Constructing ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in conservative thought: Populist strategy from village politics to a post-truth world
by Richard James Elliott
One of the most remarkable traits of modern conservatism in Britain and the United States is its populism—its ability to speak for and to a working class audience. Traditionally, conservative parties attracted popular support by pitching themselves to the masses as steadfast bastions of property and the established order. Yet in recent years, disruptive political movements on both sides of the Atlantic—Brexit in Britain and Trumpism in America—have magnified the importance of the direct (and personal) dialogue between conservative leaders and their working class supporters.
Calls from leading Brexiteers for Britain to ‘take back control’ from the European Union continue to resonate with disempowered voters in deprived regions of England, amplifying the reach of Boris Johnson’s opportunistic brand of conservatism. In the United States, Donald Trump speaks directly to the concerns of his working-class base, delighting thousands of adoring supporters at mass rallies, while—at least until recently—captivating (and enraging) millions more instantaneously via Twitter. And across the airwaves, conservative pundits like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson address viewers face-on, speaking directly to camera in an ersatz conversational style in order to give the impression that right-wing talking points emerge out of a straightforward and ‘authentic’ dialogue among reasonable Americans.
Using this approach, conservative leaders have been able to cultivate personal loyalty, to construct an ‘alternative’ narrative of political events around core ideological beliefs, and to undermine the credibility of the experts and journalists that question the new political orthodoxy. To those outside the bubble, this ‘alternative’ narrative often appears like a bewildering display of mendacity, bombast, nationalism, and self-aggrandisement, bearing little resemblance to reality. But for all the talk of transition to a ‘post-truth’ era of politics (and the cannibalism of conservatism), the current state of affairs is not as unprecedented as we often tend to imagine.
The ‘alternative’ narratives that have developed out of the contemporary dialogues between conservative leaders and their working-class supporters draw on many of the same strategies that have been used over the past three centuries to mobilise mass support during periods of intense political partisanship. By examining two rich historical examples (without losing sight of the clear differences in historical context) it should be possible to elucidate how these strategies work in practice. Moreover, it should become easier for us to step outside our own experience and reflect on some of the ways that populism expands and transforms conservative ideology.
The first example is a classic propaganda pamphlet targeted towards the labouring classes. Hannah More’s Village Politics (1792) was published at the height of the French Revolution, as the moderate constitutional aims of the early revolutionary years gave way to much more radical demands for social and political transformation. More’s popular pamphlet reflects the growing anxiety of the British ruling elite that revolutionary ideas would spread across the Channel, inspiring the lower orders to rise up and overthrow the existing political system. More sought to counter this threat (manifested in the immense popularity of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man) by addressing the labouring classes directly in the form of a dialogue between two characters: Tom Hod, the mason, and Jack Anvil, the blacksmith. At the beginning of the dialogue, Tom reveals that a book of revolutionary ideas has caused him to grow dissatisfied with his lot. He demands ‘Liberty and Equality, and the Rights of Man’. Jack initially laughs off Tom’s sudden political transformation, before countering his demands with a discussion of the violent excesses of the French Revolution and the natural superiority of the English constitution. As Tom gradually cedes ground, Jack demonstrates that the ‘Rights of Man’ are all abstract theoretical principles with no real foundation. And he reminds Tom of the tangible benefits of the existing order (from a day off every week on the Sabbath to the ‘superfluity’ of ale). Ultimately, Tom abandons his new revolutionary ideas, accepting that ‘we’re better off as we are’.
The second example plays on many of the same themes. C. S. Price’s Love and Mr. Smith (1932) was one of a series of ‘Plays for Patriots’ intended for use as propaganda during the interwar period. These mini-dramas were official campaign materials (approved by the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Parties), performed by party-members to an audience of local electors. Crucially, the plays were not simply am-dram electioneering: they reflected real anxieties among conservatives about the dangers of socialism and the threat of class war. Love and Mr. Smith centres on the tension that arises in a working-class household when ‘good old-fashioned’ conservative values are challenged by the arrival of a communist interloper. Mr. Smith returns home from a political meeting fuming that the local Conservative candidate has been heckled by communists intent on stirring up trouble. His daughter has invited Billy Johnson, the young man that she is walking out with, for dinner. But it soon emerges that Johnson is one of the communist agitators that disrupted and ultimately broke up the meeting. Mr. Smith is outraged, and proceeds to lecture Johnson and the audience on the perils of social disintegration if the communists get their way. Fortunately, the drama is resolved when the middle-class curate arrives and explains that Johnson was fighting back against the bully tactics of his comrades, and Johnson renounces his former political beliefs for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter.
