The Brexit Party And The Liberal Unionists: A Crucial Parallel

Peel splits the Tories

Sir Robert Peel was in many ways the first Tory “moderniser” if he is to be given a 21st century moniker. His 1834 Tamworth Manifesto attempted to bring a landed aristocratic Tory Party into an age in which the middle class could now vote and where moreover, industrial interests were becoming as important if not more important than the interests of the landed and the titled.

Peel’s vindication came in 1841 when he formed his first majority government on the heels of his reformist agenda. However, when it came to the issue of trade, the party he helped to modernise would fall apart. Peel’s agenda to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws. Peel sought to repeal the Corn Laws which protected large (mostly Tory) landowners for two main reasons. First and foremost, he had gradually moved away from Tory orthodoxy in his quest for “modernisation” and part of this meant that like Whig industrialists, he now saw the benefits of free trade being of the utmost economic importance. Secondly, Peel felt that the importing of cheaper agricultural products could provide relief for the victims of the famine in Ireland that was an increasingly political issue at the time.

Peel’s move to repeal the Corn Laws ended up splitting his party as Tory traditionalists felt that a betrayal of landed interests constituted a betrayal of the very conception of Toryism. With help from the opposition, Peel was successful in repealing the Corn Laws but as a result he ceased to be a member of the Conservative party and was relegated to a group Peelite ex-Conservatives, many of whom (including William Gladstone) would later combine with the Whigs and radicals to form the Liberal Party in 1859.

Tory revival and Liberal split 

The Tories re-grouped around the 14th Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli in the wake of the Corn Law split. After securing the passage of the Representation of The People Act of 1867 which for the first time gave the vote to men of the working class, Disraeli went on to form a new government in 1874. Disraeli’s 1874 government was the most successful Tory government in several generations.

In the 1870s, the two party system seemed both strong and stable but in 1885 this all changed when Liberal leader William Gladstone decided to adopt a policy of Irish Home Rule (political autonomy in Ireland). Whilst this policy initially helped Gladstone back into power with the help of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish nationalists, Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill not only lead to his defeat and the fall of his government, but it moreover lead to a major split in his party.

Many in Gladstone’s Liberal party could simply not stomach the idea of Irish Home Rule and as a result, a new faction called the Liberal Unionists was formed.

The Liberal Unionists themselves were a coalition of moderate Whigs and patriotic radicals. The Unionist Whig faction was represented by the Marquess of Hartington whilst Joseph Chamberlain was the outspoken radical stalwart among the Liberal Unionists.

Although the Liberal Unionists fought the 1886 and subsequent general elections with the Conservatives, they maintained their own distinct party organisation/apparatus until 1912 when it was no longer necessary to do so.

The zenith of the Conservative/Liberal Unionist alliance was reached in the 1900 Khaki election fought in the midst of the Second Boer War. From such a vantage point, it seemed as though the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists were about to bury the old Liberal opposition for good.

Then from seemingly out of the blue, in 1903 Joseph Chamberlain announced his policy of industrial protectionism known as the great campaign for Tariff Reform (to be subsequently described as Imperial Preference). Chamberlain who was always one-part radical and one part ultra-patriot decided to challenge the free trading orthodoxy which Peel sacrificed his own political career to establish.

In so doing, Chamberlain alienated many of his fellow Liberal Unionist for whom free trade was as much an ideological orthodoxy as agricultural protectionism had been for the Tory ultras of the 1840s. Some Conservatives including the pro-free trade Winston Churchill likewise were dismayed by Chamberlain’s move and crossed the floor to join the Liberal party as a result.

The result was that both Conservatives and remaining Liberal Unionists were decimated in the general election of 1906 – just a few short years after their seismic 1900 victory.

Lessons for Brexit 

The historic shifts in UK politics associated with Brexit have been caused by those two persistent issues which are almost always present when a major British party fragments: trade and Ireland.

Boris Johnson’s apparent commitment to Brexit has lead to the expulsion of both proponents of a so-called “soft Brexit” and anti-Brexiteer Conservatives. These politicians have subsequently embarked on an ignominious exit from their party in a manner not all too dissimilar from the exit of the Peelites from the Conservative party after 1846.

At the same time, the newly formed Brexit Party is a coalition of interests not altogether dissimilar to the Liberal Unionists who arose in opposition to Gladstone after 1886. The Brexit Party is a coalition of both traditionalists and radicals united around a desire to totally withdraw from the European Union.

Now that Boris Johnson has largely purged pro-EU figures from the Conservative party in the House of Commons, the remaining pro-Brexit Conservatives and the Brexit Party have in common a mutual desire to achieve a rapid clean break Brexit.

Many differences however remain. Nigel Farage is in many ways a Joseph Chamberlain figure in the sense that he combines a robust traditional patriotism with a radical reformist streak in domestic affairs. Farage’s opposition to the House of Lords and his desire to create a written constitution are if anything far more radical than much of Chamberlain’s radical programme. Likewise, Farage’s patriotic credentials are often far stronger than many in the Conservative party, just as was the case in respect of Chamberlain vis-a-vis the Conservatives of his era.

Because of this, there is a clear difference between the ethos of the Brexit Party and that of even a Johnson led Conservative party. Moreover, just as many Conservatives of the late 19th century distrusted Chamberlain, many in today’s Conservative party have similar personal feelings of ill-will against Nigel Farage. It cannot be ignored that many in the Conservative party are merely jealous of Farage’s charisma, as indeed many Conservatives were of the dynamic Chamberlain in the late Victorian period.

Even though the Liberal Unionists maintained a totally separate party structure from their inception until 1912, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Unionists proved to be one that was a substantial vote winner until the alliance split over Tariff Reform.

As such, it would seem downright mad for the Conservatives and Brexit Party to do anything less than that which the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists accomplished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, both sides were able to unit in areas of commonality whilst allowing distrust to play second fiddle to pragmatism.

In the end, the Liberal Unionists were split by their own dynamic leader whilst the Conservatives ultimately recovered their fortunes during the second half of the Great War.

Now that Boris Johnson is faced with a split in his own party, he can revive both his party and the country with an honest and realistic partnership with the Brexit Party, just as the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury led his Conservatives into a pact with the Liberal Unionists.

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