Andrew Sharpe OBE is Chairman of the National Conservative Convention. He has previously served as President and Vice-President of the NC and before that held office as an Association Chairman, Area Chairman and Regional Chairman in the Conservative party.
He writes the last in our series of posts about the never-ending story of progressive Conservative change, which contrasts with the events of this week’s Labour Party conference.
This time last year, I was reading my Conservative History Journal and was struck by the content of the editorial. Stephen Parkinson cantered through various important milestones in the fight for female suffrage. This included the fact, previously unknown to me, that Emmeline Pankhurst was selected as a Conservative candidate to contest Whitechapel & St. George’s in 1928, but sadly died before being able to fight the election.
Stephen concluded with these words, which resonated: “History is not quick to credit the Conservative Party for its support for progressive causes.” We all know he is right, of course, but this has serious and negative consequences for us as a political party when trying to win the battle of ideas.
To even use the words Conservative and Progressive in the same sentence in a Tweet is to invite a storm of trolling anger which is usually hysterical and always misplaced. If we don’t own our past; if we lack the self-confidence to defend our achievements; if we are all as ill-informed as I was about Mrs Pankhurst, then how do we seriously expect to be able take the fight to our opponents?
In his introduction to this excellent series last weekend, Paul Goodman quoted Orwell: Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. In the context of 1984, that has extremely sinister connotations but, as we have seen this week at the Labour Party Conference, some use this as the heading of a chapter in an instructional manual.
If we continue to let them claim the moral high ground, virtue-signal without challenge and parade their meagre achievements as the most formative in British social history then we will struggle to make our case now. We know that when Conservative policies are offered to the public without branding they are more popular than when labelled Conservative. This failure has material consequences.
As a rule, if one can get this far in the argument, then the caveats start being deployed. “Yeah, but Disraeli was against the Second Reform Act before he was for it.” “Yeah, but Mrs Pankhurst was only a Conservative because we had a majority and she needed that to further her cause.” To which the answer is – “So What?” Politics is about winning and that is what we do. Disraeli put the Liberals out of business with his manoeuvring, and if Mrs Pankhurst had been a Labour candidate we would never hear the end of it.
We need to mine our history to inform our present and dominate our future. Paul has highlighted a long list of Conservative progressive achievements but there are many more and they take many forms. Some are very well known, some less so.
The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act was passed under Lord Liverpool’s government as long ago as 1822. Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 is often credited as founding modern conservatism and representing a break with the “old Tory” Duke of Wellington, but it also expressly set out to “the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances”. The foundation of the National Convention’s predecessor in 1867 was explicit in seeking to convince the newly enfranchised beneficiaries of the Second Reform Act to vote Conservative – the first mass movement political party? Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree was the second MP of Indian descent to be elected – as a Conservative representing Bethnal Green North East between 1895 and 1906.
The list really is endless but one of the finest examples of a Conservative in action is that of Sir John Jarvis, MP for Guildford between 1935 and 1950. Space does not allow a full recounting of his efforts to help the men of Jarrow, and some may quibble that those efforts were of a more philanthropic than political nature, but Jarvis took the trouble to get elected to represent a seat in Surrey in order to help a community in the North East that had been blighted by the depression and famously rose to prominence via their march to London. Those efforts saw him made a freeman of Jarrow in 1935. The local Labour councillors boycotted the ceremony because he was a Conservative.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Jarvis was not a man who just talked a good game – he played one. Labour could not muster the good grace to acknowledge it.
Back in the present, our Conservative Government has difficulties and as ever the same ludicrous charges are being levelled in our direction (we really have not been taken over by an ‘Alt-Right’ cabal). There are many more facts that support our social-reforming credentials but our opponent’s tactics will, if all else fails, be to deny those facts. In the comments below Paul’s introductory article last week, I read one angry individual blaming us for “bailing out the banks” while letting other “essential industries die”. An unusual and factually incorrect reading of history coupled with a highly subjective usage of the word “essential”, but as we know “a lie can travel half-way around the world before the truth gets its boots on.”
Conservatives everywhere, get your boots on, read up on your history, get on the front foot and let’s jointly make sure we own our past, present and future. We owe it to our country.