The Primrose League was established in 1883 by Lord Randolph Churchill and John Gorst in the wake of the Conservative Party's loss to Gladstone in the 1880 election and after the death of Benjamin Disraeli in 1881. Disraeli had been the hero of Popular Conservatism and had actually done much to expand the franchise to working class men in the cities in particular. The Primrose League would try to reach out to these new voters using innovative campaigning and imaginative social opportunities. The reason that the Primrose was chosen as an emblem was because it was purported to be Disraeli's favourite flower and it was already being worn by Conservative Party members on the anniversaries of his death.
The Primrose League would prove to be a milestone in political development in Britain as the League galvanised political participation and provided a more social aspect to political campaigning and lobbying. It began an extensive network of social activities which included music hall dances, high teas, summer fetes, excursions by train, cycling clubs and many other activities which had hitherto not been associated with the political process in Britain. It also appealed to women at a time before they were able to vote. Indeed by 1891 over half of the membership of the League were women. Despite its use of novel events and campaigning methods, the ideology behind the League was deeply conservative in nature. It was designed to appeal to what was thought to be an innate patriotic attitude of many voters and of property owners in particular in an era when there was still a property element to who could actually vote. The Primrose League Pledge read:
I declare on my honour and faith that I will devote my best ability to the maintenance of religion, of the estates of the realm, and of the imperial ascendancy of the British Empire; and that, consistently with my allegiance to the sovereign of these realms, I will promote with discretion and fidelity the above objects, being those of the Primrose League.
The role of Empire was pivotal to the League's creation and sustaining it right up until the First World War at least. From the very start of its establishment, there were two compelling political issues with imperial overtones. The first issue was the rise of Home Rule for Ireland whose cause the Liberal Gladstone had taken up in earnest in the 1880s. The idea of ceding British territory in any form was anathema to many Conservative supporters and was felt to be deeply unpatriotic and damaging to the nation state. Over time, the Primrose League would be instrumental in converting prominent Liberal Unionists to depart with Gladstone over the issue and come and support Conservative administrations of the 1890s and 1900s. The second issue was over a succession of perceived Imperial setbacks during Gladstone's 1880 - 85 administration. The first example of this was the defeat of the British at the Battle of Majuba in 1881 in the First Boer War. This resulted in the Transvaal being granted self-government by 1884 and effectively leaving imperial control except for foreign affairs. The fact that gold would soon be discovered in huge quantities along the Witwatersrand only compounded frustration that Gladstone had squandered an imperial opportunity by withdrawing too readily from conflict with the Boers. A further setback was also slowly unfolding in the North of Africa in Egypt and Sudan. In particular, Gladstone would be blamed for being too lackadaisical in rescuing General Gordon from the forces of the Mahdi in Khartoum. This was despite the fact that Gordon had been sent by Gladstone to evacuate the region and not to attempt to defend it. Nevertheless, the Primrose League helped bring pressure to firstly launch a rescue attempt of Gordon and then when it failed by a mere three days in its mission, they heaped scorn on Gladstone and his imperial policies.
The active campaigning of the Primrose League combined with increasing Liberal division over Ireland to help the Conservatives return to power for much of the 1885 - 1906 period. This would become a period of Conservative dominance all-be-it with the support of Liberal Unionists for many of those years. Even when the Conservatives were in power, the Primrose League exerted considerable political pressure even on its own representatives. The Prime-Ministership of Lord Salisbury would prove to be a particularly activist period in Imperial British history as the Scramble for Africa unfolded in earnest adding large swathes of that continent to the British Empire. There was added satisfaction to the Primrose League members when Gordon's memory was finally avenged by the sending of an expedition under Kitchener into the Sudan. It was also a period of what was referred to as 'Splendid Isolation' where the British Empire felt strong enough to not need friends and allies. In many ways this was the apogee of the values and aspirations of the Primrose League. Perhaps the ultimate example of this bravado was when the British came close to going to war with France as a consequence of Kitchener's campaign to Sudan when he discovered a small French contingent claiming the Upper Nile settlement of Fashoda. Once again, Primrose League supporters lobbied their representatives to be unbending in dealing with the affrontery of the French. Salisbury followed their enthusiasm for a hard-line and thanks to Kitchener's extensive forces in the region forced the French to back down.
There was similar suspicion of their other imperial rival of Germany as they expanded their own colonies in Africa and the Pacific. Imperial affairs rose in prominence and took an increasingly important role in domestic British politics during this period.
This rising importance is perhaps best personified by one of the leading political figures of the era, Joseph Chamberlain. He was the most important of the Liberal Unionists to join Salisbury's Conservative administration and would go on to play an enormous role in colonial affairs. There is something of an irony in Chamberlain joining with the Conservatives as he had been an innovative social campaigner himself in the 1860s in Birmingham and the Primrose League had initially modelled its early campaigns and tactics on his own successful political career. Nevertheless, when he did join with Salisbury, primarily over the issue of Ireland, he became an eloquent and dynamic advocate for Colonial issues. He volunteered to take on the cabinet post of the Colonial Secretary despite having his pick of jobs. Hitherto, the Colonial Office had been regarded as a minor cabinet post, but under Chamberlain it would evolve into a major political force in its own right.
