As political commentators come to grips with “Mayism” and the political brain behind it, May’s joint-chief of staff Nicky Timothy, there has been much discussion regarding the legacy of his hero Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain, however, is not the Late Victorian politician Theresa May most resembles. May appears to be in a similar mould to Lord Salisbury who was the architect of the political realignment which allowed the Conservatives to dominate the late nineteenth century.
Lord Salisbury was the first Conservative to recognise a major social trend in British politics. Since the early 1870s there had been a growing number of suburban, middle class, Anglican voters moving from the Liberals to the Conservatives. Lord Salisbury exploited this by demanding a redistribution of seats bill in exchange for allowing William Gladstone’s reform bill to pass through the Conservative controlled House of Lords in 1884. Crucially, the Redistribution of Seats Act separated suburban and inner city areas into different constituencies, which in turn broke the Liberals’ hold over urban borough seats. The new suburban seats shifted the electoral balance of power decisively towards the Conservatives.
Growing middle class support for the Conservatives was then given a shot of adrenaline by the Liberal schism over Gladstone’s Home Rule scheme for Ireland in 1886. The Liberal Unionists left on the grounds on that Home Rule would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament and lead to the disintegration of the Union. There was also a growing uneasiness with the rise of radical collectivism in the Liberal Party, which would come to the fore in the party’s 1891 Newcastle Programme.
There was no guarantee that the Liberal Unionists who joined the Conservatives would not return at some point to the Liberal party. This delicate alliance could not have endured and thrived without the statesmanship of Lord Salisbury. He was able to draw together the two parties, first through informal cooperation in 1886 to 1892, then a formal coalition in 1895 to 1902. Conservatives and Liberal Unionists would use their shared patriotism and hostility to radical collectivism as the ideological foundation for their successful electoral appeal to the middle classes as well as their eventual merger in 1912.
The Conservatives have changed many times since then. Britain fought two world wars, lost her empire and gained the welfare state. It is inevitable that a successful party should look very different after a century. That being said, there are some features which are fundamental to the Conservative party’s identity. First and foremost, it is a patriotic party. Conservatism’s popularity and success has always depended on preserving the prestige, security, and identity of the United Kingdom. That is how Lord Salisbury was able to assemble a successful electoral coalition in defence of the Union.
In 2017 the Conservatives face a similar moment of realignment. Brexit has caused a schism in British politics which could allow May to cleave the working-class vote away from an unpopular Labour party led by a widely distrusted leader, and attract the unionist vote in Scotland against the SNP. By promising a patriotic pro-Brexit and pro-Union government, May is emulating the Conservative leader who did so much to found the party she leads today.