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Reference group
Die-Hards (act. 1911–c.1940) were a protean right-wing faction within the Conservative and Unionist Party during the first half of the twentieth century. As an informal label ‘die-hard’ denoted a broad strand of tory opinion that intermittently gained sharper definition and a measure of organization (among members of parliament, peers, constituency activists, and journalists) in relation to specific issues, chiefly constitutional or imperial.

The Die-Hards emerged during the constitutional crisis that followed rejection by the House of Lords of the 1909 budget. Conservative peers outnumbered Liberal peers by almost seven to one. In 1911 the Liberal government introduced a Parliament Bill to weaken the Lords by making its consent to fiscal legislation unnecessary and otherwise replacing its right of veto with mere power of delay. The prime minister (Herbert Asquith) extracted a promise from George V that he would, if necessary, create enough new Liberal peers to secure the bill's passage. On learning this on 20 July the Conservative leaders, A. J. Balfour and Lord Lansdowne, judged it futile to vote down the proposal: a weak House of Lords was inevitable, so better a weak house with a Conservative majority than one inundated with Liberals. They directed tory peers to abstain. A sizeable minority disagreed, however, thinking it craven to acquiesce in the political emasculation of the aristocracy. They would sooner ‘die in the last ditch’—hence Die-Hards or Ditchers.

Lords Halsbury [see Giffard, Hardinge], Selborne [see Palmer, William Waldegrave], Salisbury [see Cecil, James Edward Hubert Gascoyne], Willoughby de Broke [see Verney, Richard Greville], and Lovat [see Fraser, Simon Joseph] organized a ‘no surrender’ lobby. Some forty supporters in the House of Commons included Lord Hugh Cecil, F. E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead), Edward Carson, and George Wyndham. Even more than other Conservatives, these felt that the Parliament Bill opened the floodgates to high direct taxation, Irish home rule, church disestablishment, land nationalization, manhood suffrage, votes for women, a slide towards socialism, and a ‘Little Englander’ disregard for the empire and defence. Many Die-Hards had links to Ireland, the armed services, agriculture, or colonial administration, and belonged to such right-wing groups as the Confederacy, Reveille, the Navy League, the National Service League, and the Tariff Reform League. With the notable exception of the Cecil brothers, they overwhelmingly favoured imperial preference. It was not a love of lords that swayed Joseph Chamberlain, Austen Chamberlain, Alfred Milner, and Edward Goulding.

In the crucial division on 10 August 1911, 114 peers voted against the Parliament Bill while 131 supported it. The House of Lords had surrendered after all. But the momentum of the Die-Hard revolt inspired the founding of the Halsbury Club ‘to keep alive the fighting spirit’ (Phillips, 147). This perpetuated the rift in the party and resembled a demonstration against Balfour. After three election defeats his hold on the party was slipping; in November he resigned. The shadow cabinet reunited around his successor, Andrew Bonar Law, a politician more congenial to the Die-Hards. They hoped that a future Conservative government would strengthen the upper house. In the meantime resisting home rule took priority, and there ceased to be a clear distinction between Die-Hards and other tories. It was arguably attitudes rather than ideology that defined them: brassbound convictions, outspoken utterance, contempt for compromise, and readiness to rebel: ‘A real quintessential Die-Hard … never entirely trusts his leaders not to sell the pass behind his back’ (Verney, 271). Consistent long-term Die-Hardism belonged on the back benches. Its exponents were essentially propagandists: the self-appointed arbiters and guardians of ‘true’ Conservatism. Journalists also made a large contribution, especially Leo Maxse of the National Review and H. A. Gwynne and Ian Colvin of the Morning Post (owned by Lilias Bathurst).

The stereotypical wartime Die-Hard was a zealous super-patriot, supportive of the military and intolerant of pacifists; possibly looking to Carson for leadership, he welcomed the fall of Asquith yet distrusted David Lloyd George. In November 1917 seven Die-Hard MPs and eighteen peers launched their own National Party, led by Henry Page Croft, Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper, second baronet (1874–1946), and Lord Ampthill [see Russell, (Arthur) Oliver Villiers]. It did not flourish, and most returned to the Conservatives in 1921, when it transformed itself into the National Constitutional Association.

By then Die-Hards were fulminating against the post-war prolongation of the coalition government. Alarmed by democracy, the Russian Revolution, labour unrest, and colonial nationalism, they feared that tory leaders (including Austen Chamberlain, Birkenhead, and Milner) were being subverted by association with Liberals such as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, and Edwin Montagu. Sir Frederick Banbury complained of ‘squandermania’ at the Treasury; Ronald McNeill attacked alien immigration; Page Croft denounced the sale of honours. Die-Hards found a cause célèbre in defending Reginald Dyer, the officer dismissed for ordering troops to fire on Indian demonstrators at Amritsar. It was Irish policy, however, that repeatedly roused them to parliamentary rebellion: the creation of the Irish Free State seemed tantamount to rewarding terrorism. Colonel John Gretton unofficially led about fifty dissident MPs, some of whom sat as independent Conservatives.

