The Tory Party and the Labour Movement 1891

The Tory Party and the Labour Movement

Randolph Churchill Paddington Speech 1891

Eamon Dyas

Lord Randolph Churchill wasn’t advocating a Tory initiative of pro-labour policies. At this stage there was no Labour Party which had the responsibility of formulating a political programme representing working class interests, so the political language of the time didn’t include such things. In so far as working-class politics existed, they found expression in both the Liberal and Tory party.

It is sometimes forgotten that it was a Tory government that finally removed the criminality attached to combinations in 1875 which the Liberals had previously introduced as part of the legal recognition of trade unions in 1871. 

The action of the Liberals in 1871 meant that while Trade Unions and strikes were now legal anything which made strikes effective such as picketing or any other actions which prevented an employer’s right to trade had been outlawed as part of a simultaneous Criminal Law Amendment Act.

 “A strike was lawful, but anything done in pursuance of a strike was criminal. […] In 1871 seven women were imprisoned in South Wales merely for saying “Bah” to one blackleg.”  The History of Trade Unionism, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Revised edition extended to 1920. Published by Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1920, pp.282-283.

.Despite several attempts by the trade unions to get Gladstone to repeal it he steadfastly refused. The trade unions had to wait until Disraeli’s “One Nation” Tory government for that to happen. 

The Liberals and Gladstone learned their lesson after that, and the Tories forgot it after Disraeli’s death. The result of legalising the strike weapon created something of a reactionary reversion within the Tory party when it began to be exercised on a large scale. It seems to me that what Lord Randolph Churchill was seeking to achieve in his 1891 speech was to get them to understand that the world had changed, and they needed to be in a position where they could offer a home for the emerging labour movement. 

He saw this rising labour movement not as finding political expression in a dedicated political party but rather as a potential source of support for the Liberal party. His object was to ensure that the Tory party deprived them of that support by being amenable to their interests.

The complete quote from The History of Trade Unionism:

“The legislation of 1871 was regarded by the Government and the House of Commons as the full and final solution of a long-standing problem. “The judges, however, declared,” as Henry Crompton points out, “that the only effect of the legislation of 1871 was to make the trade object of the strike not illegal. A strike was perfectly legal; but if the means employed were calculated to coerce the employer they were illegal means, and a combination to do a legal act by illegal means was a criminal conspiracy. In other words, a strike was lawful, but anything done in pursuance of a strike was criminal. Thus the judges tore up the remedial statute, and each fresh decision went further and developed new dangers.” But Gladstone’s Cabinet steadfastly refused, right down to its fall in 1874, even to consider the possibility of altering the Criminal Law Amendment Act. It was in vain that deputation after deputation pointed out that men were being sent to prison under this law for such acts as peacefully accosting a workman in the street. In 1871 seven women were imprisoned in South Wales merely for saying “Bah” to one blackleg. Innumerable convictions took place for the use of bad language. Almost any action taken by Trade Unionists to induce a man not to accept employment at a struck shop resulted, under the new Act, in imprisonment with hard labour. The intolerable injustice of this state of things was made more glaring by the freedom allowed to the employers to make all possible use of “black-lists” and “character notes,” by which obnoxious men were prevented from getting work. No prosecution ever took place for this form of molestation or obstruction. No employer was ever placed in the dock under the law which professedly applied to both parties. In short, boycotting by the employers was freely permitted boycotting by the men was put down by the police. “]

Here’s the part of Lord Randolph Churchill’s speech. It was given to the annual meeting of the Paddington Conservative Association.


