Sunday, 6 April 2008

How political parties reacted to women's suffrage: the Conservative Party

Conservative governments dominated the twenty years between 1886 and 1906 with a brief Liberal interlude between 1892 and 1895[1]. Between 1886 and 1900, the Conservatives were politically dominant. However, its fragile dominance began to unravel after the 1900 general election. Although the party was victorious in 1900, with 334 Conservatives and 68 Liberal Unionists returned, the results hid its underlying vulnerability leading to the disastrous general election of January 1906. This was the product of various things. Lord Salisbury[2], prime minister from 1886 to 1892 and 1895 to 1902, lost his political grip and his subsequent retirement in July 1902 created divisions within the leadership especially when his nephew, Arthur Balfour succeeded him.

Increased rivalry between the great powers, and the perceived threat from Germany, led to more resources being channelled into imperial defence and this fuelled unease about Britain’s military competence. The second Boer War (1899-1902) where all the resources of the world’s largest imperial power took three years to defeat an army of South African farmers severely dented the self-confidence of the Conservatives as the party of empire, patriotism and national pride.  A perception of decline in Britain’s economic and commercial prompted some to question established free-trade economic ideas and led to important divisions within the Conservative Party after 1903.  A growing popular awareness of poverty by the 1890s and the emergence of the nascent Labour Party led to mounting demands for the state to introduce welfare policies to alleviate the problem.   In political terms, these developments had a significant impact of the party’s support and appeal. Rising levels of taxation and governmental spending to pay for the war undermined support as a succession of by-election defeats from 1901 demonstrated. The Conservative reputation as the political party of low taxation and little state intervention that had been so successful in winning over business and commercial interests and in creating middle and working class enclaves of support was badly damaged. The idea of Conservatism espoused by Lord Salisbury seemed increasing antiquated, indifferent and negative losing both political appeal and electoral purchase.

Arthur Balfour[3] sought a more centrist Conservative position. His mild, reformist approach tried to maintain established party support among landowners, commercial and financial groups and among the middle classes while pushing through essential policies to restore national finances after the South African War. It was a calm and sensible policy though not one necessarily designed to win the 1905-6 election. Its purpose was to avoid more extreme measures, maintain party unity and preserve as much support as possible while the party waited for the political pendulum to swing back in its favour. This strategy did not appeal to party supporters or backbench MPs, especially those in marginal constituencies and confirmed the increasing view of the leadership as hesitant. This left Balfour vulnerable to more radical forms of Conservatism championed by Joseph Chamberlain[4] that challenged Balfour’s mild approach between 1903 and 1905 and then, in the wake of electoral disaster, dominated it thereafter.

At the heart of Chamberlain’s ideas was tariff reform[5] that he launched in a dramatic speech in Birmingham on 15th May 1903. Chamberlain saw tariff reform as a solution to the financial, social and political problems that confronted the country in the early 1900s. Protecting British markets, both manufacturing and agricultural, with trade barriers would mean a less severe business cycle and so secure better returns from land and maintain profit margins and stable levels of employment. The money raised from tariffs would be used to finance social policies like old age pension. Chamberlain believed that this package would undercut the appeal of the new Labour Party and wing growing numbers of working class votes behind the Conservatives. In addition, granting imperial territories exemption from tariffs would establish a free-trade area that would reduce the likelihood of imperial disintegration and strength of cultural and political bonds of empire through closer economic ties. Although Chamberlain won over a majority of the parliamentary party and the constituencies to his policy, especially between 1907 and 1910, it never took firm roots in the party in the same way as the anti-Home rule policy of Salisbury in the 1880s.  The problem with tariff reform was not that it was a poorly thought out policy but that it did not carry the whole party. From 1903 onwards, the Conservative party was in a state of civil war[6]. Few observers were surprised when the party lost the 1906 general election though they were surprised by the scale of the disaster. The Liberals took 401 seats compared to 184 in 1900 reducing the Conservatives to a mere 156 seats (compared to 402 in 1900). The defeat was one of the largest in its history and led to the Conservatives’ longest continuous period in opposition. Not until 1915, did the Tories again hold office (in the coalition government) and not with a Commons’ majority until October 1922.

