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The View from Knowsley

John Charmley rewrites the history of the Tory Party restoring to its heart the earls of Derby, owners of Knowsley Hall.

This month a conference entitled ‘The view from Knowsley’ will be held at the ancestral home of the earls of Derby, Knowsley Hall. Its intention is to offer fresh interpretations of the history of the Conservative Party, as well as of the development of modern British foreign policy. Organised by members of the School of History at the University of East Anglia, and held under the auspices of the recently formed Conservative History Group, the conference will bring together historians, politicians and those interested in political history for a two-day discussion of some neglected themes in Conservative history.

The history of the oldest political party in the world ought to be a more contested one than it is; this conference stakes a claim to challenge the orthodox picture of the history of the Conservatives. Robert Blake’s popular The Conservative Party from Peel to Major (1997) sets out the parameters broadly accepted by more recent studies in which, frankly, all roads lead to the present. In this version of the history of the Conservatives, Peel was something of a false start while Disraeli bulks large as a protean figure who enabled later Conservatives to claim that he established some sort of popular Toryism. And then comes Salisbury, who after a period of neglect in the twentieth century, is now acknowledged as a ‘Victorian Titan’ (to quote the subtitle of Andrew Roberts’ 1999 biography). The early twentieth century was something of a wasteland, with Balfour, Baldwin and Chamberlain all, in various ways, falling below the level of their great predecessors. But then came Churchill’s towering achievement, followed by Macmillan and, most recently and controversially, Mrs Thatcher.

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