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Abstract

It is well known the membership of British Conservative Party in the 1950s dwarfed that of other parties, but despite this there has been very little examination of the party's grassroots in this crucial period. What literature there is comes predominantly from the top-down focus of national politics and revolves around four disputed images. Firstly, high-levels of membership are associated with commendable engagement with formal politics. Secondly, local associations are presented as inconsequential but autonomous. Thirdly, activists are seen as uninterested in ideology and focused on campaigning and social activity. Finally, associations are presented as dominated by women precisely because of their primarily social nature. This article examines the debates about these conventional images through an analysis of the rival Conservative factions in two Newcastle-upon-Tyne Associations, the location of probably the most divisive splits in twentieth-century Conservatism. It suggests that presentations of a ‘golden age’ of activism are unhelpful, that the conventional conception of autonomy obscures informal relationships, that attention to the ideological dimension is central to understanding and that the nature of female participation can only be understood by challenging the false dichotomy of social and political motivations. Taken together it argues that the study of grassroots Conservatism needs to grapple with the meanings, motivations and practices as seen from below as well as the consequences of such activity for those above. In this way the study of politics from the bottom-up can have significant consequences for our understanding of the Conservative Party.