Constructive Constitutionalism in Conservative and Unionist Political Thought, c.1885–1914*

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A central concern of historical writing on the modern British Conservative Party has been that of adaptation and survival: to what extent, and in what ways, did the party appeal to new voters, in new areas, and on new terms? This article demonstrates, through an analysis of Conservative and Unionist intellectual culture, that the late Victorian and Edwardian period was a vital moment in which men and women, historians, novelists, journalists, MPs and peers were constructively re-envisaging what it meant to be a Conservative, or a Unionist, in the wake of the Third Reform Acts (1884–5) and the first Irish Home Rule Bill (1886). It argues that Conservative and Unionist intellectual culture evidences the constructive and imaginative ways in which the protection and ‘maintenance’ of the constitution was conceived both through the recognition and adoption of new modes of political legitimation and argument—including the referendum, Lords reform and women’s representation—and the construction of novel histories and genealogies. This was, therefore, a vital moment in the development of a modern ‘C/conservative’ tradition, as Conservatives and Unionists put pen to paper in order to express their C/conservative principles, as well as to inform and educate.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbercez091
Pages (from-to)334-357
JournalThe English Historical Review
Issue number567
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2019


  • Conservatism
  • Conservative Party
  • Constitutional Reform
  • Constitutionalism
  • British History
  • Intellectual history
  • Political history


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