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Response to Review of The Liberal Unionist Party: A History

Can I firstly thank Dr Sharpe for his balanced and fair review and assure him that I will correct those ‘howlers’ in any future editions of the book?

Although I would prefer to leave the validity of my interpretations of the particular issues he raises to the judgement of readers, can I just point out that the unique nature of Bury’s politics, and the unique appeal of Henry James’s candidature, are endorsed by Victoria Barbery’s detailed analysis of the constituency?(1) Bury was by no means typical of Lancashire seats in many ways, so Henry James, together with other isolated Liberal Unionists, needed to carefully articulate a truly Liberal message, but one with sufficient patriotism and commitment to the cause of Empire to reassure his Conservative allies. Whilst it is true that a Conservative inherited the seat in 1895 (as a signal of Chamberlain and Devonshire’s growing closeness to the Tories following the creation of the coalition government), it is also true that, in 1902, the Liberals won a by-election in Bury due to their opposition to the 1s corn duty imposed to cover the cost of the Boer War (2), demonstrating that a commitment to traditional liberal values was still crucial for a successful candidate in Bury.

The more substantial argument, that Liberal Unionism was central to the 1895 general election result (surely the most neglected election in British political history), derived, not only from my own research, but also from that of other scholars, most notably the investigations carried out by Paul Readman for his excellent article in the Historical Journal, ‘The 1895 general election and political change in late Victorian England’.(3) Here, Readman analysed the number of times that Unionist candidates used Chamberlain’s social reform programme on their platform and discovered that aspects of the programme were mentioned by the majority of Unionists, both Liberal and Conservative. Decisively, the Conservative leader-in-waiting, Arthur Balfour, repeatedly publicly endorsed Chamberlain’s proposals (even being attacked by right-wing Tories as a ‘Samson’ who had been seduced by the Birmingham ‘Delilah’).

Of course, I accept, as most political historians do, that governments tend to lose elections, rather than oppositions winning them. But the very nature of the Unionist message in 1895, effectively and persuasively communicated by a modern party structure and the most up-to-date means of political communication, was that liberal values were best protected by the Unionist Parties. They portrayed Rosebery’s Party as dominated by ‘faddism’ and Irish Nationalists, whose cause would create an ultramontane Catholic Ireland in which the civic rights, the economic prosperity and the political freedoms of Protestants would be trampled underfoot. This message had an appeal across the classes and Protestant denominations (and even appealed to some Catholics) and was ceaselessly emphasised in the propaganda of both wings of Unionism. In this way, so Jonathan Parry believes, the Conservatives learnt from the Liberal Unionists how to be more flexible in their ideological position and prepared the way for their dominance of the inter-war years. That the promises of 1895 were quickly abandoned and both Liberal Unionist and Conservative leaders mutually agreed to avoid such issues again probably explains why the significance of the 1895 campaign has been forgotten, though it is clear from my study of 1895–1906 that many voters (and even some Liberal Unionists) neither forgot not forgave such behaviour.

I do believe I have presented an enormous volume of evidence to support my conclusions, with 49 pages of footnotes and seven appendices. Of course, I did not include every single piece of supporting evidence that I found (some of which can be found in the journal articles on Liberal Unionism which I have written) as that would have expanded the text far beyond what my otherwise very patient publisher would accept and would have obscured my arguments in a blizzard of quotes, references and statistics (something I was acutely conscious of). Ultimately, however, I must leave my peers to decide whether I have over-egged the pudding or merely presented a new, improved recipe.

Notes

  1. V. Barbery, 'From Platform to Polling Booth', PhD thesis (Cambridge, 2007).Back to (1)
  2. The Times, 9 May 1902.Back to (2)
  3. Paul Readman, ‘The 1895 general election and political change in late Victorian England’, English Historical Review, 95 (1980).Back to (3)