In the course of his budget speech this week the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, placed himself within a tradition of reforming Conservative politicians. As he said in his budget speech:
It was the Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills … took great steps towards state education … introduced equal votes for women … gave working people the right to buy, and it’s now the Conservatives who are transforming welfare and introducing the national living wage. This is the party for the working people of Britain.
Osborne was not exaggerating, Conservative governments have often been at the forefront of legislative change aimed at transforming the lives of ordinary people.
But the party’s relationship with reform draws on two potentially contradictory traditions within British Conservatism: Tory Democracy, which dominated the 19th century and anti-state Conservatism which has held sway since the 1970s.
The democratic tradition
The Tory Democrat tradition saw the state as a means to defend tradition, the social order, religious conformity and gender relations. Thus Conservatives such as Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury were instrumental in promoting factory reform in the 1839s and 1840s because many were hostile to factories and the disruption to the social order instigated by modern capitalism and its liberal advocates.
The nationalisation of primary education instituted by Arthur James Balfour in 1902 was designed, in part, to ease the financial burden on the Church of England without reducing their power. The 1944 Butler Act effectively enshrined the social order into the new secondary system while simultaneously relieving the middle classes of much of the cost of a grammar school education.
Conversely the right to buy and the new National Living Wage exemplify the post-consensus, anti-state brand of conservatism which, since Margaret Thatcher, has seen the state as a potential impediment to individual development and responsibility. In this tradition the state should act as an enabler, not a provider, and should not take sides, but hold the ring between the different social and economic interests in society.
The right to buy council houses and the privatisation of state industries typify this approach. These policies aimed to give working people a tangible stake in society rather than the nebulous benefits of public ownership which were effectively cast as inefficient, expensive, authoritarian and a brake on personal improvement. Osborne’s plan to transfer the responsibility for low earnings from a tax-funded state benefit system to regulated wages fits firmly within this anti-statist brand of Tory ideology.
A third brand
There is, however, a third brand of social reformist Conservatism which held sway for much of the 20th century: Chamberlainism. In 1886, divisions over Ireland saw the Conservative party transformed by an influx of Liberal Unionists led by the urban radical Joseph Chamberlain, former mayor of Birmingham.
This Chamberlainite influence led to intervention in the workplace, health, housing and education.
Policies inaugurated by members of the family (Joseph had two sons in politics – Austen, who was foreign secretary, and Neville who was minister of health, chancellor of the exchequer and ultimately prime minister) or shaped by the political culture of Birmingham included:
• The 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act which made it easier for workers to receive compensation when injured at work.
• The 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act allowing local authorities to build homes as well as initiate area clearance projects.
• The 1923 Housing Act, known as the Chamberlain Act after Neville Chamberlain, minister of health for much of the 1920s. This act focused on subsidies to private builders to build low-cost houses for sale underpinning a massive house-building programme.
• The abolition of the Poor Law by Neville Chamberlain in the 1929 Local Government Act. One of the most significant and under-rated reforms of the interwar period, the act transferred the bulk of poor law responsibilities to local authorities, removed the concept of less eligibility, ended the idea of pauperism and, in many places, extended significantly institutional healthcare provision.
• The Hospital Plan of 1962, developed by minister of health Enoch Powell, a Birmingham MP and admirer of Chamberlain. The plan unleashed a huge hospital building programme after more than 20 years of capital shortage in the NHS.
• The Robbins Report into Higher Education, published in 1963 and accepted by minister of education, Sir Edward Boyle, MP for Birmingham Handsworth. The report recommended a significant increase in university places that “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”.
This strand of working class unionism – popular in Scotland, East London and the West Midlands – was at the heart of 20th-century consensus Conservatism. But its faith in an active state was swept away by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s – and with it a meaningful Conservative presence in Scotland.
So Osborne’s budget is undoubtedly within a reformist Conservative tradition, although across 175 years the social, economic and political ends the party has sought through such reforms have changed markedly. Yet it is possible, indeed probable in all this, that the one constant has been electoral calculation – a desire to “dish the whigs” and consolidate power once in office.