A phone call from the Birmingham Council Leader’s office alerted me to the fact that this is not the first time the Conservative Party has decided to hold its annual conference in Birmingham. The Tory Council Leader wanted to know exactly when and in what circumstances did the previous events take place.
Well, naturally, my first port of call was John Barnes, who is a mine of information about the Conservative Party and its history. He knew, of course, and directed me to the books that could give me more information. Quite a story it is, too, as I put it together, using Andrew Roberts’s biography of Lord Salisbury, Robert Rhodes James’s biography of Lord Randolph Churchill and Richard Shannon’s “The Age of Salisbury”. Oh and a quick look at R. J. Q. Adams’s “Balfour”.
The story is quite fascinating and puts to pay the notion that somehow politics was a much more gentlemanly affair when it was run by “gentlemen”. The Salisbury/Northcote fight with Churchill was anything but gentlemanly. In the end, Churchill lost not because he was a nicer person but because, seduced by apparent party adulation, he could not envisage anybody outmanoeuvring him as Salisbury did. Lord Randolph Churchill, it seems, believed that he was indispensable – the most dangerous delusion any politician can have.
The National Union of Conservative Associations was founded in 1867 and held its first meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern in London on November 12 of that year. In 1868 they went to Birmingham and there were 7 people in attendance. By 1869, in Liverpool there were 36 delegates. And so it would have continued but for the disastrous Conservative defeat in 1880. As Robert Rhodes James puts it in his biography of Lord Randolph:
It is a monotonous feature of English politics that the defeated party in an election blames its organization for the débâcle. The Conservatives in 1880 were no exception to this rule.So they formed a Central Committee under Lord Beaconsfield’s auspices and this organization was put in charge of direction and management of party affairs, as well as the disbursement of party funds. Clearly, this did not please the National Union, who considered themselves to be the representatives of the real Conservative Party.
The real difficulty (and I hope people who know far more about Conservative Party politics will wade in here) is to work out what motivated Lord Randolph Churchill. He presented himself as the man who spoke for Tory democracy, for the working class members of the party, for all the various constituent groups against the “Carlton Club” elite, who wanted to run things the old way. (By the way, the forthcoming issue of the Conservative History Journal will have an article on the Carlton Club by the eminent expert Alistair Cooke.)
The idea of Lord Randolph as a representative of the working man or of anything resembling real democracy is slightly odd and one cannot help thinking that he viewed the National Union as a convenient ladder for his own advancement to the leadership, something that he most definitely desired, his rebellious attitude notwithstanding.
In 1882 the National Union began to articulate complaints about its inferior status in the party’s structure and in July 1883 Churchill was elected to its Council with the help of the Chairman’s casting vote. The Chairman was Lord Percy. There were several resignations, including that of Sir Stafford Northcote and Henry de Worms.
We come to the great Birmingham Conference of the National Union, the 17th, held in October 1883, when Lord Randolph Churchill, with the aid of fellow “Fourth Party” member, John Gorst, made his first serious attempt to take over the party.
The leadership sent Viscount Cranbrook to deal with the attack and, according to Richard Shannon, he did it rather well. Responding to Churchill’s fiery speech that accused the Central Committee of being inward looking and hostile to “working men” in the party as well as of financial mismanagement, Cranbrook raised the question of whom the National Union really represented – the constituencies or the affiliated organizations. He also denied any financial mismanagement and, it seems, that Churchill and his allies never managed to prove that. On the other hand, they did point out that the National Union had no funds to speak of.
In his diary Cranbrook referred to “Randolph Churchill’s Birmingham intrigues”, which is what it looked like to the Conservative leadership. The membership was more divided in its opinion. (In parenthesis one may render thanks for the fact that so many British politicians, however busy they may have been, kept consistent and detailed diaries. This is a fascinating subject all by itself that needs to be written about more.)
In December of that year Churchill became Chairman of the National Union’s Organisation Committee, though the method used was rather dubious, as it ought to have been Lord Percy and this may well have alienated some potential supporters.
Lord Randolph’s exemplar was Joseph Chamberlain’s National Liberal Foundation, which was prospering at this time to the point of taking over the party. Coincidentally, of course, Birmingham was Chamberlain’s power base.
Subsequent manoeuvrings, snipings and open warfare between Salisbury with his allies and Churchill with his allies did culminate in some sort of a compromise, under which the latter went through various ministerial appointments, once there was a Conservative government, ending with the Chancellorship.
In December 1886 Churchill over-reached himself and using a disagreement over proposed army and navy spending, offered his resignation, probably not anticipating its acceptance. Famously, he had forgotten about Goschen, who took over as Chancellor, though he was a Liberal Unionist.
That is not how it was supposed to develop from that Annual Conference in Birmingham in 1883.