Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
A reader commented on my piece last month about parallels between the election of 1923 and the present day, and noted that I had neglected the significant effect that UKIP has had on the contemporary political environment. While there have been occasional attempts to found parties to the right of the Conservative Party, for the most part this political territory has generally been barren and uncultivated. UKIP has put down roots where other organisations withered and died.
The previous periods in which political tendencies to the right of the Conservative Party have been significant, before you arrive in the present day, are essentially 1916-22 and 1930-35, both periods of economic instability and crisis, and fluid political landscapes involving the Conservatives taking office as part of a coalition.
Let us start with the chaotic political scene at the end of the Great War. The 1918 election, psephologically, was a complete mess. Although the coalition of Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives won a large majority, some Tories were ‘un-couponed’ (non-coalition). It is a sign of how confused the situation was in 1918 that nobody seems sure how many non-coalition Tories there actually were in the new House – estimates range from 23 to 47. There were also a number of fragments to the right of the Conservatives.
First came the National Party. This was founded in 1917 by Henry Page Croft, the right-wing Tory MP for Bournemouth, and promised tariffs, a more aggressive approach to the war against Germany and hostility to the Lloyd George government. At its peak it had the support of eight Tory MPs, and 29 candidates stood in 1918; two were re-elected as National without Tory opposition in 1918. The MPs re-joined the Conservatives officially in 1921; the official Tory Constitutional Year Book was, by 1927, retrospectively regarding the two National Party seats in 1918 (Bournemouth and Walsall) as being held by regular Unionists.
Much more peculiar was Noel Pemberton Billing, who won a by-election in Hertford in March 1916 as an independent Unionist campaigning for more use of air power in the war (the association of early aviation with fascist politics, from Billing to Lindbergh, Goering and Cukurs is an interesting one). Billing had a spectacular conspiracy theory to explain the slow progress of the war – it was all down to homosexual blackmail of 47,000 members of the establishment by the wicked Germans. He was re-elected in 1918 after his victory in a bizarre libel case brought against him by an actress accused of being a member of the ‘Cult of the Clitoris’. Another independent right winger was the ex-Liberal Horatio Bottomley – a man who combined the undesirable aspects of both Robert Maxwell and Oswald Mosley – MP for Hackney South until his conviction for fraud in 1922. Bottomley started to frighten the coalition in 1920 when he helped an allied Independent to win a by-election at The Wrekin.
But there was another entrant to the right wing scene in 1921. By this time, the coalition was getting threadbare. The economy had gone into slump after a short post-war boom, and traditional Tories were returning to tariffs as a remedy; they also disliked the increasing public spending on housing and welfare and the apparently excessive role of Liberal Party ministers in the coalition. In January 1921 Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail, announced the formation of a new party, the Anti-Waste League, which built on Bottomley’s movement. An independent right-winger swept to victory in Dover, and then in June 1921 the Anti-Waste League won two by-elections from the Tories in Westminster St. George’s and Hertford, after Billing resigned his seat. The alliance of Bottomley’s Independents and Rothermere’s Anti-Waste peaked at eight seats, with Rothermere’s son Esmond Harmsworth (elected for Thanet in 1919) being its parliamentary leader despite also having the Conservative whip.
On the face of it, the Anti-Waste League was a minor and possibly ridiculous political force. But it had an influence, encouraging Conservative restiveness with the coalition. It also helped push the government towards austerity economics from mid-1921 onwards. The ‘Geddes Axe’ fell on public spending after a Committee on National Expenditure was established to recommend spending cuts in August 1921. Anti-Waste was a successful political intervention by the Daily Mail, given that within two years of its foundation economic policy had changed and the Tories had ended the coalition.
Having succeeded so well with Anti-Waste, the right and the newspaper barons thought that they would have another go in the early 1930s. The problem this time was that in their opinion, and that of many on the right, Baldwin was too obliging to the 1929-31 Labour government and betraying traditional Conservative values on India and – all together now – Tariff Reform. This time, Rothermere was joined by Beaverbrook and the Express in the Empire Free Trade Crusade. The Crusade won a by-election in the safe Conservative seat of Paddington South in October 1930 and pushed the official Tories into third in the marginal Labour seat of Islington East in February 1931. Baldwin’s letters at the time are full of curses directed at the ‘lunatic’ press lords and the ‘foul press’ – he considered resigning but came out fighting against the press lords who wanted ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’. The official Conservative line held at a dramatic by-election in Westminster St George’s and Baldwin had won the struggle. A few years later, under the National Government, the Daily Mail returned to the fray, also unsuccessfully, with its endorsement of the British Union of Fascists.
The purpose of the Empire Crusade and Anti-Waste was not to set up new permanent presences on the political scene but to put pressure on the Conservative Party to adopt policies and leaders more to the liking of the press barons and more in line with traditional Tory values. They were, in a sense, political blackmail operations rather than nascent political parties. James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in 1997 was in similar vein. The Crusade-endorsed Independent Conservative at Westminster St George’s, Ernest Petter, said candidly:
It is not my desire or aim to disrupt the Conservative Party, which I believe to be the only agency which, under God, can avert disaster to our country. It is only my profound conviction that under its present leadership that mission will not be fulfilled which induces me to come forward at this time.
Both Anti-Waste and Empire Crusade were quickly wound up, and the MPs supporting the causes were quietly readmitted in advance of the next election – the exception being the Dover Independent who was defeated by the official Tory in 1922. By-elections were the favoured environment for these challengers. They fell into line in General Elections, as did Randolph Churchill who was a disruptive independent Tory in by-elections in the 1930s.
It cannot be coincidence that UKIP was first founded in 1991 as the ‘Anti-Federalist League’ by the historian Alan Sked. Like Anti-Waste, it aimed for concessions from the government on its favoured policy area (opposition to Maastricht) and elements of this approach have persisted in UKIP since the name was changed in 1993. UKIP has also acquired, unlike its predecessors, a full range of policies, a significant individual membership and elected representatives in the county councils and the European Parliament. None of its predecessors has managed so much, even if UKIP has – unlike Anti-Waste and the Empire Crusade – not won a single parliamentary election. The considerably reduced incidence of by-elections is probably the explanation for that. In the past, non-fascist right wing parties have come into being as aspects of power plays within the Conservative Party, and been discarded when no longer useful. UKIP is in a very different category.
David Boothroyd The History of British Political Parties (Politico’s, 2001)
Chris Cook and John Ramsden By-elections in British politics (UCL Press, 1997)
Maurice Cowling The Impact of Labour 1920-24 (Cambridge University Press, 1971)
Philip Hoare Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand (Arcade, 1998)