The parties and Europe 2: Conservatives and Maastricht

Earlier this week we delved in to our oral history archive to discover the divisions within the Labour Party over Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1970s. In today’s blogpost, we’ve returned to our archive to uncover memories of the struggle to ratify the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, and the resulting impact on the Conservative Party.

The Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992. It created the European Union out of the previous European Economic Community and put in place the infrastructure for a single currency. John Major, Prime Minister and Conservative leader, agreed the Treaty on the understanding that the UK could opt out of particular sections, such as the ‘Social Chapter’ agenda for workplace legislation and the Euro itself. It was only after the 1992 General Election – a surprising victory for the Conservatives – that the split over the treaty became evident. September’s ‘Black Wednesday’, when currency speculation forced the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism at an estimated cost of £3.4billion, made the situation worse. The Treaty itself came under increasingly scrutiny, and opposition emerged from the Conservative back benches.

John Major’s government was determined to ratify the treaty through legislation in the House of Commons, and during 1992 and 1993 faced an uphill struggle from a group of Conservatives determined to block UK agreement. Several of these rebels, including Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Rochford and Southend East, and James Cran, MP for Beverley, had opposed British entry into the EEC in 1975. As the government geared up to pass the Maastricht legislation, opponents began to organise, as described here by James Cran:

Indeed, the Whips knew that they had a significant battle on their hands, especially as the Conservative majority in the Commons was only small and reduced further thanks to by-election defeats. To pass the legislation the government was forced to take tough measures, including classing some parts of the legislation as votes of confidence, some of which were only narrowly won. There were plenty of stories about the whips bullying people to support the government on the bill. In his interview, Timothy Kirkhope, who was a party whip at the time, argued that in his view the MPs had agreed to party discipline when they had accepted the Conservative party nomination for Parliament.

The tactics worked on enough Conservative MPs to pass the legislation, after some close shaves, but not after an uphill battle, as described here by rebel  and MP for Stroud Roger Knapman:

Although the legislation passed, later rebellions saw nine Conservative members either having the party whip withdrawn or resigning it. For Sir Richard Body, MP for Holland and Boston, this was a period he enjoyed:

Whilst opinions were mixed, several of the Maastricht rebels we have interviewed were proud of their stand. James Cran argued: “It certainly stunted one’s political career…but you’re not there to become an unremembered, anonymous Parliamentary secretary. I was proud of all of that.”  For many others in the party, however, sympathy for the rebels was in short supply. Timothy Kirkhope described other Conservatives becoming “progressively irritated” by the “antics” of the rebels, and others simply stated that they could not have voted against their party, as described here by James Couchman:

It turned out, as Roger Knapman said above, to be a “terrible” time for the Conservatives, and had a significant impact on their electoral chances in 1997.


Click here to read our earlier EU Referendum post, ‘The Parties and Europe 1: Labour and the 1975 Referendum‘.

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The Parties and Europe 1: Labour and the 1975 Referendum

The European Referendum campaign is now in full swing, creating heated political debate and causing some unusual alliances. In British politics, however, the issue of Europe and Britain’s role in it has been long-running and divisive for both the Labour and Conservative parties. The issue features prominently in our interviews with former MPs for our oral history archive. In the first of two blogs on Europe and the parties based on our archive, here we explore divisions in the Labour party in the early 1970s.

In 1970 the Conservatives won the general election, and Prime Minister Ted Heath began a major diplomatic effort to join the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market. Even after successful negotiations at the European level, passing the legislation would remain difficult for Heath’s government.

Although opposition to joining the EEC could be found in both parties, throughout this period the largest internal divisions were found in the Labour party. Two polarised and outspoken groups emerged: on the party’s left, a group led by figures such as Tony Benn opposed the EEC on economic grounds, believing it would impact on Labour’s plans for a more planned economy; on the party’s right, an enthusiastic pro-European group supported entry both for ideological and economic reasons, led by Roy Jenkins. One of this group, Dick Taverne, even resigned the Labour whip on the issue [see our blog: ‘Defection, by-elections and Europe… in the 1970s’ ].