Neither historical example is especially subtle. But the similarities between Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith highlight some of the most effective strategies employed by conservative cultural and political leaders to construct an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative for their working-class supporters.
First, the narrative is presented in the form of a horizontal (i.e. a non-hierarchical) dialogue between ‘authentic’ working characters, encouraging the audience to identify with the message presented to them without closely scrutinising its provenance. Both historical examples then build upon this conceit by contrasting the horizontal transmission of conservative ideas with the vertical transmission of revolutionary ideas from detached intellectual sources (books) and pernicious left-wing elites (philosophers and party apparatuses). While the audience is encouraged to laugh at Tom the mason for gesturing towards the intellectual authority of The Rights of Man and proclaiming that ‘I find here that I'm very unhappy, and very miserable; which I should never have known if I had not had the good luck to meet with this book’, the message is clear: revolutionary ideas (and all related discontents) are artificially imposed from above, while conservative principles arise naturally out of the community.
And yet, there is a certain irony to this horizontal dialogue, given the didactic tone and the condescension that the authors privately felt towards their working-class audience. More commented that Village Politics was ‘as vulgar as [the] heart can wish; but it is only designed for the most vulgar class of readers’, while historian David Jarvis has noted that ‘Plays for Patriots’ were informed primarily by middle-class prejudices about the workers, and for this reason draw on very simple stereotypes. To contemporaries that saw through the conceit (and that cared about such things), the cognitive dissonance must have been jarring. The insincerity of conservative strategy was obvious, while its success was positively bewildering.
Second, the narrative is played out in the sphere of domestic drama, building personal stakes that transcend the political message. Love, friendship, family prosperity, and the social order are all thrown into turmoil by the prospect of revolution. Mr. Smith reminds everybody around the dinner table that communists ‘envy the people who’ve got the grit an’ the stomach to work ‘ard an’ get on’, inciting the weak and desperate to class war. By turning the communist preoccupation with the welfare of the working classes on its head, he elevates the domestic concerns of the household over the political concerns of the party activist. At the same time, he explicitly challenges the communist conception of the worker, bolsters a competing vision of working-class respectability, and primes the audience to remember that their own security and happiness is tied to a conservative political outlook.
Nonetheless, for all the anxiety, the audience is inclined to root for a happy resolution in both domestic dramas because the characters are relatable, pragmatic, and funny. Poor Billy Johnson has to suffer through a traumatic first meeting with his sweetheart’s parents before he can reveal that he has turned his back on communism for the love of Mr. Smith’s daughter. The eventual dénouement draws sympathy and laughs from the audience in equal measure. Likewise, in Village Politics, Jack’s repeated references to Sir John, the local landowner, his ‘rantipolish’ wife, and her desire to tear down and rebuild the estate with the changing fashions lends an element of mirth to a staid, conservative analogy for revolutionary reform. In the end, it is the personal stakes of this amiable cast of characters—and the humour that they bring to the dialogue—that enables the audience to look past the contrivances and identify with an ‘alternative’ ideological narrative.
Third, the narrative defines conservative values relative to a ‘foreign’ ideological antithesis, allowing the audience to fall back on the simple dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Throughout their debate, Tom never really challenges Jack’s assertion that ‘Liberty, Equality, and the Rights of Man’ are quintessentially French principles and are thus intrinsically alien. In fact, Jack makes hay with this distinction, contrasting French freedom (‘They make free to rob whom they will, and kill whom they will’) with English freedom (‘a few rogues in prison keep the rest in order, and then honest men go about their business, afraid of nobody’), before demanding to know ‘suppose the French were as much in the right as I know them to be in the wrong; what does that argue for us?’
Ultimately, the nationalist distinction between English conservative values and foreign revolutionary dogmas applies a subtle psychological lever that makes it possible for conservative leaders to draw their supporters towards quite radical patriotic affirmations. As Jack and Tom proclaim: ‘While Old England is safe, I'll glory in her and pray for her, and when she is in danger, I'll fight for her and die for her’.
Fourth, by drawing and expanding upon all three preceding strategies, the audience is persuaded of the existence of a conspiracy to subvert natural social relations and suppress the truth. Though Jack has some success in casting doubt onto the value of foreign innovations, Tom remains obstinately convinced that his new revolutionary principles are sound until Jack pulls back the curtain: ‘Tis all a lie, Tom. Sir John's butler says his master gets letters which say 'tis all a lie. Tis all murder, and nakedness, and hunger’. The abstract theoretical principles of the revolution are a cover for an all-out assault on civil society. As Jack makes plain: ‘when this levelling comes about, there will be no Infirmaries, no hospitals, no charity-schools, no Sunday-schools’, and no security in marriage, because ‘for every little bit of tiff, a man gets rid of his wife’. Or, as Mr. Smith puts it rather more bluntly, the communists would have ‘No Gawd, no country, no marriage’.
