The appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister has failed to dent Labour’s giant lead in the polls. The Conservatives’ problems, it follows, date not just from Truss’s six weeks of chaos but from the public’s understanding of Sunak’s plans to clear up the mess afterwards. If there is any iron law to British politics it’s this: governments which offer endless spending cuts tank in the polls. This rule applies as much to principled governments with a reformist legislative agenda (eg Labour in 1945-51) as it does to ministries promising little more than jobs for the boys (the Conservatives in 2010-16). Saint or sinner, austerity is electoral suicide.
You need a long historical to memory to recall the last time cuts were a cause thrust to the margins, and with more popular appeal than the politicians thought. The one moment when it did have some seeming mass support was at the end of the first world war. Between November 1919 and August 1921, seven by-elections were won by “Anti-Waste” (i.e. pro austerity) candidates opposed to the Liberal-Conservative government.
Anti-Waste appealed to Conservative voters, at a time when their natural party was struggling. Five years earlier, the Conservatives had responded to a previous crisis, with a move of some boldness. As the British war-effort had stagnated, the governing Liberal Party had fractured, replacing one Prime Minister Herbert Asquith with another, David Lloyd George. The Conservatives had encouraged the latter and were now in coalition with him.
But most right-wing voters hated Lloyd George. They despised his politics, seeing him as the inventor of the state pension, national insurance and rent controls. And they loathed his personality, his belief that as an outsider the normal rules of politics did not apply to him, his venality (which is about the only thing popular memory recalls of Lloyd George). A Lloyd George-Conservative coalition might have been necessary to win the war, in pracetime it made about as much sense as if you had a Boris Johnson government now, kept in power by Labour votes. Beneath the supposed programme of the anti-waste Independents there was another message which was simpler and more insistent: the Conservatives should dump Lloyd George, that’s all.
A far right worthy of the name
Today’s power struggles on the right are often said to pitch moderate Conservatives, uninterested in culture wars, against a demagogic far right. The former are cutters; the latter spenders, as in Boris Johnson (admittedly more often announced than delivered) pledges to “level up”. In the 1920s, by contrast, that the factions were seemingly the other way around. Mainstream Conservatives wanted the coalition with Lloyd George to continue even if it meant more spending; while it was the far right led by populist media bosses, Horatio Bottomley and Lord Northcliffe, who were calling for faster and deeper cuts.
During the 1914-18 war, Bottomley had built an audience as the owner of John Bull magazine and a columnist for Lord Rothermere’s Sunday Pictorial. He was the most jingoistic author of the age. Of German civilians living in England, Bottomley wrote, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Within days of that article appearing, riots broke out against people of German ancestry living in Britain. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange and passed a motion, “No Germans must be left in the City of London”. In Poplar in the East End, crowds broke into the homes of people suspected of sheltering German civilians.
After the war, Bottomley launched a far-right street party, the People’s League. Its vice-chair was George Makgill, a patron of the British fascists, advocate of industrial espionage to smash the unions, and a fantasist who spent his days wracked by terror at the thought of a red revolution, which would come about, he insisted, as a result of a Jewish conspiracy.
The joy of causing suffering
In January 1920, a pro-Bottomley independent was elected at Wrekin. The following January, at a by-election in Dover, an “Anti-Waste” candidate won with the support of Bottomley and the press baron Lord Rothermere. The latter instructed his journalist to back right-wing candidates against the Conservatives: “The middle classes now find themselves threatened with extinction [but] it is the Conservative element in the Ministry which backs up expeditions to Russia, which wants a huge air force and an Army and Navy that we cannot afford to maintain, which paralyses every attempt to introduce a spirit of economy into the Administration.”
The middle classes were not in danger of extinction. What Rothermere meant was that workers were benefiting from the first moves towards state education, from unemployment benefits and schemes for the unemployed to find work. He wanted to see every local authority home given away to private landlords. Such anti-reforms would not have saved most middle-class families much, or anything, but what they would have done was make the lives of working-class people harder. Neither Bottomley nor Rothermere could make the lives of pensioners or blue-collar managers easier, but they could make other people much poorer, and allow the privileged the compensating joy of watching other people’s suffering.
There were two Englands, wrote one liberal commentator C. F. G. Masterman. Suburban, middle-class opinion, “can walk but a few yards and it is in, say, Hoxditch where all the inhabitants are dingy … and the public houses flare at every corner; and it realises that this is the ‘Labour’ against which it is warned by all the supporters of things as they are.” The south-east, christened by Masterman “Richford”, “hates and despises the working classes … Labour only enters its kingdom as a coal supply rendered ever more limited and expensive by the insatiable demands of the coal-miners to work short hours for immense wages.”
Wooed – and split
At the anti-Waste campaign’s height, there were ten anti-Waste independents, mainly generals and company directors, sitting as a loose caucus in the House of Commons. Growing numbers of Conservative associations announced their support for the broad thrust of the anti-waste campaign, while others – among them a young Oswald Mosley – joined campaigns intended to copy it, including a Conservative-sponsored People’s League for Economy.
The Spectator denounced the likes of Bottomley as dangerous blowhards: “Anti-Waste, as the barbarous, bombastic, and aggressive term connotes, is as far removed from economy as axes are from pruning hooks. The cry ‘save us from our friends!’ might well come from the lips of every true economist, for the cause of prudent and statesmanlike economy has been hurt by this bungling intolerance and indiscrimination of the Anti-Waste campaign.”
By spring 1921, Rothermere and Bottomley, the two pioneers of this new strand of militant Conservatism were at odds. Rothermere believed an attack on social reforms would help crystallise middle-class politics around a shared distrust of the poor. If you could make the Conservatives the sole anti-socialist party, he thought, they’d win every time.
Bottomley’s aim was less a reinvigorated Conservatism than the formation of what he called “Business Government”, under which “every editor who either knowingly or recklessly publishes false news will be shot.” Ministers should be strengthened and parliament weakened. He did not want a Britain where Conservatives and Labour alternated in government, even if the former held power for longer, he wanted to see Socialist MPs in jail.
Anti-waste was ostensibly a movement united around a single cause, of shrinking the state, but Bottomley wanted the army expanded. He liked to imagine British power extending across the globe. He tended to downplay “the cutting down of pensions”, which he reasoned would alienate as many as it attracted. His vision of a growing far-right was closer to the experiments in right-wing politics emerging in Germany, Italy, and Spain.
The last Anti-Waste candidate to stand and win was Brigadier-General John Nicholson, in the Westminster Abbey by-election in June 1921. Two months later, Lloyd George set up a government committee, with orders to find £75 million of cuts. Once anti-Waste had become government policy: as far as its supporters were concerned, the battle had been won.
The Conservative party would grow in the 1920s and 1930s by exploiting other causes: first culture wars (the Zinoviev letter and the General Strike) then, in 1932, an imperial tariff which enabled the party to link welfare benefits to the maintenance of the Empire.
The ascendancy of the cutters after 1921 was temporary. What most Conservative politicians grasped is something we can all see around us. Under a democracy, people will vote for the party which offers the most compelling chance of improving voters’ lives. You can win an ascendancy of a few months by promising to make other people suffer; but, relatively quickly, a democracy punishes those who can only talk of cuts.
This piece is based on my new book, ‘Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism’, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November. I’ll be speaking the same evening at a talk for the Socialist History Society: you can sign up for free here