Ted Heath’s legislation saw Labour MPs joining forces with the Conservatives on both sides of the debate. David Stoddart, MP for Swindon who opposed joining, remembered working directly with the Conservatives to oppose legislation:

David Owen, then a member of the shadow cabinet, remembered the manoeuvres on the pro-EEC side to ensure that the Bill passed:

With this help Heath passed the legislation, despite needing 300 hours of Commons debate to pass the 1972 the European Communities Bill, and the UK joined the EEC.

By the 1974 election therefore, Labour leader Harold Wilson was left with a divided party. He solved this by giving in to the demands of the anti-Europeans in his party and included a promise of a referendum in Labour’s election manifesto. This earnt him praise from some in his party, such as his PPS Frank Judd, who at that time opposed the common market. He remembered that Wilson “understood and respected that point of view,” and was pleased to be able to discuss the issue with Wilson openly whilst keeping his job. The decision to hold a referendum however angered many of the pro-Europeans. David Owen said it was “blatant manoeuvring” and Robert Maclennan, MP for Caithness and Sutherland, it was a party political move he “couldn’t stomach”. Along with Jenkins and these two, a number of MPs resigned from the Shadow Cabinet on the issue.

Yet the Referendum proved a success for the pro-Europeans, when the country voted convincingly to remain part of the EEC. Ray Carter, MP for Birmingham Northfield, remembered the change of opinion in his constituency:

For those had campaigned against the UK staying in, however, the result was a significant disappointment, and did not stop their opposition. In this clip Frank Judd remembers drifting apart from his friend and political ally Tony Benn because of the vote:

Unfortunately for Wilson, the Referendum had failed to resolve the issue within the Labour party. It  became part of larger divisions between left and right in the 1980s, and helped cause one group to leave Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (see our blog: Labour leadership elections through the years). Yet by the 1990s it was the Conservative party who were most at war with themselves over Europe, as we’ll discuss in a post later this week…


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Peers on Parade: A Sartorial History of the State Opening of Parliament

Today’s guestblog is from Dr Charles Farris, University of Westminster, who discusses the history of the ceremonial attire worn at the State Opening of Parliament…

Today is the State Opening of Parliament, an event which, for over 500 years, has served as a symbolic reminder of the unity of Parliament’s three parts: the Sovereign; the House of Lords; and the House of Commons. The ceremony marks the formal opening of parliament and the beginning of the parliamentary session.

One of the most striking aspects of the Opening is the rich array of ceremonial attire worn by many of the participants. The Lords wear parliamentary robes of red scarlet cloth, trimmed with three-inch wide white ermine bars, and two-inch wide gold oak leaf lace. The number of bars are determined by each peer’s rank – four for a Duke ; three and a half for a Marquess; three for an Earl; two and a half for a Viscount and two for a Baron. The judges are easily distinguishable in their wigs. The Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard are similarly discernible in their scarlet tunics, breeches and stockings, and black flat hats. Most striking of all is the Queen who wears the Imperial State Crown and the Parliamentary Robe of State which includes an 18ft-long crimson velvet cape, lined with ermine and trimmed with gold lace. The Opening of Parliament in its current form dates from 1852. However, many aspects of the ceremony are much older including the robes worn by the monarch and peers.

2015 State Opening of Parliament – UK Parliament Flickr

One early description comes to us from Lupold Von Wedel, a German visitor to England in the 1580s. Wedel had a keen eye for fashion and observed Queen Elizabeth I on several occasions – always noting her attire. For example, on one occasion he witnessed the queen leaving chapel at Hampton Court, observing that she dressed all in black on account of the death of the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Alencon. He later recalled the parliamentary procession of 1584 noting that Elizabeth I arrived in a coach which looked like a half covered bed, sat upon a chair and cushions of gold and silver cloth. She wore a ‘long red velvet parliamentary mantle, down to the waist, lined with ermine, white with little black dots, and a crown on her head.’ This is strikingly similar to the crown and cape worn by the monarch today. Wedel also described a visit to the Palace of Whitehall where he saw ‘long red velvet coats, lined and faced with costly white fur.’ noting ‘Such coats and caps are for the gentlemen of Parliament.’