At this point, it doesn’t really matter that the conspiracy appears wildly outlandish and all-encompassing, because it plays into a much more fundamental aspect of the ‘alternative’ ideological narrative: its anti-intellectualism. The plan to overthrow civil society is being perpetrated by a self-serving intellectual elite determined to further its own power at any cost. In Village Politics, this elite is embodied by Tim Standish, the local philosopher, who talks ‘Nonsense, gibberish, downright hocus pocus’, and is every bit the treacherous rat: ‘He is like many others, who take the king's money and betray him’. Men like Tim Standish should be grateful for the patronage of their social superiors, and should feel an obligation to preserve the status quo. Instead, they actively challenge it: they are guilty of the ancient Socratic crime of corrupting the youth with radical and dangerous ideas. Emphasising this point has two major consequences. First, it absolves all ‘misguided’ idealistic working class participants in the dialogue from blame (as Jack tells Tom, ‘they've made fools of the most of you’), and opens the door for reconciliation and even romance. Second, it primes the audience to believe that any attempt by intellectuals to appeal to reason is simply another attempt to deny the truth.
For those that are willing to buy into the narrative, the only reliable source of information becomes the ‘horizontal’ dialogue with likeminded conservatives. And at this point, it becomes more logical to deny expert authority and to reject evidence that appears to contradict the party line than to try to come to terms with a complicated reality. Thus, the narrative really does become an ‘alternative’ framework for understanding and explaining the world.
Of course, Village Politics and Love and Mr. Smith only provide a glimmer of insight into the kind of strategies that conservatives use in order to shape ‘alternative’ ideological narratives for their working-class supporters. But both of these examples do reveal continuity across time that may help to explain the flourishing of ‘alternative’ ideological narratives in the ‘post-truth’ world of today. Core aspects of conservative ideology clearly do incentivise cultural and political leaders to cultivate a direct dialogue with their working-class supporters, and to use that dialogue to shape the political reality. All it takes is a charismatic, amiable, or funny candidate, and the right kind of political appeal.
 Hannah More, Village Politics (1792).
 Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1791-92).
 C. H. Price, Love and Mr Smith – A Play in One Act (June 1932). This play, and many others like it, form a rich body of propaganda literature in the Conservative Party Archive.
 As quoted in M. G. Jones, Hannah More (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 134.
 David Jarvis, ‘British Conservatism and Class Politics in the 1920s’, English Historical Review, cxi (1996), p.63-4.
by Sakiko Kaiga
After the First World War of 1914–18, the League of Nations was established as the first experiment in an international organisation for peace. The League has often been remembered as a product of the yearning for peace, idealistic post-war views and the US President Woodrow Wilson’s leadership. Unlike the organisation’s image associated with idealism, the establishment of the League of Nations marked a shift towards ideological international politics. The beginning of the transition— from the nineteenth-century Concert of European Great Powers to the twentieth-century ideological battle—was already represented by the development of the pro-league of nations movement in Britain during the war.
The pro-league of nations movement was a non-governmental movement which, led by liberal intellectuals, promoted the idea of creating a new peaceful organisation to the public and politicians. Usually categorised as a peace movement, the pro-league movement and its thinkers have tended to be dismissed as utopians who could not understand how politics worked. As it has frequently been portrayed in previous studies, the pro-league of nations movement publicised a purely peaceful ideal and succeeded in obtaining the widespread support of the war-weary public in the later years of the war. However, most of the pro-league activists were neither pacifists nor opposed to the war, and their idea about the league defied the clear-cut categories of International Relations such as utopian or realist. In their theory, a basic premise of the creation of a league was the Allies’ victory. Pro-leaguers supported the on-going war and condemned war in general, which was hardly in conflict with their post-war project. Further, in their war prevention plan, realistic measures such as military sanctions and idealistic expectations on the moral force of public opinion were entwined as complementary ways. Both realistic and idealistic views, without excluding each other, developed their plan for peace which incorporated the collective use of force as a crucial element of the post-war order. Building on such views on future war prevention, the pro-league of nations movement aimed to devise a new system to maintain peace; the movement should therefore be better understood as a movement for international reform, rather than a peace movement. The idea about the league attracted leading statesmen such as British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and was reflected by the official reports of the Phillimore Committee, the Foreign Office’s official study group on a league, which provided the basis for the discussion on the League of Nations Covenant at the Paris Peace Conference. Influencing decision-making as well as the development of international norms, the pro-league of nations movement played a role in the emergence of the new international order.
