Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
The latest decline in the Conservative Party’s fortunes has sparked interest in the possibility of the rise of new parties on the Right.
Groups like Reclaim, the Heritage Party, the now-Eurosceptic SDP, and Richard Tice’s Reform UK are currently discussing whether to form a grand coalition in preparation for the General Election. Coming in the wake of the success of both the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its Faragist successor, the Brexit Party, the prospects for moderate electoral success would appear reasonable.
Some commentators have argued that alternative right-wing parties were unknown in Britain before UKIP. This is not true. There is a long history of attempts to replace the Conservatives – but all ended in failure.
(Before examining past efforts, I would firstly state I define “Right” as those of either conservative or classical liberal beliefs. National Socialists and racial collectivists do not share those ideals and, therefore, cannot be placed in the same category.)
In August 1917, the same month that Germany launched the Passchendaele offensive, the National Party was formed by eight Conservative MPs, two Liberals, and eleven peers.
The National Party arose out of the circumstances of a nation at war. Since December 1916, Britain had been led by a coalition government comprised of Lloyd George’s Liberal supporters and the Conservatives. The official Opposition was now Asquith’s faction of the Liberal Party.
The Conservatives, for so long the Government’s critical opponents, were now expected to toe the line and obey the whip. This irritated the Tory Right, who still believed that Whitehall was inefficient in defeating the Central Powers. Disgruntled National Party members referred to the Conservatives as “defunct” and the Liberals as “discredited”.
The National Party was the brainchild of two MPs in particular, Sir Richard Cooper and the infamous Sir Henry Page Croft, who goes down in history as a tireless champion of reactionary grassroots politics. In the Edwardian era, he was at the founder of the Reveille movement, which attempted to swing Balfour’s Party to the Right.
He was not only a passionate advocate of Chamberlain’s Imperial Preference policy, but also a ruthless tactician for the Confederacy, a secret society dedicated to electing only protectionists as Conservative MPs. Croft led a largely successful campaign to persuade local Associations to deselect their Free-Trading MPs.
The National Party campaigned for “the eradication of German influence” by interning enemy aliens and closing their businesses. It supported raising the age of conscription to 50 and maintaining the unity of the Empire via tariffs. It attempted to encouraged working-class support by urging social reform, thus: “If you wish for a patriotic race, you must aim at a contented people, reared under healthy conditions and with full scope for advancement.”
In October 1917, the National Party faced its first electoral test at the Islington East by-election, however it was beaten into a poor third place behind a Liberal and an Independent. By the time the next general election came around in December 1918 most of its members had returned to the Conservatives. The Party fielded 23 parliamentary candidates, but only Cooper and Croft retained their seats. However, neither of the two were challenged by the Conservatives.
Unsurprisingly, the National Party wound up shortly afterwards and both of its MPs re-joined the Conservatives.
The next independent party of the Right, launched in January 1921, was the Anti-Waste League.
Founded by newspaper baron Lord Rothermere and led by his son, Esmond Harmsworth, the Anti-Waste League appeared when the Conservatives were still tied to Lloyd George’s apron strings in coalition government.
It advocated cutting public expenditure at both a local and national level to facilitate tax reductions. During the course of 1921, the Anti-Waste League fielded candidates in several by-elections and two were actually elected. However, both successful candidates stood as joint nominees with the support from other parties.
Eventually, in that age long before the registration of the names of political parties, the Conservatives worked out a way to foil the newcomer by labelling their candidates as “Conservative Anti-Waste”. The bubble burst and, following the Tory triumph in the 1922 General Election, the Anti-Waste League disbanded.
The division between free-traders and tariff reformers resurfaced in 1929 with the founding of the Empire Free Trade Crusade by the other great press magnet, Lord Beaverbrook. Despite the name, this was another pressure group supporting a “fiscal union of the Empire”. Not to be outdone, in 1930 Lord Rothermere then stepped forward to form the United Empire Party.
In the Paddington South by-election of October 1930, both groups fielded rival candidates in a hitherto safe Tory seat. Astonishingly, the Empire Crusade candidate beat the Conservative by almost 1,000 votes to take the constituency. In February 1931 in the (second) Islington East by-election, Empire Crusade pushed the Conservatives into third place.
By now there were growing calls from within Tory ranks for Baldwin resign as Leader. However, his neck was saved in March by the victory of the official Conservative, Alfred Duff Cooper, over his protectionist rival in the Westminster St. George’s by-election. Baldwin was saved and the Empire Crusade gave up contesting elections.
In March 1960 John Dayton, a civil engineer from Dorking, founded the New Conservative Party and declared that his party would be “neither of the extreme Right nor Left”. The Party’s first electoral outing was in the Harrow West By-election, where it received a respectable 4.7 per cent of the vote.
However, in subsequent contests they fared less well. A change of name, firstly to the True Conservative Party and later to the Patriotic Front for Political Action, did not improve fortunes. Dayton eventually gave up and became a parliamentary candidate for Labour.
The political turmoil of the 1970s led to the emergence of several small parties of the Right. Probably the most eccentric of these was originally titled ‘John Hampden’s New Freedom Party’, but later changed its name to the English National Party (ENP).
Led by teacher Frank Hansford-Miller, the ENP stood for English devolution, the abolition of income tax, and the privatisation of council housing. Hansford-Miller, who addressed political rallies dressed as a Beefeater, was rarely taken seriously.
However, in April 1976 the ENP gained its first (and only) MP when John Stonehouse, former Labour Minister, joined their ranks whilst awaiting trial at the Old Bailey for fraud. True to form, the ENP’s press conference to announce this joyous news was held in Hansford-Miller’s garden shed, where attendees were served the Leader’s home brewed ale.
Other minor parties of this era included pirate radio entrepreneur Oliver Smedley’s Free Trade Liberal Party. Originally titled the Anti-Common Market and Free Trade Party, it stood candidates in nine by-elections between 1967 and 1988.
In 1979, television astronomer Patrick Moore formed the United Country Party and fielded candidates at the general election. Moore proclaimed that they were pro-Thatcher but didn’t like her party. Soon after theelection, they merged with local newspaper proprietor Dennis Delderfield’s New Britain Party, who’s greatest achievement was securing 4.6 per cent in the Bournemouth East By-election in 1977.
All of the political parties mentioned were originally formed because there was a feeling that the Conservatives lacked principle, direction and clear purpose. They usually emerged in periods when consensus politics dominated, and the Conservatives adopted a managerial approach.
The existence of these groups often galvanised Conservatives to sharpen their performance, but as soon as this was achieved, these parties ceased to have purpose and quickly evaporated.