Making Angels In Marble

by David Walsh

The historical basis for working class support for the Tories.

Many working class people favour the Conservatives. Thanks to their votes the Tories have traditionally formed the Government. The roots for such support is the basis for this highly informative book, published by Breviary, a publishing house that can relied upon for breaking new historical ground.  

Making Angels in Marble examines the industrial north-west. (of England) It asks why it was that in the period following the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, which was the result of intense pressure by many working class supporters of political reform, that many in the industrial working class of the region supported the existing political parties – and specifically the Conservatives – despite the fact that these parties only extended the franchise from half a million to 813,000 adult males. (Twenty per cent of all adult males.) Why was it that many working class people didn’t back militant factions such as the Chartists who argued for a much larger electorate and reforms that included equal electoral districts and secret ballots?

The Conservatives had been strongly associated with widespread corruption – including the buying of votes – and strongly resistant to extending the franchise to the ‘Swineish multitude’ as Edmund Burke famously described the working class, who had also been attacked by the passing of the Combination Acts at the end of the eighteenth century. These were laws that made it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or more pay. Trade unions were thus effectively made illegal. 

In the first elections after the 1832 Reform Act was passed the Tory Party, with its strong links to the landed aristocracy, won just 30 percent of the vote with the Whig – the Liberals – winning 67 percent. The Tory Party seemed set to go out of existence. 

The working class of the industrial north-west was mainly the result of the introduction of new technology in cotton spinning.  Workmen, such as weavers, who until the 1760s  still had a degree of independence, had no option except to take up regimented work in the factories or starve to death. They naturally resented a new social and ‘laissez faire’ economic system, which they likened to slavery, and the Liberals, many of them factory owners, who wholeheartedly backed it. 

In order to garner working class support, the Tory Party, which had previously been centrally organised, now began a process of becoming a modern party in an organisational sense by setting up local Conservative Associations (CA) that were open to all. Across the north-west virtually every town had one CA by 1836. Membership numbers often surpassed, even at the height of its influence, the numbers who belonged to Chartist organisation’s.

Many in the working class and in the Tory Party shared illusions in the past centred around an imperfect system of joint rights and responsibilities. Both in a sense felt a deep sense of insecurity when faced with the rising power of entrepreneurs. The passing in 1834 by the Whig Government of Earl Grey of the Poor Law, under which relief would only be given in workhouses, added to their fears.

The Tory Party was able to garner working class support by highlighting the threat posed by Whig/Liberal policies. At the same time they also extolled the old style Tory paternalism that meant landowners were seen as having a customary responsibility for ensuring the poor were cared for. 

Radical Tories such as Richard Oastler from Brighouse, West Yorkshire were then able to persuade workers to abandon independent tactics of their own in favour of rely upon external leadership. The Tories did this by taking up issues such as restricting the numbers of hours that could be worked by children and women in particular. When the Whig Government refused to interfere with the free market over such issues the Tories noted that this was at odds with the Whig’s being willing to interfere, and for the worse, in matters concerning the dispensing of poor relief. 

Tory paternalism was being reworked. The working class was being included, admittedly often at a junior non-officer level, into local CA that, crucially, also provided some basic social support for its members at times of sickness and death. 

Together, even after the Tory Party split in a battle over the Corn Laws in the late 1840s, this combination was to lead to great electoral success, particularly in the 1860s and 1870s. This paved the way for the Party to retain the support of many working class people decades later. Breaking this support remains crucial if a more equal and better organised society is to be built.