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Reference group
Fourth Party (act. 1880–1885) was an informal grouping of Conservative back-benchers in the House of Commons during the second ministry of William Gladstone. Originally conceived as a vehicle for harrying and obstructing the legislative business of the new government, which possessed a seemingly impregnable majority, the Fourth Party increasingly became associated with opposition to the Conservative front bench within the Commons, as well as with the promotion of the ideals of ‘tory democracy’.

The Fourth Party drew inspiration from the obstructionist tactics of the Irish Nationalist members, with whom it co-ordinated tactics. Indeed the group's appellation is attributed to Philip Callan, the Irish Nationalist MP for Dundalk (The Times, 7 Sept 1880). Membership of the Fourth Party was restricted to the four men who were honoured in a famous Spy cartoon published in the society magazine Vanity Fair in November 1880. The acknowledged leader of the grouping was Lord Randolph Churchill, the youthful MP for Woodstock, described posthumously by his friend Lord Rosebery as ‘half aristocrat and half Bohemian’ (Rosebery, 137). He was joined by Henry Drummond Wolff, the suave diplomat and MP for Portsmouth, regarded by one contemporary observer as ‘the real pioneer of the Fourth Party’ (Lucy, 185); the lawyer and party organizer John Eldon Gorst, ‘the wire-puller-in-chief’ (W. T. Stead, quoted in Hunter, 176) ; and Arthur Balfour, future leader of the Edwardian Conservative Party.

The relationship between Balfour and the rest of the Fourth Party was, however, ambiguous. Balfour allegedly argued that the existence of the Fourth Party should always be publicly denied, and ‘never seemed quite certain whether he belonged to it or not’ (Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill, 93). Indeed, in bitter retrospect, Gorst considered Balfour to have been ‘a spy upon us reporting to Lord Salisbury’, who was of course Balfour's uncle (Hunter, 150). In his own memoir Balfour identified the death of Disraeli in 1881 as a turning point in Fourth Party history, and rather disingenuously claimed that after this date he could not align himself with either Churchill's criticism of the Conservative Party hierarchy or his pretensions to leadership. Moreover, Balfour affirmed, ‘I mildly resented all this talk of “Tory Democracy” … as if Tory Democracy was an invention of the Fourth Party’ (Balfour, 133–73).

Despite this small membership, the Fourth Party did attract wider support. back-bench sympathizers and admirers included, at various times: the Oxford brewer and sometime MP for the city Alexander William Hall; the journalist and later MP for Oldham James Mackenzie Maclean; the lawyer and Plymouth MP Edward Clarke; the banker and City of London MP Robert Fowler; the Lincolnshire landowner and MP Henry Chaplin; and Lord Elcho. Outside parliament the Fourth Party could boast powerful backers like Algernon Borthwick, proprietor of the Morning Post, and Thomas Gibson Bowles, the owner of Vanity Fair, both of whom provided substantial, favourable press coverage of Fourth Party activities. The group was as interested in socializing as in political manoeuvring, meeting regularly at Churchill's London home in St James's Place, Gorst's villa in suburban Wandsworth, and the Turf Club. Other sites for intrigue and gossip included the Berkeley Square home of the skilled political hostess, Lady Dorothy Nevill; and Sunday lunch here was often followed by tea at Lady Jeune's house in Putney.

The Fourth Party came together spontaneously during the controversy over whether or not to admit the atheist Charles Bradlaugh to the House of Commons following his election for Northampton in 1880. On 21 May, Wolff—assisted by Gorst—tabled a motion objecting to Bradlaugh's intention to take the parliamentary oath, and three days later Churchill made a memorable intervention during which he trampled melodramatically upon Bradlaugh's republican tract The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick. All three men now regularly sat together on the front bench below the gangway, and were soon joined by Balfour, although he made no contribution to the Bradlaugh debates. The Bradlaugh controversy also provided an ideological point of reference for the Fourth Party, and largely as a result of the group's activity, Bradlaugh was prevented from taking his seat until 1886.