Wriothesley Garter book

Opening of Parliament 1523 – Wriothesley Garter Book (c. 1530)

For the reign of Henry VIII, both documentary and pictorial evidence survives. In 1533 Eustace Chapuys, a Savoyard diplomat and Imperial ambassador, wrote to the Emperor Charles V describing the parliament of February 1533. Chapuys commented that: ‘The king went to the house of parliament…the lords dressed like the king in their scarlet parliament robes.’ Thanks to the Wriothesley Garter Book, now in the Royal Collection, we have a contemporary image of these robes too. The Garter Book, which was written in the 1530s, includes an image of the opening of the Blackfriars parliament of 15 April 1523.  Not only does this image clearly show Henry VIII in an ermine trimmed robe but the Lords’ scarlet robes unmistakably featured varying numbers of white bars – surely depicting their rank as today.

These stylistic details can be traced back further into the fifteenth century too. The foundation charter of King’s College Cambridge, dating from 16 March 1446, shows both Henry VI in his ermine trimmed robes and the Lords in scarlet robes marked with various numbers of bars. A similar image is also found on the foundation Charter of Eton College.

Evidence from the fourteenth century is scarcer. However, a Livery Roll dating from 1360-2 [TNA, E101/393/15] might offer a clue to the origins of the monarch’s parliamentary garb. Within the account is a section recording the issue of cloth to the John Marreys, Edward III’s tailor, one entry reads:

To the same (the tailor) for two cloaks for the same Lord King for the parliament held at Westminster against the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (2 February) this year (1358) made and fur-lined by the hand of Cornwall – 5½ ells long green Brussels cloth; 5½ ells long white cloth; 1 cloak of 960 pured miniver bellies; 1 ell of narrow gold ribbon

Except for the cloaks being green (or possibly one green and one white), rather than crimson, this description could very well apply to the cape worn by the Queen today. Given the number of years which have passed it should not surprise us that there have been subtle alterations. Nonetheless, it is striking that the regalia worn by the Queen in parliament today may well have been the brain-child of her Plantagenet progenitor as far back as the 1350s. Edward III, who had a keen eye for pageantry, nurtured a closer relationship with parliament than any of his predecessors. It would surely have pleased him greatly that, over 650 years later, his current successor nurtures this relationship still – and does so in remarkably similar attire.


Further Reading

  • Cobb, H. S., ‘Descriptions of the State Opening of Parliament, 1485-1601: A Survey’ Parliamentary History, 18: 3 (1999), pp. 303-315
  • Hawkyard, A. and Hayward, M., ‘The Dressing and Trimming of the Parliamentary Chamber, 1509-58’ Parliamentary History, 29: 2 (2010), pp. 229-237
  • Peacey, J., ‘The Street Theatre of State: The Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, 1603-60’, Parliamentary History, 34: 1 (2015), pp. 155-172
  • Powell, J. E. and Wallis, K, The House of Lords in the Middle Ages (London, 1968)

Dr Farris is currently working on the Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Royal Wardrobe Accounts Project at the University of Westminster. You can see the project blog here


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Parliaments, politics and people seminar: Chris Kyle, ‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England

At our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, Chris Kyle, of Syracuse University, spoke on  ‘‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England’. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

John Taylor, the Water Poet, named three Lenten enemies – a dog, a butcher and a Puritan. Taylor was no doubt correct but the the truth of the matter is that Lent found few friends in early modern England. In 1538, in the midst of the Reformation in England, Henry VIII, now Supreme Head of the Church, decided to intervene in the ecclesiastical calendar and provide new Lenten regulations. His intervention which relaxed some of the more stringent dietary prohibitions was not hastened by any religious change of heart but born out of a socio-economic problem – the skyrocketing price of fish during Lent and the consequent starvation of the poor. From here on in, until the last Lenten proclamation of 1664, the matter of Lent became a battleground of warring economic and regional factions, disruptive religious ideologues, exasperated government officials, and parliamentary intervention. Adding to the problem was the widespread evasion of the regulations both by the lower classes priced out of the Lenten market and the wealthier segment of society able to buy their way out. The paper traced the changing nature of Lenten proclamations, privy council orders and local regulations. In doing so it highlighted the inability of the state to enforce its will on a reluctant population despite incessant cajoling, the evolving severity of Lenten punishments, failed attempts to devolve authority to the localities and the clash between the remnants of ‘Popish’ rituals and the new Protestant emphasis on state-sanctioned fast days.

