Party System, p. 166.

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Z0375723 ‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election

The continuity of Conservative ideas in 1924 with those in previous years was demonstrated by
Wood’s pamphlet Conservative Beliefs.71 His statement, which Cowling suggests was ‘typical’,72
emphasised three themes – comradeship, independence, and reverence – similar to those
emphasised by Baldwin – class harmony, individualism, and morality. Moreover, while Skelton’s
essays were an important part of the debate over policy, there is little evidence to suggest that
leading Conservatives supported his view that the ‘master problem’ was working-class status.73
A distinctive element of Conservative appeal in 1924 was an appeal to ‘individualism’,
prominent in Baldwin’s speeches and linked to ideas of ownership.74 Although superficially novel,
the idea was not incoherent with earlier conceptions of ‘community’.75 Many of the policies
advocated in connexion with ‘individualism’ were consistent with those advocated by F.E. Smith
in ‘State Toryism and social reform’ in which he argued against both socialism and ‘Whig
Individualism’.76 The real purpose of ‘individualism’ was as a critique of ‘state socialism’.77 Its
value was that it presented continued Conservative opposition to state interference on grounds of
economy as a virtue.78 It is an oversimplification to suggest that ‘the real line of division was
between those who saw the need for social reform, and those who did not’.79 Instead,
Conservatives who advocated greater state intervention tended to do so in order to protect
principles of private property, social harmony and morality, longstanding Conservative pillars.

One of the most under-explored elements of Conservative appeal in 1924 was the negativity of
the strategy pursued by Baldwin.80 There were strong commonalities between the language of
Baldwin and Bonar Law, who both emphasised themes of stability and ‘safety’. Criticisms of the
Labour government and the ‘red scare’ were always at the forefront:81 the central issue at stake
was ‘socialism or sound government’.82 1924 therefore reflected a two-stage Conservative
strategy. In the first part of the year, Conservatives built up the constructive elements of their
appeal. Yet once the election was underway, Baldwin’s speeches became largely attacks upon the
government. Cowling suggests that Baldwin’s contribution to the 1924 victory was largely
negative.83 This should be qualified by an understanding of the positive appeal that Baldwin
fostered during the earlier part of 1924 and the general Conservative appeal to questions of policy.

71 Edward Wood, Conservative Beliefs (1924), reprinted in Times, 14 March 1924, p. 13.
72 Cowling, Impact of Labour, p. 405.
73 Skelton, Constructive Conservatism, p. 17.
74 e.g. Baldwin, speech, 19 March 1924, Times, 20 March 1924, p.11; Baldwin, speech, 4 May 1924, Times, 5 May

1924, p. 8.
75 Rockow, ‘Contemporary Tory Democracy’, p. 22.
76 Ridley, ‘USRC’, p. 394.
77 A. Chamberlain, speech, 19 October 1922, NUG&C, v. 55, p. 457.
78 e.g. Horne in Skelton, Constructive Conservatism, p. 5.
79 Charmley, Conservative Politics, p. 35.
80 e.g. Baldwin, speech, 11 October 1924, ArchBCP 1924/4; N. Chamberlain, speech, 6 October 1924, Times, 7

October 1924, p. 9.
81 Williamson, Stanley Baldwin, p. 33.
82 Daily Notes, 24 October 1924, ArchBCP 1924/60.
83 Cowling, Impact of Labour, p. 383.

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‘New Conservatism’ and the 1924 general election Z0375723

But the fact that Conservative appeal in 1924 can also be seen in negatively emphasises the duality
of Baldwin’s strategy between ‘consensual’ and ‘partisan’ dispositions.84

The development of Conservative ideas in the years leading up to 1924 was more complex and
dynamic than historians have previously understood, and it is important to see the 1924
Conservative platform as part of a shifting context. While the teleological connotations of terms
such as ‘the rise of Labour’, and ‘democratisation’ are undeniable, they remain important to
understand contemporary perceptions. An increased willingness to consider the extension of the
state after World War I was indicative of the changing context in which politics operated, though
it is important to emphasise the distinctiveness of state intervention as advocated by the
Conservatives from that of their opponents. Both the USRC and tariff reform can be seen as
reactions to ‘collectivism and democratisation’.85 The perception of change was crucial to shifts in
the political agenda, because it not only encouraged a debate over ‘constructive conservatism’ at
an unofficial level but also increased the extent to which these ideas could permeate official
policy. By 1922, Conservatives had ‘come to terms with democracy, the growth of the Labour
party and a more secular, class-conscious and corporatist British society’.86
Yet while constructive social policy in the 1920s was more important than it had been, the
underlying ideas within Conservatism were consistent with debates that had begun before 1914.
The importance of consistency to Conservatives was reflected in the coherence of the Disraelian
rhetoric that was used to legitimise policy and to define the possible. This is also valuable because
it suggests that the plurality of Conservative ideas was central to the party’s resilience. The
importance of this model is not in displacing ‘New Conservatism’ but in exposing the crudeness of
its claims and the complexity that it masks. This essay posits a subtler model of the shift in
Conservative ideas, and suggests that understandings of changes in political ideas can be found in
political actors’ perceptions of their own environment.
The debate over Conservative ideas that took place in 1924 was not original and the
Conservative electoral platform in the period 1918 – 1924 should be understood in a context
where a negative electoral strategy was important for partisan reasons. The Conservative party
had the potential to construct a positive, constructive appeal based upon social reform earlier
than 1924, had circumstances been different. While it is dangerous to see such a development as
inevitable, such a development seemed likely, both to contemporary Conservatives and in
retrospect.
(4, 877 words).

84 Williamson, Stanley Baldwin, pp. 235-241.


85 Fforde, Conservatism and Collectivism, p. 88.
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