Much Fourth Party energy was expended in skirmishing with the legislative ambitions of the new administration, starting with the navy estimates in June 1880. Two months later the Fourth Party claimed that the government's proposed Employers Liability Bill was not sufficiently comprehensive. Even minor pieces of legislation during the 1880 session, such as the Hares and Rabbits Bill and the Burials Bill, were subjected to Fourth Party scrutiny. According to Winston Churchill's account, the Fourth Party's governing ethos was that ‘each was free to act in perfect independence; but it was agreed that whenever one of them was attacked, the others should defend him’ (W. S. Churchill, 107).

At the end of the 1880 session the Conservative leader in the Commons, Sir Stafford Northcote, wrote to Gorst counselling that it would be the ‘wiser course’ if the Fourth Party members were to ‘take their places in the main body’ of the parliamentary party (Hunter, 128). Frustration and irritation with Northcote had been growing throughout the session on account of his lacklustre efforts in confronting Gladstone, for whom he had once served as private secretary. To the Fourth Party Northcote was representative of the ineffectual ‘old gang’ ruinously running the Conservative Party after the crushing 1880 defeat, especially through its timid insistence on persisting with the ‘dual leadership’ arrangement of Northcote and Lord Salisbury. Although it would be a mistake to regard the Fourth Party as nothing more than ‘a Salisbury front group’ (Foster, 75), at this point the grouping was unequivocally advocating the claims of Salisbury to be sole party leader.

The significance of the Fourth Party was not, however, confined exclusively to parliament. Fourth Party members soon began appearing on public platforms. Churchill appeared with Gorst at a large demonstration at Woodstock in November 1880, swiftly followed by one at Portsmouth, where they were joined by Wolff. In late 1881 and again in 1883 Churchill embarked upon public speaking tours of northern and Scottish towns, which drew much admiring press publicity. In 1883 Wolff, Churchill, and Gorst (although, significantly, not Balfour) decided to form the Primrose League as a semi-official social and electioneering organization with a mass membership, dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Disraeli. Both before and after his death in 1881 the former prime minister was a source of inspiration and legitimation for the Fourth Party.

Throughout the 1882 and 1883 sessions the Fourth Party continued to hound the government over the parliamentary clôture and the invasion of Egypt. However, the Fourth Party was neither solely oppositional nor destructive. In 1884 the members combined to draft their own Leasehold Enfranchisement Bill, motivated by Churchill's animus towards the great whig landlords of London estates. None the less, the little grouping was always unstable. The Fourth Party seemed to have dissolved in early 1881 over the Coercion Bill for Ireland, which Churchill—with his direct experience of Irish politics in the late 1870s—opposed, but their alliance was reunited by the fortuitous renewal of the Bradlaugh controversy in March 1881.

Towards the end of 1882 Fourth Party hostility to Northcote moved towards insubordination. This new phase of Fourth Party activity was signalled by an article that appeared in the Fortnightly Review of November 1882, probably written by Gorst and Churchill. The authors demanded an aggressive commitment to cultivating popular toryism, and called for an immediate end to the dual leadership of the party. This opening salvo was followed by two incendiary letters from Churchill that bemoaned Northcote's apathy and condemned the ‘bourgeois placemen’ running the party (The Times, 2, 9 April 1883). Finally, Churchill penned an audacious article (‘Elijah's mantle’) in the Fortnightly Review of May 1883, in which he railed ferociously against Northcote's record as Disraeli's chancellor in the 1870s, extended his criticism of the party hierarchy to Lord Salisbury, and self-consciously laid personal claim to the Disraelian legacy.

Throughout the following year there ensued a protracted crisis for influence within the Conservative Party, focusing upon the National Union, the body representing many local Conservative Party associations. Churchill sought to canalize the disaffections of provincial delegates by securing greater organizational power for the National Union, at the expense of Conservative central office. Matters came to a head at the Birmingham conference of September 1883, described by Churchill as ‘the Austerlitz of the Fourth Party’ (W. S. Churchill, 249), when Churchill was narrowly elected as chairman of the National Union central council; at the 1884 annual conference, held in Sheffield on 23 July, Churchill again topped the poll for elections to the council. On 27 July Churchill and Salisbury—without the knowledge of either Gorst or Northcote—reached a private arrangement that included democratic reform of the National Union, official recognition of the Primrose League, and a tacit acknowledgement of Churchill's importance within the party. Gorst refused to attend the banquet to celebrate this settlement, and clashed with Churchill in the Commons during the parliamentary reform debates of November 1884. The Fourth Party came together on one final occasion to bring about the collapse of Gladstone's ministry in June 1885 over a budgetary amendment. All four members were rewarded with positions during Salisbury's short-lived first ministry of June 1885.

