Scotland and the Conservative Party, 1832–1868

Gary Hutchison is a past winner of the History of Parliament’s undergraduate dissertation prize and is currently a PhD student and Wolfson Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. As he begins the second year of his doctoral research, he outlines his project on Scottish political history after 1832 in this guest blog.

The Conservative party has, to put it mildly, enjoyed mixed fortunes in Scotland.  At some points, it has constituted a serious political force, while at others has been relegated to a marginal position.  Whether strong or weak, however, the party (and conservatism more generally) has always exerted an influence on the general direction of Scottish political and social development.

While the evolution of the UK Conservative party after 1832 has been explored by many scholars, the course taken by the Scottish Conservative party remains almost entirely uncharted.  Indeed, it constitutes not so much a gap as a gaping hole in both Scottish and British political historiography.  Apart from some works on Scottish politics in general, and an official history, there are no specifically-focused works on Scots Tories between 1832 and 1868.  Much work has been done on the Scottish Liberal party, but this has tended to focus more on internal conflicts between Liberal factions, rather than their differences with their Tory opponents.

Charting the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives is therefore well overdue. It allows for the exploration of a number of interconnected themes, including the extent of electoral deference in Scotland and how this related to the role of the landowner and employer in Scottish politics.  It also sheds light on how local party identities and organisations were formed, and how these affected the development (or lack thereof) of the Scottish Conservative party centrally.  The Scottish Conservatives have thus far been perceived as particularly backward in terms of their party apparatus. That is to say, while the Scottish Liberals were making organisational and ideological progress towards a ‘modern’ party status, the Conservatives were doing so at a slower pace.  This assertion has, however, never been proven through systematic historical inquiry.  Moving beyond organisational themes, a study of party-political evolution will serve to identify the types of people who voted Conservative, why they did so, and their consequent effect on Scottish society in the mid-nineteenth century. This study also undertakes prosopographical analysis of the Scots Tory cohort in the post-Reform parliament, which has already given rise to a number of unanticipated lines of inquiry.

While it is true that the Liberal party dominated Scottish politics in the period 1832–68, this depiction can be somewhat misleading.  In fact, the Scottish Conservative party was far from dormant, holding some seats securely throughout the period, and offering a strong challenge in many others.  Conservative voters may have represented a significant part of the electorate – a part that has received little to no attention.  As the vast majority of Scottish seats were of the single-member type, it may well be that the vagaries of the First Past The Post electoral system have led subsequent researchers to seriously underestimate the extent of Scottish Conservative support, especially in comparison to an English electoral system which still contained a great many multi-member seats.  Much work has been done on the central question in nineteenth-century Scottish politics, ‘Why was Scotland Liberal?’.  In order to more fully explore this however, it is also necessary to ask – why was Scotland not Conservative?

G.D.H.

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