The mixed political fortunes of the party after 1906 turned sharply against the Conservatives from 1909, as many of the props that sustained the existing social order, including the empire, the landed interest and the constitution came under attack from the Liberal government.  The Liberal party shifted in a more radical direction because of Henry Asquith replacing Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister in April 1908. Lloyd George was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Together with Winston Churchill at the Board of Trade and then the Home Office, they began a process of radical social welfare reform. Lloyd George was eager to move to a new tax system based on graduation (tax bands) and differentiation (taxing unearned income such as land rather than earned income, such as capital). This hit the landed classes and the very rich, which held the largest amount of unearned income and were likely to vote Conservative.

The Conservative resistance to these financial innovations centred on Lloyd George’s budget of 1909, the so-called ‘People’s Budget’. This increased death duties, imposed higher rates of taxation on unearned income, increased inheritance duties, introduced super-tax on incomes over £5,000 and modest taxes on land. In retrospect, they were exceptionally mild. However, for the Conservatives, the budget represented a series of grave threats to their political position. The House of Lords, in which there was a built in Conservative majority, rejected the budget in November 1909. This precipitated a constitutional crisis, as traditionally the Lords did not use its veto against ‘money’ bills.  This proved a high-risk strategy for the Conservatives and they lost. The constitutional crisis led to two general elections in 1910 and although the Conservatives recovered well, it was not enough to undermine the Liberal-Labour alliance. This threw the Conservative party into chaos. The result was the 1911 Parliament that removed the absolute veto from the Lords and replaced it with a three-year conditional one. This led to the increasing dominance of the House of Commons by the executive (the government). With no constitutional brake on the government, bills scheduled for 1912, including that for Welsh church disestablishment, a bill to end plural voting (whereby property-owners had more than one vote) and Irish Home rule would all become law by 1914, whether the Lords rejected them or not.

Balfour was replaced as Conservative leader in the Commons by Andrew Bonar Law[7] in 1912. The situation for the party was desperate. It was out of control and directionless, divided over tactics and policy and badly demoralised about its future prospects. What was needed was an alternative to tariff reform around which the party could unify. Bonar Law constructed a new approach based on the defence and restoration of the constitution. Playing the constitutional card provided a variety of ways with which to attack the government. This applied particularly to the question of Irish Home Rule. The Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912 and, following rejection by the Lords, in 1913 and 1914. The Ulster Unionists, backed by the Conservative Party would not accept Home Rule at any price. They established illegal paramilitary organisations to resist. The outbreak of war in August 1914 provided a ready escape from the full consequences of the campaign against Home Rule.  The party was in opposition from 1906, divided over tariff reform and then faced with the constitutional onslaught of the Liberal government. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that women’s suffrage was not a major political priority.

The Conservative Party was the ‘natural home’ of the Antis but that does not mean that the party’s reaction to women’s suffrage was completely negative. There is good evidence to suggest that a number of individuals prominent in the campaign for women’s suffrage were Conservative (the most prominent was Lady Constance Lytton), but also that Conservative party organisations, notably certain sections of the Primrose League actively supported the campaign.


General position

The prospect and subsequent arrival of women’s suffrage prompted many Tories to lament the uncertainty of future politics. There was remarkable agreement in the party about the existence of a specifically female political agenda. Conservatives of both sexes generally assumed that women favoured ‘domestic’ political issues with a particular emphasis on matters affecting women and children and on social reform. Whatever the attitude of Conservatives to female involvement in the party, their enthusiasm was tempered by a sense of its irrelevance while women lacked the vote. Henry Bottomley reminded canvassers in 1912: “Don’t be satisfied with seeing the wife. She may talk, but remember the husband is the voter. See him.”