The history of the Fourth Party has been well documented, initially through acts of filial commemoration. In 1906 Gorst's son, Harold, published The Fourth Party, a book that was developed from an earlier series of articles published in the Nineteenth Century Review. In Gorst's narrative the Fourth Party was motivated by a principled and idealistic desire to uphold the Disraelian legacy, and its members were celebrated as the ‘champions of a new Tory democratic movement’ (Gorst, 82). Thus the concordat of July 1884 amounted to a ‘surrender’ and ‘capitulation’, in which the ideas of tory democracy were ‘thrown overboard’ () for the sake of Lord Randolph's naked personal ambition. The error of Churchill's abandonment of the Fourth Party in 1884—without which he would not have established his reputation—was demonstrated by the spectacular failure of his subsequent career (Gorst, chap. 16). 1906 also saw the publication of Winston Churchill's biography of Lord Randolph, a dazzling vindication not only of his father but also of the author's own recent conversion to Liberalism. In Winston Churchill's retelling, the Fourth Party, and above all the possibilities of tory democracy, were seen as Lord Randolph's personal invention, Churchill even claiming that Gorst approved of the July 27 concordat. Both books can be read as critiques of Balfour's stewardship of the Edwardian Conservative Party.

The members of the Fourth Party self-consciously worked within an established tradition of parliamentary independence, inspired by such earlier groups as Young England, and in turn encouraged other ginger groups like the Hughlians (whose ranks included Winston Churchill) during the Edwardian years. The Fourth Party thus serves as a reminder of the limitations of late Victorian party management. According to Winston Churchill the Fourth Party was ‘the most formidable and effective force for the purposes of opposition in the history of the House of Commons’ (W. S. Churchill, 107). The accuracy of this evaluation is doubtful, forming as it does part of the posthumous political mythology of Lord Randolph as a ‘lost’ Conservative leader. Randolph Churchill's own description of the Fourth Party as ‘a body of skirmishers’ who helped to undermine Liberal morale is probably more valid (W. S. Churchill, 312). That said, the Fourth Party deserves to be remembered as more than an instrument for concertedly baiting Gladstone. Its attachment to ‘tory democracy’ was not so much one of ideological substance—no sustained attempt was made to define this inchoate term—as of style and presentation. By its activities the Fourth Party rapidly became a symbol of a new type of modern, aggressive toryism. Through its publicity politics, and the carefully partisan memorialization of the legacy of Benjamin Disraeli, the Fourth Party showed how Conservatism could adapt to the new age of mass politics.

Alex Windscheffel


H. Gorst, The Fourth Party (1906) [with a preface by Sir John Gorst MP] · W. S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill, 2 vols. (1906) · H. D. Wolff, Rambling recollections, 2 (1908) · [Arthur James, first earl of Balfour], Chapters of autobiography, ed. Mrs E. Dugdale (1930) · R. F. Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: a political life (1981) · A. Hunter, A life of Sir John Eldon Gorst: Disraeli's awkward disciple (2001) · A. P. Primrose, earl of Rosebery, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) · Mrs G. Cornwallis-West, The reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill (1908) · R. Churchill, ‘Elijah's mantle’, Fortnightly Review, 198 (1883), 613–21 · H. Lucy, A diary of the Salisbury parliament, 1886–1892 (1892) · Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill, ed. R. Nevill (1906) · R. Shannon, The age of Salisbury, 1881–1902 (1996) · R. E. Quinault, ‘The Fourth Party and the Conservative opposition to Bradlaugh, 1880–1888’, EngHR, 91 (1976), 315–40 · R. E. Quinault, ‘Lord Randolph Churchill and tory democracy, 1880–5’, HJ, 22 (1979), 141–69 · H. E. Gorst, Much of life is laughter (1936) · E. J. Feuchtwanger, Disraeli, democracy and the tory party: Conservative leadership and organization after the second Reform Bill (1968) · M. Pugh, The tories and the people, 1880–1935 (1985) · The Times