In fact, the contribution of the pro-league of nations movement to the new order was made by its unexpected, less straightforward, evolution during the war. The pro-league movement transformed its official idea about the post-war organisation into something unintended, by reflecting not the public’s craving for peace but the reality of people and nations at war. At the outbreak of the war in 1914 when the movement began, the pro-league of nations activists identified international anarchy and the rivalry of alliance blocs as the primary cause of war. They therefore sought to reform international relations by introducing a new international institution inclusive of all the great powers. Yet, by the end of the conflict in 1918, the pro-leaguers came to promote what they had originally opposed: the league as a continuation of the war-time alliance against Germany and its allies into the post-war peace. Behind this profound shift lay a powerful argument to fight until Germany was defeated, and a widely-shared belief that a new international organisation for peace should be formed as a coalition only of ‘democratic’ states. We will see why and how this shift unfolded, by tracing the ideas of the leading members of the pro-league movement, especially those of the Bryce Group, one of the first pro-league circles in Britain, and its successor, the League of Nations Society. It reveals how post-war ideas were elaborated inside the movement and publicly promoted in Britain from 1914 to 1919—a crucial period that framed the power and limitations of the League of Nations.
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In the course of its development, the pro-league of nations movement and its post-war ideas needed to be in tandem with the war. The more popular and influential the pro-league movement became, the less control the original leadership enjoyed over its direction. In 1915, the Bryce Group’s Proposals for the Avoidance of War, the first scheme of an international organisation during the war, provided the springboard for the subsequent debate about a new world order. Inspired by the Proposals, the League of Nations Society campaigned for the foundation of a post-war organisation, but in 1915–16 worked undercover to avoid being denounced as a pacifist movement. Finally in May 1917, the Society held its first public meeting and the idea of a league obtained widespread public support. Thus, the League of Nations Society made great strides in making its case popular and legitimate, yet at the same time began to lose control of the debate about what the league would look like. In popularising their ideas, the pro-leaguers underscored only the establishment of a new organisation without going into details, and lost the nuance and sophistication of their original proposal.
Simplifying the message for mass consumption was both a strength and a limitation. The activists lost control of the league project, by abandoning in-depth discussions about the post-war plan; yet, it also enabled the idea to be interpreted widely and to develop politically, which helped fulfil the ultimate goal of the pro-leaguers—the foundation of a new organisation. By the end of the First World War, its unprecedented scale and casualties compelled governments to justify the fight by a higher cause beyond national defence or interests. For this purpose, the war was framed as an ideological struggle for a peaceful international order, which paradoxically served to intensify the violence and also to legitimise the continuation of the war until victory. Under such circumstances, the only way the idea of a league of nations could become a popular, legitimate, and practical political project in Britain was if it was consistent with the defeat of Germany and its allies. The idea of a league was upheld as a war aim, part of the moral crusade of the western powers against German barbarism. Even though the pro-leaguers hoped for a new peaceful organisation and fought for a higher cause such as ‘a war against war’, in reality they fought for victory over enemy states. Fighting against states entailed seeking military victory as well as political and ideological supremacy, and that required the mobilisation of the public and their hatred of the enemy. The truth that war involved hate and violence was an essential problem that pro-league activists had to acknowledge for their purpose of achieving a new world order.
Indeed, the long, horrible, experience of the First World War neither transformed the public attitude into opposition to war in and of itself nor accelerated the development of the idea about the league of nations. Instead, the war led people to require legitimate and ideological reasons for going to war in the future. Prior to 1914, the reasons for going to war could be varied—conquest, defence, and sometimes honour. Fuelled by jingoism and war’s image as something short, heroic and rewarding, the public was not particularly inclined to consider whether there were ‘righteous’ reasons for waging war. In the case of Britain but also elsewhere, the First World War recast the way in which popular support for mass participation in war would be mobilised, and war for the preservation of peace became the most legitimate cause. The British public supported the creation of an international organisation to prevent war, not simply because of war-weariness or a longing for peace, but because of their recognition that the League would be a democratic alliance of peace-loving nations against German militarism. From the First World War to the Cold War, what constituted the legitimate use of military force was transformed, and the concept of peace itself became the focal point for intensifying ideological antagonism in the international spheres.