Conservative attitudes to women’s suffrage were mixed between 1880 and 1914 and support came only when it was widely believed that women voters would support the party. Every Conservative leader from Disraeli onwards expressed some sympathy for women’s suffrage but the value of their support was diminished by their reluctance to take up the question while actually in office[8].

Negative reaction

It is important to understand that the Conservatives who opposed women’s suffrage often did so because they feared it would lead to universal suffrage. Lady Salisbury was convinced that even limited women’s suffrage would inevitably lead to the universal suffrage and that this would disadvantage the Conservative Party. Such people believed the vote to be a privilege based on personal fitness and not a right. The success that the Conservative had between 1874 and 1906 (they were in government with the exception of 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-5) was argument enough against further change of the electoral system. Many Conservatives saw no reason to tamper with a winning system.

There were always more Liberals than Conservatives in favour of giving women the vote. While backbench Conservative hostility has probably been exaggerated, there is no doubt that many Conservatives figured in the lists of the anti-suffrage movement. Both Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon were leading opponents.

Positive reaction

Upper class women and Conservative Party supporters were also supporters of the women’s suffrage movement or active in the movement. Lady Dorothy Nevill, Lady Frances Balfour, Lady Betty Balfour, Lady Selborne, Lay Londonderry and many others were active in the campaigns for women’s suffrage. These women were part of the political establishment and important members of the Primrose League. As in so many areas, Conservative women tended, at first at least, to work in the background. Rather than forming their own suffrage organisations or getting involved with existing organisations, they generally preferred to talk to their husbands, brothers and relatives and try to convince them of the need to give women the vote. Some of them, like Lady Constance Lytton, a militant and Lady Betty Balfour, a suffragist, even managed to get themselves arrested. It was not until 1908 that Lady Selborne formed the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Suffrage Association. The organisation started The Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Review to promote their ideas. They argued that giving certain ‘qualified’ women (based on existing property qualifications) the vote would help avoid the catastrophe of universal male suffrage.

  • Soon after its foundation, the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Suffrage Association joined the NUWSS and here an obvious conflict developed. The NUWSS was, in principle, a non-party organisation. The problem was that the Labour Party, unlike the other two, was officially committed to giving women the vote. As a result, the NUWSS supported more Labour candidates than those from the other two parties, a relationship that grew closed in 1912-13.
  • Many people warned Balfour and Bonar Law about the dangers of allowing the Labour Party to take over the women’s suffrage question, as they feared that women would become embittered against the Tories. Since most of them believed that women would one day get the right to vote, there seemed to be no reason to create a large group of electors hostile to the party. His then was the dilemma facing all Conservative suffragists. Were they to be Conservative first and then suffragists or vice versa? Suffragism forced them towards the Labour Party, hardly a prospect that appealed to many Conservative women. On the other hand, they were getting little positive response from their own party. Battle did occur on this issue but most Conservative suffragists subordinated their suffragism to their Conservatism. In this, they were helped by the party being out of power during the worst part of the suffragette agitation. The Liberals bore the full brunt of their fury.
  • The Conservative and Unionist Women’s Suffrage Association was devoted to constitutional methods and did not believe in the same methods as the WSPU. This did not mean that they were unsympathetic to the militants though few went as far as Lady Constance Lytton. The general hostility of the Conservative suffragists to the WSPU did not prevent them from being in touch with the Pankhursts and, on occasions, co-ordinating policy with them. This process was aided by the growing conservatism of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Both increasingly distrusted the Labour Party and the trade unions, both of which were to some extent hostile to women’s suffrage. The Labour Party appeared more interested in adult suffrage and only coincidentally with female suffrage. The largely male trade unions were not favourably disposed to women’s rights seeing female employment as unfair competition. However, neither Balfour nor Bonar Law were prepared to take the risk of committing their party to either the WSPU or its methods largely because opinion in the party was deeply divided on the issue. The crux of the problem was that women’s suffrage would divide the Conservative Party. That is why no party leader dared to take up the question until after the First World War, when hostility to women’s suffrage and, more importantly universal manhood suffrage, had declined.
  • An examination of the voting records on all the women’s suffrage bills presented to Parliament shows that Conservatives passed through three distinct phases. From 1867 to 1883, Conservatives consistently voted against suffrage bills by a margin of three or four to one. However, the following period, from 1884 to 1908, showed a reversal of this trend and, with one exception, the suffragists were in the majority. This growing support for women’s suffrage owed a great deal to the efforts of the Primrose League and the National Union approved suffrage resolutions in 1887, 1889, 1891, 1894, 1907, 1908 and 1910. After 1909, the results became less clear. A majority voted against suffrage bills on five out of seven occasions. This occurred because women’s suffrage was mixed up with adult suffrage and many Conservatives were only in favour of limited female suffrage. Their votes on these bills tell us more about their attitude to democracy than to women.

