It is exactly a hundred years since the Party Conference last took place in Manchester.
Back then in 1909 the older delegates would have recalled a remarkable, sudden surge in Conservative support in the Lancashire constituencies forty years earlier which had ended a long period of Liberal domination and greatly increased the Party leadership’s interest in the politics of the north-west.
Disraeli himself, who rarely spoke outside Parliament, journeyed to Manchester in April 1872. Sustained by two bottles of white brandy poured into an ordinary water glass, he addressed a vast meeting in the Free Trade Hall for over three hours at the age of sixty-eight.
Then, as now, the Tories were in opposition facing a government that was visibly disintegrating. ‘Extravagance was being substituted for energy by the Government’, Disraeli said, before launching a famous attack which resonates today. ‘The ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest’. By contrast a new Conservative government would know where its duty lay:’ the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people’.
Disraeli did not return to address the first Party Conference held in Manchester four years later, but it followed exactly the course that it would have wanted during its one-day proceedings held in the Town Hall on 25 October 1876. Disraeli’s policies for better health and other welfare measures were designed to strengthen the Conservatives’ position as the Party representing the whole nation. The first Manchester Conference sent him most encouraging news about ‘ the enormous development of Conservative feeling in the ranks of the working men, which has led to the establishment in all parts of the country of vigorous organisations formed and conducted by artisans’. The Conference noted that, since Disraeli’s speech in 1872, the total number of Conservative associations had more than doubled to nearly 800 with new working men’s associations making a healthy contribution to the total.
In those days the annual Party Conference was almost always held in one of the great industrial or urban centres, again emphasising the Party’s one nation stance which brought it support from all social classes. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in industrial Lancashire where at the 1885 election the Conservatives won 38 of the county’s 58 seats, including all but one of Manchester’s six constituencies. They remained well entrenched in the heartland of the cotton industry when the Conference returned to Manchester twice in quick succession in 1902 and 1909; though on the second occasion the Party’s fortunes in the area were in temporary eclipse.
Hopes were high, however, that ground would be recovered at the imminent general election, precipitated by the clash between Commons and Lords over Lloyd George’s so-called ‘ People’s Budget’, denounced by the Tories as a flagrant example of class warfare since it introduced a new super tax on the rich and set the scene for a land tax. The forthcoming campaign dominated the minds of the delegates– some 1,000 of them–during the two-day Conference at the Midland Hotel. They were told that ‘millions of leaflets, pamphlets, posters and cartoons’ had already been sent to constituencies.
That pre-election Conference one hundred years ago closed with a rousing speech from a Mr Howell, a local Manchester delegate. He called on the Conference to ‘ pledge itself to a democratic and national line of policy…it was now for the Party to prove that it was above all Parties the Party of the British people’–sentiments that were greeted with ‘ loud cheers’ and ‘ much enthusiasm’. It is on the basis of Disraeli’s definition of Conservatism as an unending campaign to unite all sections of the community that the Party’s success has always been built.
This article draws on material in the Party’s Archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Visit the Archive’s Stand at Conference where Jeremy McIiwaine, the Party’s dedicated Archivist, will have a range of interesting items–including posters and mugs–on display. Copies of Alistair Cooke’s recent publications will be on sale at the Stand.