These proclamations on Lent quickly became a deeply resented intrusion into the daily lives of citizens for the forty days of abstinence from flesh and a matter of sustained parliamentary protest throughout the 1620s. Until 1619 the Jacobean government regulated Lent through a rote series of Privy Council orders which while obeyed in theory were largely ignored in practice. That year two strict proclamations were issued that quickly changed the game. Now partaking of flesh, killing or serving meat became a matter subject to an appearance in Star Chamber and punitive sureties were required of all victuallers, poulterers and butchers. These proclamations were now promulgated annually and draconian attempts at enforcement were made. The purpose of this state regulated Lenten fast was to ensure that people consumed fish during Lent. This would, according to the government, increase the number involved in the fishing industry and thus help to maintain the navy in times of crisis. But it failed in part due to the problems of supply and demand. There simply was not enough fish to feed the population. Furthermore, fish was widely regarded as having no nutritional value whatsoever, and in the case of the staple English foodstuff, salted red herrings, of tasting like chewing old leather.

In 1664 the Restoration government abandoned the 126 year-old tradition of Lenten proclamations. It was simply unenforceable, deeply unpopular, and came with a heavy administrative burden. The experiment of state regulation of the Lenten fast had failed.


Join us tonight for the next in our Parliaments, politics and people seminar – our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, will speak on ‘Mr Marvell goes to Westminster: the poet as parliament-man.’  Full details here.

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Impeachment in the early seventeenth century

After an all-night debate, the Brazilian Senate voted today to begin impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Impeachment was once a powerful tool for MPs in our own parliament. Here Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-1660 section, discusses the 17th century revival of impeachment…

Impeachment was a judicial procedure, carried out in the name of the king, whereby those suspected of serious misconduct in office were accused by the House of Commons and judged by the House of Lords. It first emerged towards the end of the reign of Edward III, in 1376, when it was used to attack the Lord Chamberlain, William, 4th Lord Latimer. It originated in a well-established procedure in the common law courts, whereby a group of litigants would lay a single charge in the King’s name. Penalties for those judged guilty included loss of office, fines and imprisonment. However, this important parliamentary power fell into disuse with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth century, when serious political differences tended to be resolved on the battlefield rather than in parliament. It remained dormant for the next 170 years, during which time it lay forgotten. Under Henry VIII, unpopular ministers, like Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley in 1509 and Thomas Cromwell in 1540, faced not impeachment but the block, the victims of trumped up charges of treason. However, it was rediscovered in 1619, during the Star Chamber trial of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, who had been dismissed as Lord Treasurer the previous year on grounds of corruption.

Many contemporaries were shocked at the forcible removal of Suffolk from office. There was a widespread assumption that offices were akin to personal property, and that senior crown ministers had tenure for life. In view of this disquiet, it became an important purpose of Suffolk’s trial to demonstrate that the king had acted reasonably in dismissing his lord treasurer. This task fell to one of the chief prosecutors in the case, Sir Edward Coke, who, having himself been sacked as Lord Chief Justice of King’s Bench three years earlier for misconduct, was only too eager to do the King’s bidding, in the hope that success might revive his flagging career, and even pave the way for him to succeed Suffolk as lord treasurer. During the trial, Coke set out to prove that many previous treasurers had been punished ‘legally and judicially’ for wasting or misspending the King’s treasure. In so doing, he cited numerous precedents, many of them of doubtful validity, among them one he gleaned from the medieval parliament rolls. It concerned William, 4th Lord Latimer, who was impeached by the parliament of 1376 for selling licences exempting merchants from the Calais staple, and for organizing loans to the king at extortionate rates of interest.

