One of those MPs

Posted by Helen Saturday, May 30, 2015 ,

The last posting was about the General Election of 1955, won by the Conservative Party led by Anthony Eden. (Incidentally, why didn't anybody point out that my maths was wrong and it was only sixty years ago? Never mind, stealth edit has been accomplished.) There is one particular MP, re-elected on that day that I should like to write about now: Florence Horabrugh, later Baroness Horsbrugh as she is not as well known as she should be.

As Kenneth Baxter wrote in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of the Conservative History Journal  (p.21)
It is a general rule that a second is lessfamous than a first. However, this is not the case when it comes to the first and second women to serve in a Conservative cabinet. The second woman was of course Margaret Thatcher whose name is (almost) universally known. The same cannot be said of the first woman to hold cabinet rank in a Conservative government, for few people today have heard of Florence Gertrude Horsbrugh, who was Minister of Education almost twenty years before Lady Thatcher made her cabinet debut. While some writers such as Pamela Brooks and G.E. Maguire have shown at least some recognition of her importance, overall she has received surprisingly little attention by historians of the Conservative party or scholars of Scottish and British politics, with many omitting her entirely. Yet in her day Florence Horsbrugh was arguably the best known woman MP in the UK and she is deserving of being even more widely known.
Florence Horsbrugh was the first woman to move the address in reply to the King's Speech in 1936 and, as mentioned above, the first Conservative woman to sit in the Cabinet. Yet, even when it is acknowledged as in the DNB article that the first paragraph links to, written by Martin Pugh, her achievements are dismissed as unimpressive (apart from being one of the few women who were ready to smoke in public).
As a public figure, Florence Horsbrugh enjoyed the advantage of a resonant, well-modulated voice and a tall, dignified bearing. At a time when women were often reluctant to smoke in public she became noticeable ‘puffing briskly at a cigarette held levelly between the lips’ (Horsbrugh MSS, 1/4). Despite a reputation for being severe in the manner of a Scottish schoolmistress, she was a good-humoured woman who enjoyed political controversy; she once described herself as ‘representative of all the maiden aunts in Britain’ (Horsbrugh MSS, 2/12). Although it was claimed in her obituary (The Times, 8 Dec 1969) that she had ‘achieved many victories for feminism’, these successes were of a minor or largely nominal character; for example, in 1936 she was the first woman to move the address in reply to the speech from the throne. In fact she was a beneficiary of gains made by women before and during the First World War rather than an active worker for women's causes.
Allow me to disagree with that for two reasons: women in politics are still fighting for equal status though progress is being made all the time, and, more importantly, conservative women's contribution to that progress has been ignored and dismissed by too many historians both of the party and of the women's movement.


  1. 'Women in politics are still fighting for equal status' - is this a conservative thing to do? We should run away from all ideas of equality, surely? Are we not the party of hierarchy and freedom?
    Benjamin Disraeli said,
    In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.
    Sexual equality sounds like an abstract principle to me, an arbitrary and general doctrine and certainly not one Disraeli or Dr Johnson would have approved.

  2. Another exception to the general rule that a second is less famous than a first is Lady Astor, who is much more remembered than that Polish Fenian countess.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Constance Markievicz did not take up her seat in the Commons so she is of little importance in British parliamentary history. Nancy Astor did and stayed there for several decades, becoming prominent on the political scene. Markievicz did become a Cabinet Minister in the Irish Free State.

    Equal status in politics just like equality before the law is not an abstract principle but part of the basic ideas that underpin this country's history and political thought. Unless, of course, the conservatism you are talking about is of the sharia variety, in which a woman's word is worth half that of the man.

    Disraeli was not averse to female suffrage but he decided that the party (of greater importance to him when he was Prime Minister and Conservative leader than any political idea) would not agree to it. What they did agree to, some very reluctantly, was the Second Reform Act that spread suffrage far wider than first intended and initiated modern party politics, something that greatly appealed to Disraeli who, behind that faux English mediaevalism was one of the most radical politicians this country has ever had. Just think of all the hoopla around the concept of the Empress of India. What link did it have to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people of this country? None.

    Dr Johnson would, I suspect, not agree with you. He may have made the odd derogatory comment about women (I can think of only one and that was specifically about women preachers) but in his private life his women friends were of the kind a "true" conservative would fear and dislike, commonly referred to as bluestockings. He was also a passionate opponent of slavery, again something that a "true" conservative would have few problems with as it has existed as long as history has existed and fitted in well with any hierarchical view of society. The concept that owning human beings is wrong was a very revolutionary one.

  5. Sexual or racial equality has no connection however tangential with equality before the law. I am sure you know this very well and are deliberately obfuscating. I am shocked that you are not a Tory. So that gallant Swiss canton that refused to give women the vote were not good Tories? I was so sorry when they were forced to give in.

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