• An elite’s response to democracy: how the Conservative Party adapted to extensions of the franchise; and coped with ensuing political repercussions 1867-1914.

      Durham, Martin; Raymond, Graham J. (University of Wolverhampton, 2008)
      This thesis investigates how the Conservative party coped with the far-reaching effects of democratic reform between 1867 and 1914. It analyses the performance of successive party leaders through their exploitation of high politics; and how ideology influenced their policy, and decision making. It also examines how the party’s organization was periodically revised to manage changing political circumstances. The relationships between these three elements, high politics, ideology, and organization are then analysed to explain the Conservative party’s appeal for electoral support during the period of study. The respective contributions made by the three elements to the party’s electoral performance are considered in relation to each other. Using this approach the thesis explains how the Conservative party managed to improve upon its dismal electoral record between 1832 and 1874; how it achieved electoral dominance between 1886 and 1906; and why its electoral fortunes declined so dramatically thereafter. The conclusions reached are threefold. Firstly, the importance attached to high politics by the Peterhouse school of thought may, in some respects, be exaggerated, certainly regarding elections. High politics, by its very nature seeks to exert influence at a level far removed from the mass electorate. Political rhetoric has obvious uses during elections, not least in the field of extra-parliamentary speech-making. But in the absence of any reliable indicators of what the electorate actually felt or desired, the effectiveness of political rhetoric could not be gauged a priori. The results of political manoeuvring at the highest levels may have been apparent to voters, but was of little concern to them. At worst, they were ignorant of it, and at best, ambivalent to it. Secondly, party leaders, whether knowingly or unknowingly, exploited the flexibility of Conservative ideology in their quest for votes. However, the core concepts of that ideology remained inviolable, only contingent values were successfully subjected to re-appraisal and revision to attract the voters. When ideological core values were misunderstood or misinterpreted the party suffered accordingly. Thirdly, the value of the Conservative party’s organization has been underestimated. High politics and ideology may have combined to produce a Conservative message for the voters, but the appeal of that message was unknowable. On the other hand, the party’s organization, when empowered to do so, adroitly and effectively utilized all the tools available to them to manage and maximize all potential Conservative support. Organization may be viewed as a make-weight, but like all make-weights it possessed the power to tip the electoral scales one way or the other.