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Conservative Party agents in Second World War Britain
University of Exeter
Twentieth Century British History
Oxford University Press
The Second World War placed great pressures on the machinery and personnel of all political parties. Conservatives formed the view that their own machine had been especially hard hit by the challenges of the war years, and that this was a major reason for the party's 1945 general election defeat. A supposed decline in the number of full-time, salaried constituency agents was a key component of this narrative of decline. This article investigates what happened to the Conservative agency in wartime, using an unusually wide range of sources, including those of around a hundred constituency associations. It shows that the number of agents did fall as a result of the war, but that associations often worked hard to keep their agents, or to mitigate the effects of their departure. It also explains the failure of headquarters' wartime efforts to reform the agency and centralize the employment of agents. Although the party's relative organizational decline did have significant emotional and practical consequences for it in 1945, Conservatives tended, post hoc, to overstate the extent of their wartime organizational collapse, in part because it allowed them to avoid damaging recriminations about the real reasons for their defeat. Ultimately, though, the war's effects, while significant, were essentially transient. Constituency control of agents remained, and a professional standard was maintained. The Conservatives emerged from the war with an agency that was different in detail from, but recognizably similar in form to, that which had predated the war.
This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Twentieth Century British History following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version (Vol.18 (3), 2007 pp. 334-364) is available online at: http://0-tcbh.oxfordjournals.org.lib.ex.ac.uk/cgi/reprint/18/3/334 24 month embargo by the publisher. Article will be released September 2009.
18 (3), pp. 334-364