Although the Latimer precedent served its immediate purpose of helping to silence the crown’s critics, Coke was not slow to grasp its wider importance. When parliament met in 1621 he revealed what he had discovered to the House of Commons, of which he was now a member after an interval of 28 years. His ostensible objective was to solve the problem of what to do about two notorious monopolists, Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Michell. As early as 1610 the Commons, unaware of the power of impeachment, had been seeking in vain to punish those royal officials and others whose activities they considered injurious to the commonwealth. Coke, drawing upon his findings in the Suffolk case, now revealed that, in the medieval period, the Commons had ‘often resorted to the Lords for judicature’. In so doing, he set in train parliamentary legal proceedings against the two hated monopolists. However, it seems likely that Coke, in revealing to the Commons the power of impeachment, had an ulterior purpose in mind: the destruction of his great rival, the Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. Coke had long hated Bacon, who had prospered following Coke’s fall from office, and by 1621 there were rumours that complaints of bribery were being prepared by the enemies of the Lord Chancellor for presentation to parliament. Since Coke had now given up hope of recovering high office, he probably had few qualms about revealing to the Commons the existence of a power which could now be turned upon Bacon who, ironically, had warmly approved of Coke’s use of precedents during the Suffolk trial. His tactics certainly paid dividends, as Bacon was subsequently forced from office and barred from every sitting in parliament again.

The revival of impeachment had a profound effect on the parliamentary landscape of the 1620s. Quite apart from adding a powerful weapon to the political arsenal, it breathed new life into the House of Lords, which for many years had lived in the shadow of the Commons. It quickly became clear that impeachment was just as much a political weapon as it was a judicial tool. When Lord Treasurer Middlesex refused to support war with Spain in 1624, he was impeached on charges of bribery and embezzlement at the behest of the King’s chief minister, the Duke of Buckingham. However, the Commons’ attempts to use impeachment to bring to book those they hated ultimately failed. In 1626 they accused Buckingham of mismanaging the war with Spain, of feathering his own nest at the expense of the crown, and even of helping to bring about the death of the late King, James I, but the Duke not only rebutted these charges but also tightened his grip on the Lords, forcing the Commons to change tack and present a remonstrance to the King calling for his removal. Two years later, in 1628, the Commons impeached the rector of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, Roger Manwaring, for preaching in favour of the Forced Loan (a tax levied without the consent of parliament). Judged guilty, Manwaring was fined, imprisoned, excluded from office and suspended from the ministry for three years. However, as soon as the session ended he was pardoned by the king who, in 1636, elevated him to a bishopric. The Commons had no more luck in 1641, when Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was tried for treason by parliament. Strafford put up such a convincing defence that the Commons were obliged instead to proceed by Act of Attainder – the same weapon used to destroy Thomas Cromwell a century earlier. Clearly, impeachment was only valuable when it enjoyed royal support, and under Charles I that support evaporated.


This blog is taken from Andrew’s forthcoming article, ‘The fall of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, and the revival of impeachment in the Parliament of 1621.’

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Electioneering in Sheffield Brightside… in 1897

Today voters across the country go to the polls. In Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, electors will choose their new MP after the death of Harry Harpham in February. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, discusses the Sheffield Brightside by-election of 1897 and the electoral culture of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period…

With numerous election contests taking place around the country today – local council elections in England, police and crime commissioner elections, elections for the mayor of London and the London Assembly, as well as elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly – many homes will have been receiving election leaflets through their doors. In one constituency, Sheffield Brightside, voters may have received more than most, with a parliamentary by-election also taking place on 5 May.

It seems unlikely, however, that Sheffield Brightside’s electors will have been inundated with quite as many election leaflets and pamphlets as their predecessors in the constituency were almost 120 years earlier. In August 1897, a by-election took place following the death of the veteran Liberal MP Anthony Mundella. He had represented Sheffield since 1868, and had served in three Liberal ministries, most recently as President of the Board of Trade. In his place, Brightside’s Liberals selected Fred Maddison, who had been president of the TUC in 1886, and had unsuccessfully stood for Hull Central in 1892 and 1895. His Conservative opponent, James Fitzalan Hope, was also experienced in electioneering, having stood for the Elland division of the West Riding in 1892 and for Pontefract in 1895.