The Die-Hards were a growing composite movement in 1921–2. Extra-parliamentary support came from the British Empire Union, the Middle Class Union, and the Anti-Waste League. Sir Henry Wilson joined the Ulster Unionist segment; former followers of Horatio Bottomley comprised a populist strand. Not far from fascism was the coterie centred on the duke of Northumberland [see Percy, Alan], Lord Sydenham [see Clarke, George Sydenham], Sir Charles Yate, and Maxse. They believed the empire to be imperilled by a global conspiracy of Bolsheviks, Jews, and Germans. Most aristocratic Die-Hards rallied behind Salisbury. A more substantial figure than Gretton, he not only brokered Die-Hard unity but also reached out to pragmatic tory critics of Lloyd George, such as William Ormsby-Gore, Viscount Wolmer [see Palmer, Roundell Cecil, third earl of Selborne], and Arthur Steel-Maitland. On 8 March 1922 Salisbury published a ‘Statement of Conservative and Unionist principles’, emphasizing the monarchy, Christianity, private property, free enterprise, and imperialism. This ‘Die-Hard manifesto’ in ten days attracted a total of eighty-three parliamentary signatories, among them Sir W. Reginald Hall, J. S. Harmood-Banner, J. A. R. Marriott, Murray Sueter, the duke of Bedford [see Russell, Herbrand Arthur], and lords Linlithgow [see Hope, Victor Alexander John], Bledisloe [see Bathurst, Charles], Desborough [see Grenfell, William Henry], Lambourne [see Lockwood, Amelius Mark Richard], and the second Baron Redesdale (David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 1878–1958) . As the popularity of Lloyd George diminished so the number of nominal Die-Hards increased. At the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922 Conservative MPs defied their leaders and voted 187 to 87 to end the coalition. Die-Hards experienced rare satisfaction. Salisbury, McNeill, and William Joynson-Hicks joined the ministries of Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin.

Throughout the 1920s, however, Gretton and Page Croft's band of back-benchers kept the leadership under scrutiny. Baldwin proved a disappointment to them after 1924: he shirked tariffs and Lords reform, pandered to dominion separatism, and even enfranchised young women. In loose conjunction with the press barons Rothermere [see Harmsworth, Harold Sidney] and Beaverbrook [see Aitken, William Maxwell], the Die-Hards tried in 1930–31 to oust this mealy-mouthed crypto-Liberal. For his part Baldwin saw them as reactionary wreckers. The advent of the National Government in 1931 put Die-Hards on the alert: another coalition, it threatened to accelerate the insidious dilution of Conservative identity. Indian policy became the main battleground, as Die-Hards rejected the strategy of gradually extending self-government. Asia, in their view, required autocracy. While Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox (1870–1964) and Lord Lloyd [see Lloyd, George Ambrose] both achieved prominence, the Die-Hards accepted as their parliamentary leader (1931–5) a former antagonist: Winston Churchill, whose adhesion to the revitalized faction struck critics as opportunistic. The India defence committee of MPs received backing from the India Defence League, headed by Lord Sumner [see Hamilton, John Andrew] and funded by Dame Lucy Houston. The Die-Hards came close in 1933 to winning a majority within the central council of the National Union of Conservative Associations. Eighty-four rebel tory MPs voted against the Government of India Bill (11 February 1935). Their campaign did not halt Indian reform but, by galvanizing right-wingers, it ruled out any possibility of Conservative assent to fusion with the other parties in the National Government.

This was the last great manifestation of the Die-Hards. They had no single distinctive stance on appeasement, though anti-communism and imperialist isolationism disposed many to favour it, including lords Mount Temple [see Ashley, Wilfrid William] and Londonderry [see Stewart, Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest-]. The recruitment of such younger MPs as Patrick William Donner (1904–1988) and Alan Lennox-Boyd could not offset the toll of time on the generation still motivated by memories of 1911. A movement based on the assumption that British politics had taken a wrong turning with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906 lost relevance after the Labour landslide of 1945. Continuity may yet be detected in such post-war factions as the Suez group and Monday Club.

The enduring core of Die-Hard MPs was never by itself a serious threat to the Conservative Party leadership. Most were comparative nonentities, and the likes of Sir Henry Craik and Sir Charles Oman could easily be dismissed as relics of a bygone age. They had no credible leader, moreover, permanently in their ranks. Salisbury may have been a formidable Die-Hard in 1911, 1921–2, and 1931–5, but he kept his distance between times. In domestic policy the group lacked cohesion. These Conservatives detested liberalism nearly as much as socialism; some prescribed ‘tory democracy’. Most of their colleagues judged it safer to combat Labour by combining with the Liberals or attracting ex-Liberal voters.

Nevertheless, a Conservative leader needed to take the Die-Hards seriously as a destabilizing force. However often they might be defeated, they could not be silenced or destroyed. Most Die-Hard MPs had a safe seat and no realistic hope of promotion, so whips found it hard to curb them. In addition this vociferous minority in the Commons enjoyed the sympathy of larger minorities in the Lords and constituency parties. Above all a Die-Hard could be fearsomely dogged: to fight for lost causes was practically his raison d'être. The Die-Hards constituted a permanent pool of potential parliamentary rebels, prepared to spearhead and exploit wider discontent in the party—and this they did successfully in 1911 and 1922.

Jason Tomes

Sources  

M. Cowling, The impact of labour, 1920–1924: the beginning of modern British politics (1971) · M. Kinnear, The fall of Lloyd George (1973) · G. D. Phillips, The diehards: aristocratic society and politics in Edwardian England (1979) · L. Witherell, Rebel on the right: Henry Page Croft and the crisis of British conservatism, 1903–1914 (1997) · M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 5: 1922–1939 (1976) · P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (1992) · The Times (8 March 1922); (18 March 1922) · W. D. Rubinstein, ‘Henry Page Croft and the National Party, 1917–22’, Journal of Contemporary History, 9/1 (1974), 129–48 · R. G. Verney, The passing years (1924)