Ultra-reactionary Tories hoped to replace Stanley Baldwin with a dictator. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

November 11, 2020   9 mins

As America’s election grinds, still contested, to a close, the entire gruelling spectacle can be seen, depending on your standpoint, as either a validation of the concept of electoral democracy or the very opposite.

The waning attachment to democracy, not just among the expanding civilisation-states of Eurasia but also among the West’s own electorate, inspires much anguished analysis in the West. Yet it is striking to remember that even here, in the Mother of Parliaments, ambivalence over this question has been a political constant throughout our history, at least on the Right.

In 1929, the conservative journalist William Sanderson published the book Statecraft: a Treatise on the Concerns of our Sovereign Lord the King, aiming to radically reshape Tory thought and help do away with democracy altogether. Sanderson, founder of the secretive, anti-democratic and neo-feudalist English Mistery organisation, was at the centre of a small circle of radical conservative journalists, popular historians and Tory activists and politicians unhappy at the drift of Britain’s interwar politics.

Under Stanley Baldwin’s leadership, they believed, Britain was at the mercy of old men, bereft of ideas, and losing its way in the world. Looking enviously at the rest of Europe, where radical anti-democratic and corporatist governments had taken control of most of the continent, they took stock of Britain’s perceived failings and diagnosed the causes: liberalism, the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and ultimately the Reformation. In one way or another, they decided, all these maladies would have to be reversed. 

It is not hard to see strange echoes of the present when we see the Neo-Tories, observing the political ferment around them, remarking in their journal The English Review that “in Eastern and Central Europe Democracy is dead. In Spain it is on the verge of dissolution. In South America it is a vision and in China a nightmare. Between Constantinople and Kabul it has never existed. Even in the United States it is slipping into a financial grave. Only Great Britain, Scandinavia, France and the Low Countries hold to a middle course.”

As the popular novelist, journalist and occasional Hitler enthusiast Francis Yeats-Brown observed in his 1939 book European Jungle, “258,500,000 people in Europe alone, many of them admittedly of high culture and intelligence, have come to the conclusion they have discovered political systems superior to the British”. The Neo-Tories’ mission, as they understood it, was to discover and implement the British equivalent; and to do so, they would have to totally upturn the popular and Conservative understanding of Britain’s history.

The German historian Bernhard Dietz, whose recent book Neo-Tories is the best available study of this radical and long-forgotten strand of Toryism, observed that, rather than being Burkean conservatives, “this group felt that there was no longer anything of the past to conserve and protect,” and thus saw themselves as revolutionaries through necessity. Indeed, distinguishing them from the parallel but distinct pro-fascist strand in British politics, Dietz places the Neo-Tories in context as the British equivalent of the German Konservative Revolution.

In truth, the comparison is not quite apt: the Neo-Tories had no writers or thinkers to match Ernst Junger, Carl Schmitt or even Oswald Spengler in literary style or political acuity. Indeed, so totally forgotten has this movement become that their works are now widely available at very low cost on secondhand book websites. And yet, something in their writing, and in their diagnoses of the failings of liberal modernity seems strikingly modern, now that the very intellectual underpinnings of liberalism are questioned as at no time since the 1930s. The story of the Neo-Tories, then, offers a strange foreshadowing of the anti-liberal and anti-modernist currents of the present moment, and a fascinating, forgotten glimpse of a path not taken by the Conservative Party. 

Dietz accurately describes Statecraft as “at bottom a racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic fundamental critique of modern industrial society,” but by the standards of its time perhaps its most remarkable aspect is its total rejection of the underlying principles of British government: constitutional monarchy and parliamentary politics as settled by the Glorious Revolution.

For Sanderson, “from feudalism grew up the pure English tradition known as Toryism,” so it followed logically that England’s decline began with the Reformation, which bore the malign fruit of capitalism and liberalism. The result was that the feudal understanding of the nation as a living, corporate body was lost forever, with Britain “given over to factions and perpetual revolutions legalised under the description of ‘General Elections’”.

The enemy, for Sanderson, was democracy itself. “The United States is ruled by millionaires, England and France by party caucuses,” he observed,  sounding uncannily like a 21st-century populist in his claim that “in every case democracy tends to divide nations into two classes with hostile interests — a small plutocratic or bureaucratic minority which rules, and the whole body of the people who must obey”.

Furthermore, he notes, “Democracy means, and has always meant, government by middle-class intellectuals,” while socialism, especially under its Fabian guise, “is merely a tendency towards the establishment of the power of middle-class bureaucrats,” especially because the Labour Party “has for reasons best known to itself chosen middle-class intellectuals as leaders”. 