Henry Joseph Wilson, By Unknown (artist not specifically credited by Black and White publishing company)(Life time: not applicable) - Original publication: Unknown, but created c1885Immediate source: "Black & White" Parliamentary Album 1895, PD-US,

Henry Joseph Wilson, by Unknown, c.1885

At one house in Brightside, 42 different items of election literature were received during the 1897 contest. Ironically, we know this thanks to a non-elector, Charlotte Wilson, who collected copies of all the material which came to her family’s home, Osgathorpe Hills. Charlotte was the wife of Henry Joseph Wilson, MP for Holmfirth and a leading figure in the Sheffield Liberal party. She did the same at the 1900 general election, when she gathered 30 items. Victorious in 1897, Maddison was ousted in 1900 by Hope, as his pro-Boer views proved unpopular at the so-called ‘khaki’ election. Maddison’s election agent at the 1900 contest, Claude Moore, assembled three scrapbooks of material – including election literature and newspaper cuttings – relating to the 1900, 1906 and 1910 contests. By 1906 Maddison had abandoned Sheffield to be returned as Labour MP for Burnley, but his Liberal successor, John Tudor Walters, an architect, won the Brightside seat, which he represented until 1922.

Taken together, these collections provide many fascinating insights into late Victorian and Edwardian election literature. Perhaps most interesting are some of the differences from the material typically distributed by the parties today. Both the sheer amount and the variety of the literature are striking. Moore’s scrapbook from 1900 showed that the 30 items collected by Charlotte Wilson were far from all the material in circulation in Brightside. As well as being delivered to houses, election leaflets were handed out at election meetings, in the streets and at the factory gates, and posters were displayed on hoardings and at election committee-rooms. Half of Maddison’s spending on his 1900 campaign was on the printing and distribution of leaflets, handbills, pamphlets, posters and cartoons, together with other election stationery. This was in keeping with the country as a whole – on average, candidates in England and Wales devoted 45% of their total expenditure in 1900 to this aspect of electioneering.

One method used by these candidates to communicate their political message was the local election song. The ditty composed for Maddison in 1897 was entitled ‘Maddison for Brightside and the People’. In 1906, Brightside’s inhabitants were urged to ‘Vote, vote, vote, for Tudor Walters’, in a song set to the tune of ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching’. This was a popular choice for adaptation for electioneering purposes, as were ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Men of Harlech’.

Two thousand copies of ‘Vote, vote, vote, for Tudor Walters’ were distributed to children in Brightside, and they were also targeted with small versions of the candidate’s photograph. In 1910, photo cards were again printed specifically for distribution to children, bearing the slogan, ‘Vote for Walters and no tax on the children’s bread’. Such items are a reminder of the ways in which election contests became a community event, incorporating non-electors alongside electors. This had been most evident in the days of the hustings and open voting before 1872, but remained significant in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

With the political parties playing a key role in the registration of voters before 1918, they often acquired detailed knowledge not only regarding each elector’s political views, but also his occupation and economic circumstances. This enabled the candidates to target voters with literature appealing to their particular interests. In 1900, a specially written pamphlet on ‘Mr. Maddison and the Railway Workers’ was sent to those employed in this industry. Members of different religious groups and supporters of the temperance cause were among those to whom particular leaflets were directed.

While much of the Brightside election literature sought to convey a serious political message, with topics such as free trade to the fore, there was some more light-hearted material, as well as decorative items intended to catch the eye and be put on display. One handbill circulated on polling day in 1906 depicted the candidates as rival horses in the ‘Brightside Handicap’, with their jockeys being ‘Free Trade’ and the ‘Little Loaf’. The Conservative candidate, J. F. Hope, used an acrostic to put across his views on his poll card:

Justice for our Working Men;

Fair Trade Promoted;

Home Industries Encouraged;

Open Markets for our Goods;

Poverty diminished;

Employment increased.

The most popular item among Brightside’s voters in 1900 – described by the Liberal election agent as ‘the HIT of the election’ – had very little to do with the appeal of the local candidate or indeed the issues of the day. It was a decorative picture card, featuring a portrait of Gladstone with the motto ‘Forget Me Not’. This design, intended for use in any constituency, was over-printed in red with the slogan, ‘Vote for Maddison and the Liberalism of the Grand Old Man’. The ‘Grand Old Man’ had died in 1898, and had not led the Liberal party since 1894, but his name evidently had an enduring resonance for Victorian voters.


The H. J. Wilson papers, which include the Brightside election literature collated by Charlotte Wilson, are held by Sheffield Archives. Claude Moore’s cuttings relating to Brightside elections are held by Sheffield Local Studies Library.

