Lord Lexden is co-chairman of the Conservative History Group and the author of A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League 1883-2004 which was published by the Carlton Club in 2010.
As the Conservative Party wonders how most fittingly
to commemorate Margaret Thatcher, it is worth recalling the posthumous cult
which was founded in memory of another of its very greatest leaders, Benjamin
Disraeli, who died on 19 April 1881.
While Lady Thatcher was the first and so far
only woman to lead the party, Disraeli was the first and so far only Jew.
But in both cases, initial status as an outsider did not prevent – indeed may
well have encouraged – the securing of a deep place in Tory affections.
And Disraeli's case shows that if only someone
can hit on a happy form of commemoration, it ought to be possible to do
something genuinely popular, which would make up for some of the present weaknesses
in Conservative organisation and the dramatic fall in party membership. A party
that cannot call on large numbers of committed activists labours under a severe
handicap. Perhaps some genius among the readers of ConservativeHome can even
think of a project that will bring UKIP activists flocking back
to the Tory colours.
For over fifty years an immense Tory festival took
place annually on 19 April, which was marked on the nation’s calendars as
Primrose Day. Between the 1880s and the 1920s it was infinitely more important
than the autumn party conference in sustaining the faith of the Conservative
Men, women and children of all social classes turned
out in great numbers wearing or holding primroses. The crowds were particularly
dense in London and in northern industrial cities like Liverpool,
Manchester and Bradford which then formed part of the heartlands of the Tory
party. In addition to their favoured fresh flowers, many also displayed a
variety of badges, pins and stars, the most elaborate of them dangling from
primrose and purple ribbons.
In a typical year, 1910, The Times reported that
the great Tory anniversary “was commemorated in London and throughout the
country in the customary manner. Primroses were worn generally, and hundreds of
bunches were thrown over the railings of Parliament Square at the foot of the
Beaconsfield statue which, as in past years, was elaborately decorated under
the auspices of the Primrose League.”
The primrose was the symbol of the most remarkable
organisation the Tories have ever had. Founded exactly 135 years ago in 1883 by
Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, the Primrose League gave the Tory
party a mass following for the first time in its history. In 1910 it was
the largest political organisation in the country. On Primrose Day that year it
announced that it had now enrolled two million members of all ages.
In London the Beaconsfield statue in Parliament
Square was the natural focal point for the annual festival: for the man it
commemorated, Benjamin Disraeli, first and last Earl of Beaconsfield, was the
League’s immortal hero and enduring inspiration. The primrose was
believed—almost certainly incorrectly—to have been his favourite flower.
The League’s membership during its heyday united rich
and poor—“the two nations” of which Disraeli had famously written in 1844.
They worked together side by side under the League’s banners (many of them
beautifully embroidered in silk) as ardent constituency activists. Through the
League the Tories came to embody among themselves the concept of one nation
which they then made the basic principle of their most successful policies
for Britain. The League declined steadily after the 1920s; its one nation
tradition grew in importance.
Those who try to depict Margaret Thatcher as a great
radical leader uninterested in the historic Conservative heritage often claim
that she repudiated the one nation tradition. But in reality she drew heavily
upon it. Her patriotism, for example, cannot be understood without reference to
it. Tories (sadly) no longer hold a great festival on 19 April, but the values
it expressed live on vigorously. We should start thinking what we shall do on 8
April 2014, the first anniversary of Lady Thatcher’s death.