Monday, December 21, 2009

Fears of socialism 100 years ago

I have to confess to finding Facebook quite useful and interesting but I don’t know what Tory Historian would think of that. The friends and contacts one makes are more varied and, above all, further flung in the world than they would be in the ordinary course of existence. After all, is it any different from those correspondences so dear to the heart of all intellectuals and wannabe intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century? Or the pen-pals of one’s youth?

Then there is all the information other people have found out and posted as their status update: all one needs to do is to follow it up. That is what I did with the poster reproduced above. Produced in 1909, it showed very graphically what the Conservative Party wanted people to think of socialism.

My first reaction was a slight surprise: did the Conservatives view the Labour Party in 1909 as the primary enemy? Surely not. It was not even clear that the upstart movement would get anywhere far in British politics, let alone become one of the two leading parties. In the Lib-Lab pact of 1906, Labour was the junior partner.

Somebody (also on Facebook) suggested that perhaps it was fear of ideas and immigrants coming in from Russia. Hmmm. Those immigrants were not in a position to strangle prosperity in Britain.

There was nothing for it but to trace matters back. First of all, through the Conservative Party Archives, I found an excellent source of material, to wit a collection of political posters. One could spend many hours looking at these and working out the details.

Generously but also sensibly the posters are available for downloading and reproduction, as long as it is not done for commercial purposes and proper accreditation is given. I can safely say that no commercial benefit accrues to me from this or any other blog and I always give proper accreditation. As does Tory Historian.

So there we are: this comes from the Conservative Party Archive Poster Collection, to be found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is number 1909/10-14

The collection starts with a poster from 1883 but comes into its own in the year 1909. Partly this was the outcome of better printing and lithograph techniques but there was also a political reason. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon say this in “The Conservative Party – An Illustrated History”:
Radical threats have always galvanised Conservatives to mobilise support through the best means available at the time. The great reforming Liberal administration of Asquith and Lloyd George after 1906 provided one such challenge, with the defeated Conservative Party entering one of its most fratricidal periods in opposition, the new ‘legion of leagues’ spared no time in spreading their message to the electorate through a concerted campaign of leafleting and billboard posters. The Budget Protest League thus waged a fierce war of words against Lloyd George’s far-reaching 1909 budget, as well as launching a series of soften witty cartoon posters.
That is not a particularly well written paragraph but the gist of it is clear. In response to the 1909 budget, which was remarkably similar to suggestions made by the Labour politician, Philip Snowden, the Conservatives or, at least, activists who were clear-sighted enough to form the Budget Protest League, launched a ferocious but very clever attack on what they saw as the beginning of socialism in Britain. And who is to say they were wrong?

The campaign was not altogether unsuccessful as the Conservatives, catastrophically defeated in 1906, recovered a good deal of their support in the two 1910 elections but the King’s death and the subsequent fight over the House of Lords rather than the implications of higher taxation and redistribution turned the political process against them.

To this day it is a rare historian who wonders whether those opponents of the “great reforming administration” might not have had a point. Then again, it was a Conservative government under Balfour that abolished school boards, replacing them with the Local Education Authorities in 1902. And we have never looked back.


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