UK Politics

The changing face of British conservatism

Image caption Edmund Burke's vision of French revolutionaries invading London sparked panic

A new series traces the history of British conservatism through the series of threats that have shocked it into action - from the shadow of the guillotine to the permissive society.

Many of its enduring ideas, contrary to perceptions today, were forged in the heartland of the industrial north of England.

The French Revolution - Paris is under a reign of terror. Everyone lives under the shadow of the guillotine.

But amid all the bloodshed, something rather surprising was struggling to be born.

A progressive Irish MP, Edmund Burke, was horrified by events on the other side of the Channel - and in his response to the revolution, you can detect the beginnings of modern British conservatism.

In 1790, three years before the Reign of Terror, for all the revolution's grand ambition and Enlightenment ideas, Burke could see disaster looming.

Burke was no reactionary but in the French Revolution, he saw such a destructive threat to the existing order that he felt the need to step back and work out what was good about British life, from the role of the Church to the way landowners were represented in Parliament.

And his reaction influenced the dominant belief system of the British - a "small-C" conservatism.

So when we set out to make a history of British conservatism for BBC Radio 4, that's where we chose to start.

Continuity is so much part of our history that, unlike socialism or liberalism, conservatism can claim it is not an ideology at all.

But across 10 programmes, I'm exploring how conservatism has been shocked into action by some overwhelming new force.

Those are the moments when conservatism - in its drive to take on the forces of change - has to change itself.

As Britain entered the Victorian era, the Industrial Revolution brought radical reforms - and violent unrest.

To some, it threatened just as terrifying an upheaval in British certainties as the revolution in France.

Thomas Carlyle was born poor in Scotland in 1795 and would go on to become the great conservative prophet of the age.

From his later base as the "sage of Chelsea", Carlyle set himself up as the great enemy of the newly dominant idea of utilitarianism.

This preached that people should be managed on the basis that they liked pleasure and shied away from pain.

So you should never pay someone more in "poor relief" than the lowest wage.

Life seemed to be governed by a "cash nexus" of contracts and transactions.

And in this Carlyle saw the death of the old, more caring, Christian society.

Image caption The Industrial Revolution brought violent unrest with Luddite riots

Carlyle despised democracy. Instead, he looked to the monasteries of the distant past, to find an older alternative.

Nor was he merely an influence on other intellectuals; he left practical traces in politics.

The young dandy novelist and future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was deeply influenced by Carlyle, and Burke, and his own sense of the English feudal past.

And in the face of the campaign for Free Trade, which would leave farmers exposed to international competition, Disraeli fought back.

And this brings us to a character who sums up the spirit of this series: Lord George Bentinck.

Here was an MP who was so keen on horse riding that he turned up to the Commons covered in mud, and didn't bother speaking for his first eight years in Parliament.

But when Free Trade loomed, he reared up out of his apathy and joined Disraeli to defend the old social systems.

And the great architecture critic John Ruskin drew on Carlyle too, in his attacks on the crass commercial bling of the mid-Victorian era.

In 1864, when the merchants of Bradford invited him to advise them on the design of a prestigious new building, he gave them a fiery lecture on how they should stop worshipping "the goddess of getting-on" and rediscover old traditions of artisanship and social harmony.

Some of this drive back to the past was quite uncompromising - but other conservatives were more moderate. Like the man who adopted the word to rename the old Tory Party as the Conservative Party - Robert Peel.

Image caption Disraeli was a colossus of 19th century conservatism

Faced with radical unrest, he opened up the idea of conservatism to the urban middle class who might have thought it was just for the old Tory landowners.

No, said Peel - if you believe in the Church and the monarchy and good order, you too hold conservative values.

Similarly, when urban working men were given the vote - by Disraeli, in 1867 - there were some conservatives, like the future Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who were aghast.

But others found a way to open up the idea of conservatism still further.

In the idea of the "working man's right to his pint", MPs like Sheffield's John Arthur Roebuck revived an old Tory idea - that class hierarchies could best be maintained by letting each class enjoy their own pleasures.

And this wasn't the preserve of the Conservative Party alone.

There was also a strong "Tory socialist" movement which celebrated patriotism and traditional pleasures, championed by men such as Robert Blatchford with his Clarion movement.

Image caption It was Robert Peel who changed the party's name from Tory to Conservative

It just wanted to improve the lives of the poor within the existing system.

But, as the 20th Century dawned, Britain entered a harsher political world - and faced by challenges to the basic make-up of the United Kingdom, conservatism became more embattled.

In Tyneside, as elsewhere in the north of England, Protestant working men rallied in mass processions to protest against the threat of Irish Home Rule.

And even after the arrival of full mass democracy between the wars, there were many conservatives who were not reconciled to the idea.

Some even wanted to throw out the politicians and return power to the King.

But again, a more moderate, malleable conservatism took them on. Like the "working man's right to his pint", the idea of the "property-owning democracy" emerged to broaden the appeal of the status quo to as many people as possible.

This was an idea coined not in the 1980s, but back in the 1920s, by a now-forgotten MP called Noel Skelton.

He and his fellow young conservative thinkers argued that by spreading property ownership as widely as possible they could heal the rift between the classes, and unleash the forces of stability.

The idea was to make old conservative ideas about the importance of having a stake in the land available to the many, giving them a safe place in the social hierarchy, under the benevolent eye of an open elite.

This idea won out - for a while.

But in the post-World War II world, new threats emerged to the existing order, partly driven by these ideas.

Faced by the welfare state and the permissive society, some conservatives looked in vain for support for their cherished values of personal responsibility and moral standards.

But with the Church of England turning liberal and politicians losing confidence, people like Mary Whitehouse and Enoch Powell emerged from the middle classes of the Midlands to lead new kinds of conservatism that were a lot less deferential.

And so to the complicated figure of Margaret Thatcher. In the final edition of the series, I take a pew in the Methodist chapel in Grantham where she sat watching her father give his sermons, to reflect on how 200 years of conservative ideas helped to shape a woman who has in turn shaped all our lives.