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Mark Wallace: Anne McElvoy's study of Conservatism's contradictions and northern roots holds some clues to our future

By Mark Wallace
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Conservatism is a complex thing. It is either not an ideology at all, or a meld of ideas containing numerous internal contradictions, depending on your preference. What other movement can have absorbed both the driving entrepreneurialism of the industrial revoluion and the romantic opposition to it - simultaneously embracing the progress brought by "dark satanic mills" and the romantic view of the English rural village?

Anne McElvoy's Radio 4 series this week, "British Conservatism: The Grand Tour", seeks to explore the evolution (emphatically not the construction) of a creed that celebrates and tries to reconcile such potentially conflicting ideas.

It's fitting that such contrasts within one tradition of political thought should also have a geographically conflicting heritage. The North-South divide has always been with us (William the Conqueror was sowing the North with salt almost a millennium ago, while merrily introducing French courtly customs to the South) - what is interesting in the case of Conservatism is the way that divide has affected our political geography.

While nowadays Conservatives agonise about how to appeal in the North of England, McElvoy points out that many of the ideas and approaches traditionally associated with small-c conservatism evolved in Northern settings. The broad brush stereotype that the home counties are Thatcherite and everywhere north of Watford is socialist would have horrified 19th century aristocrats who disliked free trade as much as it would have annoyed the skilled, Conservative workers of many a Midlands industrial town.

Britain isn't the only country to have seen such changes in its political geography, of course. The Democrats, now painting tracts of the northern USA blue, once dominated the South, while Lincoln led a Republican North against the states which are now solid supporters of his party.

McElvoy has pointed out in the previews of her series that, while continental elites feared the power of the masses in the 19th Century, and invited revolution by trying to suppress democracy, British Conservatives extended the franchise and worked out ways to take their message to the new middle classes and the urban industrial workers.

Perhaps this was informed by the experience of the English Civil War, creating a willingness to work with the grain rather than against it in order to avoid a violent eruption. Far better to harness the new to strengthen the nation, than to have every element of the old swept away.

Wherever the instinct came from, it has proved to help ensure political survival. When Marx sat in London, writing intellectual works about how the people would sweep away the old order, Conservatives were exploring ideas to reduce the cost of living, improve working conditions and develop community ties in the industrial cities.

This period was crucial to the development of a Northern Conservatism. Yes, there were sectarian divides which allied working class Protestants opposed to Irish Home Rule to the Conservative Party, but the campaign went far beyond that. Church, monarchy, industry, nation, family, hard work and the concept of what we now call property-owning democracy all combined into a heady mix which ensured that Marx's revolution never came to pass and the Conservatives would dominate electorally for much of the next 150 years.

The concepts of class driving these political changes were quite confused at the time. We now look back on the middle of the 19th Century as the era which gave birth to the middle class - comfortably off, hardworkers who aspire to own their homes.

For Disraeli, the middle class were greedy profiteers, a slim but powerful layer almost as wealthy as the nobility but lacking the noblesse oblige he longed to see restored. He saw the new form of the world as an unjust, binary monstrosity, writing in his novel Sybil of the dream of there one day being "some resting place between luxury and misery".

He was nostalgic for what he believed was the place of ordinary workers in a feudal village that had in the agrarian Middle Ages, something he feared was being destroyed by industrialisation. We may know today that most feudal peasants experienced short, unpleasant lives, but he believed they had lived in relative comfort, with a true place and part to play in their community. What he described was today's middle class - what he thought he was describing was something altogether different.

Few things could better typify the internal contradictions of conservatism than a Prime Minister who worked to create a ladder into the new middle class while believing he was simply restoring a mythical state of feudal yemoanry. He may not have been an enthusiast for suburban terraces funded by factory smokestacks (it was left to his Liberal rival Gladstone to praise booming Middlesbrough as England's "infant Hercules"), but he bolstered a middle class that was inherently tied to both, regardless of his intentions.

Anne McElovy's excellent series still has two six episodes to go, at 1.45 on weekdays on Radio 4. Hopefully she will use them to explore how the Tory appeal to skilled, aspirant workers developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, but even if not, this is an insightful BBC series without the sneering often seen in Auntie's coverage of Conservatives.

While her series is a history, like all good history it reflects on the present.

It is undeniable that the 21st century Conservatives have a brand problem in large parts of the North of England, but electoral failure masks a small-c conservative culture. 

Consider the following broadly conservative values: work should pay more than benefits; straight talking is better than political correctness; immigration might be nice for the well-off but it can negatively affect poorer workers; an economy based on manufacturing is preferable to an economy based on the offerings of lifestyle consultants; experts and elites often pursue trendy hobby horses which cost ordinary people a fortune; taxes are a rip-off.

Now consider them geographically. Many of these ideas would go down badly at an Islington dinner party. Plenty of them are inextricably linked to Northern cultures - the no-nonsense Yorkshireman, the great manufacturing towns of the Midlands and so on. There is an audience for such ideas - that can be seen in the fact that Mrs Thatcher still has positive approval ratings in every region outside of Scotland, and in UKIP's performance in a series of northern by-elections.

The future of the Conservative Party will be dictated in large part by whether it can broaden its appeal beyond its current heartlands. Its past shows not only that it is possible, but contains some hints as to how it might be done.


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