The root cause of Britain’s decline, in Sanderson’s worldview, was the eternal Whig and his allies “the Dutch financier and the city bug”. As Sanderson saw it, “the Whigs, in the interests of individual licence, which they call liberty”, were perpetually opposed to the unfettered power of the Crown, from whose sacred mystery all political power was ordained to be derived. Whiggery and capitalism were seen as the gateway drugs to liberalism, individualism and the twin evils of plutocracy and socialism, but “the fraud having been exposed, the nation is now faced with the alternatives of going on to Bolshevism or returning to its national traditions”.

Those national traditions, for Sanderson and the Neo-Tories, were the feudal system, or an agrarian corporatist state derived from its perceived eternal English values. “It is not by trade or Whiggery that we can succeed,” he declared, nor “the recrudescence of the forms of feudalism which were ephemeral, but the restoration of the spirit of service and of those unseen things which were eternal.”

As Dietz notes, the Neo-Tories devoted themselves to the rebirth of Merry England, “a glorified representation of England in the Middle Ages as a political and social, partly even racial utopia”. Even the English Mistery’s more radical breakaway group, the English Array, “with its mystical royalism, its blueprint for an agrarian-corporate reformation of society and its demands for eugenics”, distinguished itself from continental fascism in that it shrank from physical violence, viewed the totalising, mass mobilisation of nations with distaste, and instead proposed an idealised vision of a decentralised, deindustrialised English utopia.

There is a strong overlap here with the political Catholic critiques of modernity and capitalism, popular — through Belloc and Chesterton’s works — in the earlier part of the 20th century, as well as the medievalising current unique to parts of the British radical Left. Their “anti-liberal, anti-urban and anti-capitalist theories… based on an autonomous and decentralised economy, distinguished by its primarily agrarian nature,” were an expression of a perennial, romantic and anti-modernist current within British political thought.

Some of the Neo-Tories, like the writer Douglas Jerrold, who saw in Belloc’s ideology of Distributism through a strong corporatist state “the starting point of the English counter-revolution,” were Catholics; all regretted the Reformation, which they believed, had set England and thus Britain on the inevitable path of individualism, capitalism, industrialisation and moral and political decline. The logic was inescapable, as Dietz notes: “if true Toryism had ceased to exist in 1688, then a revival must look to the time before 1688.” 

In place of the Whig interpretation of history, which still underpins Our Island Story national mythmaking, the Neo-Tories therefore settled on its very opposite and negation: a radical, anti-Whig interpretation of British history aiming to undo the “complete submergence of national ideals” which Sanderson saw in the Glorious Revolution. In replacing one national myth with another, they were helped by the presence within their circle of two of Britain’s bestselling popular historians, Arthur Bryant and Charles Petrie.

As Dietz observes, Petrie’s “entire historical oeuvre revolved around a reinterpretation of the Revolution of 1688–9” as “the triumph of a small and unscrupulous minority working entirely in its own interests, which were in conflict with those of the mass of the English people,” and which “had enabled liberal individualism to destroy the unity of the nation once and for all”.

With the support of Foyle’s booksellers, the Neo-Tories established the Right Book Club in 1937, a direct challenge to the publisher Victor Gollancz’s influential Left Book Club, which along with their English Review journal soon had around 15,000 subscribers. Yet the Neo-Tories, whose inner circle never rose beyond 40 or so members, with a couple of hundred active supporters within the establishment, never aimed to create a mass movement, instead seeking to influence the Conservative Party from the shadows to create a counter-revolution from above.

By 1933, Jerrold had chosen a figurehead for his counter-revolution: Lord Lloyd, former High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan, lauded by Petrie in his 1939 apologia for authoritarian governance across the Mediterranean, Lords of the Inland Sea, as a figure “who knew how to combine justice with firmness, and who could always be relied upon to support those whose task it was to uphold British prestige”. As Dietz notes, Jerrold and Petrie genuinely believed they had persuaded Lloyd to “carry out an internal party putsch, in order that they might reshape Great Britain under his leadership as authoritarian prime minister or temporary dictator” — under their tutelage. 

This was to be a coup within the Tory Party, seizing power from Baldwin and reshaping Britain on authoritarian corporatist lines, not through anything so vulgar or dangerous as a revolution but rather by instituting a new “constitutional system which can be brought into being by constitutional means,” in Jerrold’s phrasing. The idea, in 1933, did not sound quite as outlandish as it does now: Lloyd had the support of younger, radical Conservative activists, as well as the promise of lavish funding from Lady Houston, editor of the Saturday Review, with even the mass-circulation Daily Express observing that “Panther-like Lord Lloyd… is regarded by some of his admirers as a possible future dictator. He would possibly make an excellent dictator — for say three years.”

