The Radical Irish Pressmen and the Invention of Modern Conservatism

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:40 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Robert Portsmouth, National University of Ireland at Galway
Little attention has been paid to the network of Irish Tory writers which dominated much of the press in Britain between 1820 and 1835. Foremost among them was Galway born John Wilson Croker M.P., the most accomplished ‘spin doctor’ of his day, who co-founded the hugely successful John Bull (1820), the London Guardian in 1819, some years before the famous Manchester version, and who dominated the literary and political  flagship of the ministry, the Quarterly Review.

     Croker was Sir Robert Peel’s closest political advisor, and although Peel’s ‘Tamworth Manifesto’ of 1834 is commonly seen as the foundational document of the Conservative party, Croker’s network of Irish writers reveals were most responsible for establishing and promoting the principles of modern parliamentary conservatism. Notable among them were William Maginn and F. S. Mahoney of Fraser’s, George Croly of the Monthly Magazine, Stanley Lees Giffard of the London Standard and the O’Sullivan brothers of Blackwood’s and the Dublin University Magazine. While largely unknown, they advocated more radical social, political and economic reforms to improve the state of Britain and Ireland than their rivals; they denounced the Catholic Association as retrogressive, sectarian and divisive, and the ‘Abstract Theorising’ Whigs for turning industrial and agricultural workers into ‘slaves’ on behalf of the rising middle classes.

     By 1835, the Irish pressmen believed hopes for Irish unity had failed largely because both ‘Ultra Catholics’ as well as ‘Ultra Protestants’ refused to make concessions. Although their ambition for a unifying centre party was lost in Ireland, their promulgation of essentially the same principles of an Irish tradition of political thought stretching from Swift to Burke, defined the new Conservative party as a defender of the constitution and the prudent reforming alternative to the ‘Ultra Tories’ and ‘Ultra Whigs’ in Britain.

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