“He next asked them to consider the position of the Tory Party. because within fifteen months they must have a general election. The proximity of a general election ought to excite the anxious attention of every Conservative Association in the country. Since 1885, the whole political power of governing the future of the Empire had been placed in the hands of the labouring classes, and they might be certain that, just as the landowning class in former times made laws mainly in their own interest, so the labouring classes would make laws in their own interest, or what they deemed to be their interest. They desired that masses of the electors should be brought to support the political Constitution as it is – that the Monarchy should be sustained – (cheers) – the connection between Church and State preserved, and the union of the three kingdoms maintained – (cheers). To impress the truth of those principles upon the electors, lecturing would not do much good with modern democracy – (hear, hear). They must have action. The question they had to consider was what they were going to do for the labouring classes to win over their support. They heard a great deal about the labour movement. In one sense, the labour movement was a sign of national prosperity. The labouring classes were conscious that the employers had made large profits in recent years, and they desired a larger share of those profits and had recourse to certain combinations to effect that object. The labour movement also showed that the labouring classes were becoming conscious of the fact that they possessed political power, and were becoming determined to use it in their interests. They had a remarkable development of strikes, and last year would very likely be known in history as the great strike year. They were threatened with a great war between capital and labour, the effect of which might be more disastrous to the prosperity of the country than a civil war. That was a state of things they could not pass over lightly. He deprecated the course which a certain section of the Tory press, representing a section of the Tory party, had taken on the side of the employers in denouncing the labourers in egging on the employers to resort to extreme measures, in uttering shouts of triumph over the victories of the employers, and pouring torrents of ridicule upon the futile efforts of the men. Such a policy was nothing short of insanity – (cheers). It was the duty of the Conservative politicians, in regard to strikes, to take up an attitude of impartiality, and endeavour to bring about peace between the contending parties. In view of these strikes, and the great development of labour disturbances, was it not a matter for practical consideration whether it was not the duty of Her Majesty’s Government and of the party which supported them, if they wished to claim the confidence of the labouring classes, to come forward with a proposal for the establishment of State Boards  of Arbitration to which both parties could refer their differences? Did they think it was the duty of any Government or political party to sit idle and allow this tremendous battle between capital and labour to develop? If it did develop, what would they think they could gain by it?


There were other questions affecting the labour movement which were pressing, and were treated in Sir John Gorst’s speech at Chatham, and deserved their consideration. They had four bills before Parliament dealing with factory legislation, the sweating system, and other matters affecting the working classes, and it would be disgraceful if those matters were not dealt with or were buried by the dilatory proceedings of Select Committees – (cheers). With regard to the demand which was springing up among large portions of the people that the hours of labour should be regulated by law, he would take the case of the colliery miners. Their industry was attended by constant danger and peculiar conditions, and, if there was an overwhelming majority of them in favour of their hours of labour being limited by law, he would greatly prefer that their labour should be regulated by Act of Parliament that that it should be obtained by a great combination, leading to a great strike on the part of the men, bringing with it all the misery and stagnation of trade which a great strike produced. When the Miners’ Bill came before Parliament, he would vote for it. Nothing, however, would induce him to countenance such a premature and chimerical scheme as a general eight hours’ scheme. If the Government were to appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the demands of the labouring classes generally for the regulation of the hours of labour by law, it would show that they were anxious to consider their position, and it might be the means of eliciting information which would be of the greatest value – (cheers). The Tory party, with regard to all these questions, should take up a sympathetic attitude – (cheers). They should approach these great social questions animated by generous feelings, and, endeavouring to place themselves in the position of the labouring classes, try to look at these questions from their point of view, and then they might depend upon it that, if they saw a demand brought forward and persevered in for any particular object, there was a great deal of good in it. He wanted the Tory party to place themselves in such a sympathetic attitude towards the labouring classes as to enable them to detect what was good and just in their demands, and, by granting with was good and just, to acquire such an influence over them as to win them from what was evil and unjust – (cheers). The Tory party should use their great influence to bring about peaceful and harmonious relations between employer and employed. He disclaimed any personal object in the course which he advocated, or any desire to upset or supplant anybody. His one object since he entered Parliament was, if possible, to contribute to the end that the Tory party should obtain a strong hold upon the affections of the masses of the people – (cheers). He felt that the position of the Tory party was a position of crisis and anxiety. They had a formidable antagonist to fight with. They had perhaps the most extraordinary man as their political opponent that this country had produced – a man who, by his increasing years and his increasing brightness became day by day more and more an object of popular veneration and hope. His belief was that, if the Tory party would frame their policy on the lines he had indicated, throw themselves heart and soul into these social questions, deal out justice to the labouring classes and remove their grievances, they might successfully compete even with that great opponent. But if they were lethargic, and held their hands, the constituencies would fall away from them, and they would be doomed to a useless and impotent Opposition, and their only consolation would be found in lamentation and mourning, and in reflecting on the great strength which had been wasted and the golden opportunities which had been thrown away – (cheers).

A vote of thanks was passed to Lord Randolph Churchill.”

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