Conservatives and the Politics of Land: Lord Winchilsea's National Agricultural Union, 1893-1901

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The ‘land question’ played a major part in late Victorian British politics. This article focuses on Conservative engagement with land politics, paying particular attention to a pressure group that has yet to receive serious attention from scholars: the earl of Winchilsea's National Agricultural Union (NAU). Established in 1893, the NAU had a significant impact on English agrarian politics in the 1890s. Its membership open to landlords, farmers and labourers, the NAU sought to mobilise mass support behind a legislative programme, which included tax relief for agricultural land, the reduction of railway rates and old age pensions. Within two years the Union claimed over 50,000 members. At the 1895 general election, 364 candidates backed all or parts of its programme. Winchilsea tried to organise his parliamentary supporters into an ‘Agricultural Party’ to promote NAU proposals at Westminster, but this effort failed. Moreover, outside parliament, success was limited. Notwithstanding NAU claims, membership probably never exceeded about 30,000, the spread of branches was uneven, and supporters proved reluctant to contribute time or money. After 1896, the NAU declined, not long surviving Winchilsea's death in September 1898. The Union's failure sheds light on contemporary Conservatism. Winchilsea's message of cross-class unity in defence of crisis-hit agriculture sprang from an out-of-date social vision, which cast the landed elite as exemplars of chivalrous noblesse oblige. By the 1890s, this had little resonance with the Conservative party, which in terms of land politics was moving towards reform, and specifically measures for the creation of peasant proprietors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25 - 69
Number of pages45
JournalThe English Historical Review
Issue number490
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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