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Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar: Peter Catterall, The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39

At our first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar of the term, Peter Catterall (University of Westminster) spoke on ‘The Free Churches and the Parliamentary Labour Party, c.1918-39‘. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

Did the Labour Party, in Morgan Phillips’ famous phrase, owe ‘more to Methodism than Marx’? After all, Nonconformity had historically been closely associated with Liberalism. A historic witness for liberty from an Erastian Church of England and the State had helped to produce that allegiance: indeed, the British Quarterly Review commented in 1862 ‘it may almost be said that there would be no Liberal party at all without Dissent’. This relationship arguably reached its apogee in 1906 when opposition to the 1902 Education Act produced a phalanx of Nonconformist candidates to fight and sometimes win in 1906 in seats that the Liberals in recent elections had tended to leave uncontested. According to the Christian World 163 Nonconformists were returned for English or Welsh constituencies. Reflecting the partisanship of the moment, they did not include in their list the handful of Free Churchmen returned that year as Tories.

The Christian World did, however, include those Nonconformists returned for Labour. Estimates of how many members of the first Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) were in fact Nonconformists vary between seven and eighteen out of thirty, depending on how churchmanship is defined. If, for instance, a Baptist is defined as someone who has undergone believer’s baptism and is in membership with a Baptist church, then inter-war Labour MPs like Arthur Greenwood (who clearly identified as Baptist) should be excluded. Such a definition might also exclude sermon-tasters, like Ramsay MacDonald, who regularly attended the services conducted by Congregationalist and socialist T. Rhondda Williams, or Ben Turner, who was cradled in Congregationalism and laced his parliamentary speeches with scripture. If a more inclusive definition of Free Churchmanship is used to include those who were occasional attenders and culturally Nonconformist then some 44% of inter-war Labour MPs fall into this category.

Their presence within the PLP declined through the period, so that only 20% of the cohort first elected in 1935 were Nonconformist. This, though, meant that Nonconformity was still disproportionately represented in the inter-war PLP. Their numbers reflected the way in which the chapels inculcated drive and ideals, speaking and organisational skills and a reputation for honesty in their adherents. The minority who acquired these attributes in the late nineteenth century could be highly prized in the trade union movement, even though they might also have personal characteristics (such as temperance) which separated them from the average working man.

Electorally, however, the working-men’s clubs (and particularly the CIU) and Catholicism were much more important as social bases for the Labour vote than Nonconformity. Nonconformists may have been a significant element within the PLP, but some characteristic emphases such as temperance were gradually dropped despite the protests of the Wesleyan lay preacher and party general secretary Arthur Henderson, who nearly resigned from the National Executive Committee over the issue in 1927. Individual Labour MPs, such as C. H. Wilson may have succeeded their Liberal counterparts as the parliamentary spokesmen on certain issues of direct concern to the Free Churches, as became apparent during the debates on the Tithes Act 1936. The generality of Labour Free Churchmen, however, were less committed on moral issues such as gambling or alcohol, while the structure of the party meant it was less easy for outside bodies like the Free Churches to influence it than had been the case with the more amorphous pre-1914 Liberal Party.

Accordingly, Nonconformity’s contribution to Labour was more in terms of personnel than of policies. There was, however, a contribution as well in terms of rhetoric and tone. The moral crusading tone adopted by the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’ of the late nineteenth century found its way from Free Church pulpits to Labour platforms. This rhetoric served to emphasize the righteousness of Labour’s cause. It was also used in a spirit of rivalry to claim Labour’s moral superiority over churches which had failed to heed their own message, inferring that the discarded mantle had fallen on the Labour Party. The Nonconformist Conscience was thus adapted to the needs of the party. Indeed, J. R. Clynes, who was claimed as a Congregationalist in the denominational press, was as Lord Privy Seal in the first Labour government of 1924 to reassure a churches’ deputation that the party’s policy was based upon the Sermon on the Mount.


Join us tonight for the next in our Parliaments, politics and people seminar – Chris Kyle (University of Syracuse) will speak on ‘‘A Dog, a Butcher and a Puritan’: The Politics of Lent in Early Modern England‘. Full details here.

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