The pre-war period was a time of fierce hostility between the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Women’s suffrage played only a small part in that drama. Far more important were the issues of the powers of the House of Lords and home rule for Ireland. The support, tepid though it was, of the Conservative leadership for women’s suffrage had less to do with principle than party advantage. Like the Liberal Party, the Conservatives were divided over the question. However, there was no inherent conflict between conservatism and women’s suffrage.


[1] On the development of the Conservative Party in this period see, John Ramsden An Appetite for Power: A History of the Conservative Party since 1830, Harper Collins, 1998, Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball (eds.) Conservative Century: The Conservative Party since 1900, Oxford University Press, 1994, John Charmley A History of Conservative Politics 1900-1996, Macmillan, 1996 and Jeremy Smith The Taming of Democracy: The Conservative Party 1880-1924, University of Wales Press, 1997. Martin Francis and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (eds.) The Conservatives and British Society 1880-1990, University of Wales Press, 1996 is a valuable collection of essays including one on Conservatism and the politics of gender. The most detailed studies on the subject are: Richard Shannon The Age of Salisbury 1881-1902: Unionism and Empire, Longman, 1996 and John Ramsden The Age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940, Longman, 1978.

[2] There are two recent biographies of Lord Salisbury: Andrew Roberts Salisbury: Victorian Titan, Weidenfeld, 1999 and David Steele Lord Salisbury: A Political Biography, UCL Press, 1999. Roberts is eminently readable and is a complete biography. Steele is more specific. Both have something (a little) to say about his attitude to women’s suffrage.

[3] Kenneth Young Arthur James Balfour, Bell, 1963 and Max Egremont Balfour, Collins, 1980 have been superceded by R. J. Q. Adams Balfour: The last Grandee, John Murray, 2007.  Ruddock Mackay Balfour: Intellectual Statesman, Oxford University Press, 1985 concentrates on Balfour’s role in education, foreign and defence policy, aspects neglected in previous studies and has some useful things to say about his attitudes to women’s suffrage.

[4] Peter Marsh Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics, Yale University Press, 1994 is the best biography.

[5] The most useful works on tariff reform are Alan Sykes Tariff Reform in British Politics 1903-13, Oxford University Press, 1979 and E. H. H. Green The Crisis of Conservatism: The Politics, Economics and Ideology of the British Conservative Party, 1880-1914, Routledge, 1995. The context for tariff reform can best be approached through Anthony Howe Free Trade and Liberal England 1846-1946, Oxford University Press, 1997.

[6] Parallels have been drawn between the civil war over tariff reform between 1903 and 1906 and the debate within the Conservative Party after 1993 over the European Union. Both led to the impression of a divided party and both precipitated major electoral defeats, in 1906 and 1997.

[7] Robert Blake The unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923, London, 1955 is still useful though somewhat dated. R. J. Q. Adams Bonar Law, John Murray 1999 must be viewed as its replacement.

[8] G. E. Maguire Conservative Women: A History of Women and the Conservative Party, 1874-1997, Macmillan, 1998, pages 5-72 provides the clearest introduction to the subject.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Richard. This blogpost was very helpful to our AS Level History lessons about the Conservative Government.

-Aquarius and Taurus