The constant petitioning for patriotic and imperial themes did eventually prove to be counterproductive to the Conservatives at least in the medium term. British involvement in the Jameson Raid and then the Second Boer War could be said to have come off the back of the patriotic fervour stirred up by members of the Primrose League. Almost immediately, the Boer War threw up challenges and setbacks for the British. A snap general election in the early phases of the war, known as the Khaki election, enabled the Conservatives to still ride the crest of patriotic fervour despite these military difficulties but it only temporarily masked deeper issues. The fact that the war dragged on for so long and had more setbacks for the British Army than had been anticipated tarnished Britain's imperial ardour and its military reputation both at home and abroad where many rival European powers took quiet delight in seeing Britain squirm at the hands of so-called farmers in South Africa. The war would have serious diplomatic consequences for the British and somewhat revealed the dangers of the Primrose League's favoured policy of 'Splendid Isolation'.
The British were ultimately victorious in the war but it was a hollow victory to say the least and would presage a period of political turmoil for the Conservatives. The sudden retirement of Lord Salisbury due to ill health in 1902 combined with sensational stories about the treatment of Boer women and children and a scandal over the importation of Chinese 'coolie' Labour into South Africa all took their political toll on the Conservative party. More fundamentally, the British were feeling under economic and political pressure from rising powers like the United States and Germany. Joseph Chamberlain advocated a shift in imperial economic policy away from Free Trade towards Imperial Preferences in order to counter these new threats. This was largely to protect British and Imperial companies from the ferocious competition from countries like the US and Germany who themselves were fully using protective measures to build up their own industries and economies and compete with Britain's by now ageing industrial capacity. Many Members of the Primrose League were broadly sympathetic with Chamberlain's plan but others were hesitant about abandoning such a cherished Conservative principles as 'Free Trade'. The split would prove deadly to the Conservative Party as a whole and for the Primrose League in particular. Joseph Chamberlain established a new 'Tariff Reform League' and went about luring members of the Primrose League towards this new organisation. Chamberlain was a renowned speaker and effective campaigner and so it was hard for some to resist the temptation to follow him. For other Conservatives though, Chamberlain was always regarded as a Liberal - even if a Liberal Unionist and so not all were willing to follow him especially at the cost of fundamental Conservative Party ideological beliefs. The strains on the Primrose League were palpable though as some jumped ship to the new 'Tariff Reform League' whilst others resolutely refused to follow. Much of the dynamism and ambition of the Primrose League was undermined by this new rival group. Many of the activists left and those who remained found it difficult to be motivated or heard in the new political environment.
In the 1906 election, the Liberals were able to capitalise on the split within the Conservatives as they portrayed themselves as the defenders of the working people by defending Free Trade and the concept of 'Cheap Food'. It helped that they were united on the issue and had a lot of backing from businesses and from working men. The Tories would find themselves ousted from power and it would not be for a decade until they returned to power and even then it was initially as part of a coalition government during World War One. The world and attitudes towards militarism and imperialism were changed irrevocably by the First World War. Neither the Primrose League nor the Tariff Reform League would ever return to their same levels of influence again, although their ideas would linger for many more years yet. Paradoxically though there was one unforeseen long term consequence for the Primrose League and that was in the role of women in politics. Many women's first taste of political participation had been through the Primrose League. Their tactics and use of social elements had also influenced the various Women's suffrage groups striving to gain votes for women in the decade before World War One. Therefore, when women over 28 were finally granted the vote in 1918, despite expectations to the contrary, women proved to be far more likely to back the Conservatives than either the Liberals or the new rising Labour Party. It was certainly no accident that the first female MP, Nancy Astor, was a Conservative and who had had strong connections and associations with the Primrose League herself.
The Primrose League had started out as a conservative organisation using radical and innovative methods to bring new blood into their organisation. World War One may have diminished attitudes to militarism and patriotism, but if anything it had reinforced the importance of traditional values such as family and home. Furthermore, the idea of a strong constitutional monarchy giving certainty and stability at a time when many European nations were undergoing radical revolutionary events as a consequence of the long war was seen as an asset. A further paradox is that the Empire actually substantially grew after the First World War as Turkish and German colonies were reallocated to the victorious Allies. The Primrose League continued to hold its social meetings throughout the inter-war years but it never managed to return itself to such political relevance as between the crucial years of 1885 - 1906. Other parties and organisations emulated its tactics and techniques and the Primrose League became just one voice amongst a sea of others. It held its centenary in 1983 but was seen as little more than a Conservative social club by then. It was formally wound up in 2004 and transferred its remaining assets to the Conservative Party that year.