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Lord Lexden: If we study how Conservatives honoured Disraeli, we will learn how they can honour Margaret Thatcher

The Empire's Glory
The Beaconsfield statue in Parliament Square decorated for Primrose Day, 1907, " all done up with primroses & violets" in the words of an awed visitor to it.

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 party faithful.

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.


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