The Magazine

The Most Successful Conservative

Lord Salisbury's Achievement

Mar 13, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

That leadership was not much of a prize. Of the fifty-five years since Salisbury's birth, the Conservatives and their Tory predecessors had held office for only fifteen. In a Britain that was becoming ever more urban, industrial, and entrepreneurial, the Conservatives were seen as the party of rural life, agriculture, and forelock-tugging. The mid-Victorian electorate was staunchly middle class: In 1832, the franchise had been reformed to give the vote to one man out of five; in 1867, it had been extended to one man in every three. And it was the low-tax, free-trade, peace-loving, vice-suppressing Liberals, not the rustic, beer-drinking, Anglican Conservatives, who championed the interests and values of the middle class.


In 1884, the Gladstone government hammered in what it plainly saw as the last nail in the Conservatives' coffin: a third reform act. This one gave the vote to every man who owned or rented a house, more than half the male population of the country. The Liberal middle-class electorate would become an even more staunchly Liberal working-class electorate. Toffs like the marquess of Salisbury, it seemed, would shuffle off into the dust of history.


Looking back today, there is something awfully familiar about Gladstone's scheme. Just as British politics was transformed a century ago by the advent of the industrial-worker vote, so American and British politics are being transformed today by the growing importance of the votes of working mothers and nonwhite immigrants. A century ago, it seemed all but inevitable that new voters would lock in forever the supremacy of the liberal parties. Many American and British observers happily or unhappily hold the same view today. But Salisbury's cunning thwarted Gladstone's hopes, lending credence to the idea that equally imaginative leadership could achieve corresponding success for conservatism today.


Salisbury saw, in 1885, two things that Gladstone missed. The first was the dynamic nature of political coalitions. Gladstone believed that by adopting redistributionist policies he could simply annex the votes of industrial workers to his existing coalition of businessmen, evangelicals, and voters from the non-English regions of Britain: Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Salisbury perceived that this leftward jog was at least as likely to jostle Gladstone's old supporters loose, giving him an excellent chance to add the traditional, business-minded Liberal vote in the suburbs to the Conservative base in the country. The second thing Salisbury saw was that while the Liberals were speaking for the material interests of the new voters, they were dangerously neglecting their values. The new voters might be more redistribution-minded than the old. But they were no less patriotic, and under the right circumstances they might turn out to be even more so.


On the strength of those two perceptions, Salisbury proceeded to lay a trap that would shatter the Liberal coalition and rearrange British politics for a long time to come.


A little background is necessary here. The late nineteenth-century House of Commons contained six hundred and seventy members, one hundred and three of them from Ireland. That ratio overrepresented the Irish, whose share of the total British population had fallen to less than ten percent by Salisbury's time, but before 1884 nobody much cared: Most of the Irish seats were controlled by wealthy landlords and the small, disproportionately Protestant, middle class, and they split themselves much as English seats did between Conservatives and Liberals, with a slight but persistent bias in the Liberals' favor.


The adoption of the secret ballot in 1872 weakened the old regime in Ireland, and the enfranchisement of poorer voters in 1884 capsized it. It gradually dawned on all the politicians of England that the election expected in 1885 would send to Westminster a huge contingent of nationalist Irish MPs and that the Irish could very easily end up holding the balance of power.


What to do about this? Salisbury acted first: He arranged for a representative to meet secretly with the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell in August 1885 to propose a Conservative-Parnellite pact. Roberts convincingly argues that Salisbury was not negotiating in good faith. Rather, he expected word of the talks to leak and to goad Gladstone into outbidding him with promises that would please the Irish but offend the English. And that is exactly what happened.