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By the establishment of the League of Nations, liberal values such as disarmament and international cooperation took centre stage in the international arena for the first time. Simultaneously, it highlighted the limits of liberal internationalism—a recently challenged and re-examined concept. Although the League of Nations was originally intended as an institution for war prevention and peaceful conflict resolution, it was not designed to prevent all wars but only certain types of war. Collective security that was introduced in the League ultimately hinged upon the use of force, military sanctions, as the last yet valid and indispensable measure for the maintenance of peace. Already in the early years of the war, the possibility of triggering or escalating war by relying on the use of force as a final resort was intensely debated by the pro-league thinkers. They nonetheless ended up envisaging an organisation which they simply anticipated would evolve over time, however imperfect the original form had been. They assumed military sanctions would be replaced in the future by a viable alternative—the force of public opinion—that would underpin a peaceful, stable international society. Founded upon liberal internationalists’ belief about progress, many British pro-leaguers anticipated public opinion would gradually develop and become a strong measure to prevent war. Although educating public opinion would need time and collective force would initially be required, the league would, once international morality was developed, evolve into the organisation that relied upon the force of public opinion. Supposing the threat of collective action would be less and less crucial in the future war prevention mechanism, pro-league thinkers left a question how such a vision of the league could be realised after the war and in the next generations. By looking at the emerging period of liberal internationalism, we can uncover the origin of its fundamental conundrum—the maintenance of world peace critically depends on the use of force—an issue that is still unsolved to this day.
 Henry R. Winkler, The League of Nations Movement in Great Britain 1914-1919 (Rutgers University Press, 1952); George W. Egerton, Great Britain and the Creation of the League of Nations: Strategy, Politics, and International Organization, 1914 -1919 (Scolar Press, 1978); Tony Smith, Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today (Princeton University Press, 2017); Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Oxford University Press, 1992).
 Keith Robbins, The Abolition of War: the ’Peace Movement’ in Britain, 1914-1919 (University of Wales Press, 1976); Winkler, The League of Nations Movement in Great Britain.
 E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (Macmillan, 2001), pp. 97-8.
 For example, Peter J. Yearwood, Guarantee of Peace: the League of Nations in British Policy, 1914-1925 (Oxford University Press, 2009).
 For more details, see Chapter Two in Sakiko Kaiga, Britain and the Intellectual Origins of the League of Nations, 1914-1919 (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
 William Mulligan, The Great War for Peace (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 10; Paul W. Schroeder, Systems, Stability, and Statecraft: Essays on the International History of Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 249, 258, 263-4.
 The League of Nations Society’s strategies to garner popular support are discussed in Chapter Three in Kaiga, Britain and the Intellectual Origins of the League of Nations.
 For example in Britain, Philip Kerr, a private secretary of the Prime Minister and a leader of the Round Table, envisaged a league that could strengthen the unity of the British Empire and promote Anglo-American harmony.
 Mulligan, The Great War for Peace, pp. 7-9.
 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
 I. F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1984 (Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 131, 162.
 The relationship between two pro-league groups in Britain and the US, the League of Nations Society and the League to Enforce Peace, is examined in Kaiga, Britain and the Intellectual Origins of the League of Nations, Chapter Four. Even though the two groups had a lot in common and worked for the same goal of reforming the global order, they could not establish a constructive collaboration because of the differences in their domestic contexts and in the British and American liberal internationalist traditions. The chapter focuses only on pro-leaguers in Britain and America because ‘[t]he English showed much more interest in an international organization than did advocates elsewhere in Europe, and their ideas must be compared with those in the US’, as Kuehl has pointed out in Warren Kuehl, Seeking World Order: The United States and International Organization to 1920 (Vanderbilt University Press, 1969), p. 236. Further, in France, the discussion about the league was intensified only after American entry into the war in 1917, and the French pro-league work was mostly led by the government, not by private groups as in Britain and the US.
 For example, see ‘Ordering the World? Liberal Internationalism in Theory and Practice’, International Affairs, Vol. 94, Issue 1, (January 2018); ‘Rising Powers and the International Order’, Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 32, issue 1 (Spring 2018); ‘Out of Order? The Future of the International System’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96, Number 1 (January/February 2017); ‘Is Democracy Dying? Global Report’, Foreign Affairs, Vol 97, Number 3 (May/June 2018).
 While the British liberal internationalists expected gradual progress in international society, the American counterparts called for a dramatic and swift change of the world system. Believing in progressive history and radical development after the war, American activists supposed a league should be organised as a single community with law and a police force. For more details, see Kaiga, Britain and the Intellectual Origins of the League of Nations, Chapter Four.