This is not some tortured political metaphor or some snarkish comment about the rise and fall of particular political parties, it is a pure statement of fact, and one that is indispensable if we are to understand modern Conservatism and the theoretical under-pinnings of the Anglo-American capitalist system that has since become the dominant paradigm even in the former Communist world. Modern industrial and financial capitalism grew up in a world where small-d 'democracy' was at least in England very close to a dirty word.
Representation of the People Act 1918 Prior to the passage of this act only 60% of British men had the right to vote and women had no right to vote at all. And even this previously existing bare approximation of representative democracy dated only to 1884 with the passage of Representation of the People Act 1884 which built on the Second Reform Act of 1867 which extended the male franchise from its previous 20% level to 40%. Which means that during almost the entirety of the time that England was the dominant world political and economic power, power that was largely driven by the Industrial Revolution itself, and prided itself on its centuries old system of Representative government as expressed in the House of Commons in Parliament, it was considered right, proper and natural that only 1 man in 5 even had the smallest voice in selecting the political leadership of even that part of Government that represented the people. And this doesn't even touch the role of the Monarchy and of the unreformed House of Lords which didn't even pay lip service to democracy.
This isn't just a historical curiosity, it goes a long way to explain the intellectual schizophrenia at the heart of modern movement Conservatism which has tried to merge a thoroughly anti-democratic history with a form of populism with results among other things in the existence of the Tea Party. More below the squiggle.
Now the notion that prior to 1867 only 20% of adult men were in any sense political actors in Britain, and that ratio up strikingly from the situation prior to the First Reform Act of 1832 which expanded the franchise from around 400,000 men to 650,000 out of a population of some 14 million, might come as a surprise to many Americans who trace back our own system of democracy to the Magna Carta of 1216, didn't the Barons and the Commons force Bad King John to reaffirm the rights of free Englishman previously taken away under the cruel Norman Yoke? Well yeah, kinda. But 'free' didn't mean exactly what it connotes today, and certainly did not extend to the right to personally select your representative in Parliament, that choice was restricted to a particular slice of 'free Englishmen'. And while those Parliamentary Members (as they are called today) were expected in some sense to represent the entirety of the Commons from low to high it was only natural that in practice they reflected the interests of the actual electorate, which we could short-hand as 'substantial property owners'.
Time for another wrinkle. English Common Law and much of traditional English political theory rested on a foundation of firm belief in The Ancient Constitution. This theory in brief held that the English political and legal system although largely unwritten was based on an Ancient Constitution that was inherited from time immemorial and which was not only unvarying but by definition perfect, making any transitory variations from it equally by definition bad, and to be resisted and if possible reversed to restore the 'pure' Constitution which was operational defined from Magna Carta on to mean primarily the protection of Property Rights. Given this mindset the responsibility of a political class that was restricted by the perfect Ancient Constitution to free male owners of property, and substantial property at that, to defend property rights against all challengers was not only right and just, but pretty close to an Eleventh Commandment.
If this is all beginning to sound kind of Tea Partyish with a firm admixture of American Constitutional Originalism plus a dollop of Exceptionalism well it should. Modern Conservatism in both its British and American forms rests on a hundreds of year old world view that naturally translates "We the People" to be fully equivalent to "We the Property Owners". And what are the greatest threats to the People? Kings and the Mob. The Taxman and the Redistributionist. And what are the best means of defense? Well against the King it is keeping control of the pursestrings, while against the Mob/Redistributionist/Moochers/Looters it is keeping control of the franchise.
In Britain this all played out in a relatively consistent fashion as over the centuries Parliament ultimately established itself as the ultimate power over taxation, and then resisted progressive extension of the electoral franchise as long as it could, relenting only in stages and at that simply by co-opting the next tranche of property owners, only to have that control break down in the wake of the Great War and so for the first time actually convert Britain into a democracy as that is understood today. Things were a little more messy in the United States which was founded at a time when property ownership and hence the franchise was already much wider spread than it was in contemporary England. At least in the Northern Colonies where relative ease in becoming a property owner compared to Southern style plantations combined with churches largely built on Congregational models created communities were from the beginning more egalitarian than either their English or Southern counterparts. That is from the beginning Northern Conservatism was able to blend property rights and democracy in ways English Conservatives could not. And more to the point in ways that modern American Movement Conservatism cannot.
I am afraid there was too much set-up here for what I hope is the takeaway: Movement Conservatism is by its very nature anti-democratic even as it is in theory opposed to central control. That is just like their English counterparts they set themselves in conscious opposition to both the King and the Mob. Maintaining control as against the central power requires a certain type of collective decision making but equally requires class solidarity against the Mob. The end result can be summed up quite nicely:
"That Government of the Right People, by the Right People, for the Right People Shalt Not Perish from this Earth"
Postscript. I know this is not fully developed and welcome any critiques and pointers people might have that would help in making this just the first in a series of discussions on the relation between conservatism and the political economy of modern capitalism and the rather odds ways that has manifested itself in modern American Movement Conservatism. A lot of things that appear self-contradictory to the point of near pathology, for example simultaneous appeals to authoritarianism while flying 'Don't Tread on Me Flags' are not that inexplicable when put into the historical context from which Conservatism emerged to start with. Which by the way is the same historical setting in time and place from which Neo-Liberal and Classical Economics emerged. Which latter is the direction I really want this series of posts to go.