Grass-roots support was key to Conservative success, according to University of Leicester historian

Posted by er134 at May 31, 2013 02:26 PM |
Largest-ever study of Conservative Party sheds light on the party’s interwar dominance in the House of Commons

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 31 May 2013

The Conservative Party has long been wracked by right wing revolts, but history shows that the party leaders who have paid heed to the views of the grass-roots membership have overseen the party’s greatest successes, according to a University of Leicester historian.

In Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945, published by Oxford University Press, Professor Stuart Ball from the University’s School of Historical Studies has analysed data from the widest possible range of sources to shed light on the party’s dominance of the House of Commons for nearly thirty years.

Professor Ball said, “In the inter-war period, as now, the party leaders struggled to contain right-wing revolts on key issues, and in the 1930s sought to follow austerity policies within a coalition in order to recover from a deep recession.

“Baldwin came close to being ousted in 1930-31 by attacks from an outside pressure group (the 'Empire Crusade') which was mobilising unrest amongst the Conservative grass-roots.  This has parallels with the appeal of UKIP – Baldwin had to make substantial concessions on policy to survive, and now David Cameron may have to do the same.

“Previous party leaders were successful when they remained within the boundaries of what was acceptable to the mainstream centre of the grass-roots membership and backbench MPs.

“Party leaders who ignored this and stubbornly refused to adapt have been rejected by either the grass-roots or the MPs, or both: Balfour in 1911, Austen Chamberlain in 1922, Neville Chamberlain in 1940, and Heath in 1975 - and, nearly, Major in the mid-1990s, but he was more adaptable and more popular with the rank and file, and survived though battered and bruised in the process.”

The book also reveals that many of the principles that made the Conservative Party a success in these years are still present in the party today.

Professor Ball said, “The book illustrates how the modern Conservative Party grew thanks to its adaptability to a radically changing environment after 1918, and the party’s resilience in defeat.

“Its strengths were a consensus on general principles, the social cohesion of its MPs and an emphasis on loyalty and unity.  Some of these elements remain to the present, but others have been eroded by the parliamentary party becoming more professional and more ideologically motivated.”

Key to the Conservatives early success was the projection of an appeal across class boundaries, particularly to the newly-enfranchised women voters, which was broader and more inclusive than that of the Labour Party.

Whereas previous histories have been more general and chronological accounts, Professor Ball’s book takes the Conservative Party apart and examines it thematically, layer by layer upwards from the grass-roots membership to the Cabinet and the Party Leader.

It is based on the widest possible range of original sources, including the personal papers of over 50 leading figures and 85 backbench MPs, and the party’s records nationally and locally, including the records of more than 200 local Conservative Associations in England, Scotland and Wales – research on the party has never been conducted on this scale before, especially at the local level.

It also has a unique analysis of Conservative electoral support based upon the occupational data from the 1931 census.

Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945 is published by Oxford University Press, priced at £85. More details can be found here:


Notes to Editors:

For more information please contact Professor Stuart Ball:


tel: 0116-252-2587

School of Historical Studies

University Road

University of Leicester

Leicester LE1 7RH

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