Here are a few questions to mull over: Which was the largest popular political organization in this country? Which political organization first ensured that membership was open to all classes and people of all incomes? Which political organization involved public activity by women of all classes and in large numbers? Which political organization first had events, both social and educational, for children and young people? [The picture below is of a group of Headington Buds.] Which political organization set up co-operative funds to help those of their members who were less well off?


Do not bother to search through your knowledge of various self-aggrandizing left-wing organizations. The answer, as many readers will know, to all those questions is the Primrose League, founded in 1883 at the Carlton Club by Lord Randolph Churchill for his own political purposes and nurtured into a powerful organization by his own family or, rather, its female members and others.

Yet, how little do we know about this extraordinary phenomenon. The assumption that all ideas to do with popular politics, women's political activity, social welfare and children's organization come from the left has become a given for most historians and political thinkers. As Alistair Cooke (now Lord Lexden), the Conservative Party's official historian, says in his elegantly written little volume, A Gift from the Churchills, published appropriately enough by the Carlton Club, the Primrose League is barely mentioned in some of the standard histories and biographies.

There have been a few accounts of it in the past, notably Martin Pugh's The Tories and the People and Janet Robb's The Primrose League, but its importance is rarely acknowledged either by more or less left-wing historians, for understandable reasons, or by conservative ones. As for the party, it prefers not to talk about the much more popular rival organization of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, whom it eventually supplanted. Since then, it is fair to say, the Conservative Party managed to destroy much of the popular support that was first built up by the Primrose League.

A Gift from the Churchills is a labour of love and that shows. Lord Lexden clearly finds the League, its history and its members, some illustrious some not, fascinating. He wears his knowledge lightly and tells his story with great enjoyment. I would suggest that the Carlton Club looks a little more carefully at its printers but that is a minor, technical problem. I can think of no better introduction to the Primrose League, an unjustly forgotten organization, than this little volume. For those who know the history it will be an enjoyable recapitulation.

Here is an interesting article by Charles Moore, which purports to be a review of Lord Lexden's book but is really a summary of it.

2 comments

  1. It is funny that the Tea Party does not have all this quasi-Masonic paraphernalia. Different mass movements, different countries, different centuries.

     
  2. Helen Says:
  3. Different centuries, most importantly. In the past Masonic and quasi-Masonic paraphernalia was quite important in the States as well.

     
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