Disappointingly for the Neo-Tories, the Lloyd putsch fizzled out: at the November 1933 Carlton Club dinner where 300 Conservative activists had gathered to hear the great man launch his counter-revolution against modernity, Lloyd — who seems never to have fully understood the scope of their ambitions on his behalf — sternly criticised the Baldwin government without directly challenging it or rallying the assembled activists and Tory grandees behind himself.

Ultimately, Lloyd was a bluff Empire loyalist, focussed primarily on India, rather than a radical anti-modernist seeking to undo the previous 250 years of British history. The Neo-Tories had overestimated their ability to nudge the party in an authoritarian direction, and underestimated the strength of Britain’s parliamentary and democratic norms.

Having lost faith in their ability to overthrow democracy from within the Tory Party, and ruled out an alliance with Mosley’s fascists, who they saw as a vulgar and dangerous attempt to impose a political model which may well suit Italians but was fundamentally un-English, the Neo-Tories devoted their time and influence to advancing the cause of Europe’s authoritarian rightists within British political circles.

Sympathetic to Mussolini’s fascism, without wishing to replicate it, the Neo-Tories were most enthused by the Catholic authoritarians Salazar in Portugal, Dolfuss in Austria, and most of all by Franco’s coup in Spain, which they saw as the herald of a Catholic, conservative revolt against the modern world. As Dietz observes, it was in Spain that “the forces of traditionalism were rising up in an age of masses and machines, and that a conservative revolution was actually put into practice”. As Jerrold — who was personally involved in organising the flight carrying Franco from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco to begin the war — saw it: “The Spanish… will never be Fascists because they are God’s last, and therefore effective and sufficient, protest against the machine age.”

But the machine age did for the Neo-Tories in the end. Despite their influential agitation against British involvement in a European war — which involved bizarre screeds against the Czechs as “the white Jews of Europe” in support of Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement — the outbreak of hostilities saw the public mood rapidly turn against agitation in favour of continental dictators.

Bryant — who had penned a favourable introduction to the 1939 translation of Mein Kampf — was forced to buy up all the copies he could find of Unfinished Victory, his 1940 apologia for Hitler, after the rapid course of world events made its central thrust dramatically unpopular. The more extreme of the Neo-Tories spent the war narrowly avoiding jail as potential fifth columnists, or devoting themselves to agrarian reform and in the process inventing the modern organic farming movement. After the war, Jerrold and Petrie rebranded themselves as Christian Democrats in the Continental mould, railing against Communism and reintegrating themselves into the Conservative mainstream. 

As a political movement, the Neo-Tories were clearly a failure. The war made their already marginal cause dangerously out of tune with the times, and by bringing together the combined might of American liberalism and Soviet authoritarianism in the reconquest of Europe, it also eradicated the space for their favoured anti-modernist political projects across the continent. Even their great hopes Spain and Portugal had fallen to liberal political modernity by the beginning of the 1980s.

Perhaps their modern heirs can only be discerned on the fringes of the internet right, with the alt-right thus understood as less an aberration from liberal modernity, but rather as representative of a strand of thought that has always existed beside and against it; perhaps, in their attachment to an anti-capitalist and anti-modernist strand of right-wing thought, a modern echo of the Neo-Tories can be found not here but in the successor state of Anglo-Saxon imperialism, within the Catholic Integralist strand of American conservatism. In Britain, at least, their ideas have no meaningful currency: within their very own Tory Party, the Whig tendency is now wholly dominant; and even Britain’s own Right-wing populist party, the Brexit Party, was a project of pure unfettered Whiggery.

Yet as a fascinating and uniquely English current strand of political thought, a last ditch stand against liberalism and modernity, the Neo-Tories deserve to be rescued from obscurity. Their abortive project presents a strange and alternative vision of British Conservatism, an intriguing if morally questionable political path not taken, and a radical attempt to redefine what it means to be a Tory.

Britain remains, at heart, an Early Modern state: and the historic contest over power between people, Crown and Parliament, Europe and the Union still waits to erupt in strange and unexpected ways. Even after Brexit, British conservatives may once again observe the authoritarian tendencies that course through European politics with growing envy; and the increasingly shaky attachment of European voters to political liberalism, as well as the rise of ideological challengers in China, Turkey, Russia and India, prove that the questions the Neo-Tories grappled with are not yet settled, and may never be. 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.