In this post, we will briefly examine the history of the Conservative Party; next week, we will do the same for the Labour Party. Through this, we will be able to see how the UK’s two current main parties have evolved over time – a history that informs their current view of the country and the wider world. By doing so, it is hoped we can reach a richer understanding of how British politics operates more widely, as well as of these two parties in particular.
Since the party was founded in 1834, half of the individuals who have served as Prime Minister in the UK were from the Conservative Party. During the 20th Century, the party was in government for 57 years in total. It is also, for a political party, extremely old – either the oldest or second-oldest party in the world (the US Democrats compete for the title). As we will see shortly, this is because there was not a clear point at which the Conservative Party appeared; it emerged over centuries, and the conventional foundation date noted above is not an uncontested concept.
From the first emergence of the labels “Tory” and “Whig” in the 17th Century until the early 19th century, British party labels were very loosely worn. The House of Commons was divided into factions often more loyal to individuals than overarching ideals. Members would flow into and out of government based on a variety of factors; party loyalty, as we understand it today, did not figure. It was in the latter part of the 18th Century, and on into the early 19th century, that the system began to crystallise. Divisions over reform – with Tories generally opposed, Whigs generally in favour – drove a coalescing of the two factions into firmer forms.
The end result of this process might be dated to 1834 for the Conservative Party, with the issuing of a document called the “Tamworth Manifesto”, issued by Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel. This document set out the broad principles of conservatism in the UK – that is, not to resist all change, but to embrace enough change to cope with the demands of the age, and to resist change for its own sake. It was, in Norman Gash’s description, a manifesto that stated the Conservatives would “reform to survive”. It was around this time that the party began to be referred to more and more as “Conservatives”, rather than “Tories”, and stood for election as such.
Peel remained Prime Minister until 1846, when the party was split over the issue of tariffs on the importation of corn – the “Corn Laws”. The reformist, free trade wing would eventually join the Liberals, whilst those who had supported keeping the Corn Laws (and were ultimately defeated) remained in the Conservative Party. But they had to endure many years of being either in opposition, or in insecure governments without a Commons majority, until the 1870s. Even then, their position was precarious – whilst Benjamin Disraeli was able to win a majority in the 1874 election, he lost it again in 1880. What ultimately made their rise to the dominant position they enjoyed in the 20th Century more certain was the crisis that overtook the Liberal Party in the 1880s.
The Liberal Party split in the 1880s over the issue of Ireland – how to govern it, whether it should be party of the UK or have some other status – with those Liberals in favour of retaining Ireland within the UK (the Liberal Unionists) joining up with the Conservatives. Between the Liberal split in 1886 and 1905, the Conservative Party was in power for 14 years, predominantly under Lord Salisbury. It was only in 1905 that they lost office again – after another divisive split over trade, with a faction led by Joseph Chamberlain demanding the imposition of tariffs on goods from outside the British Empire.
The most important figures for the Conservative Party in this period were Robert Peel – who, as we’ve seen, shaped the outline of conservatism as well as laying the foundations of the Conservative Party itself, Benjamin Disraeli, and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli and Salisbury are between them credited with the creation and embedding of a philosophy known as “One Nation” conservatism. This, briefly, is a paternalistic creed – one that identifies the values and interests of the working class with that of the Conservative Party, and paints the party as the one best able to act to help them, because it best shares their values. This was particularly important because, after 1867, the electorate had been widened to include more members of the working class.
The Twentieth Century
This creed of One Nation Conservatism came under strain, however, during the early 20th Century. In 1906, the party lost to the Liberals in a landslide, and faced a difficult immediate future. Yet, by 1910, they were almost level with the Liberals in terms of Parliamentary seats again, and seemed to be gaining ground. Events now overtook the UK party system, and drove significant changes – principally, the First World War. The war would ultimately be the primary force that broke the Liberal Party, splitting it irreparably and leaving it as the UK’s third party by the end of the 1920s.
For their party, the Conservatives entered government during the war as part of a coalition, which they went on to dominate after the 1918 election. During the 1920s, they faced minority Labour governments, but broadly held on to the levers of power alone – headed first by Andrew Bonar Law (the UK’s shortest serving Prime Minister) and then by Stanley Baldwin. As before, the party adapted to changing circumstances; in this case, by working to attract women voters after they had been enfranchised. Baldwin proved to be an adept manager of the party – mixing social reforms and stability in a way that seemed in short supply during the interwar period.
Baldwin eventually resigned in 1937, and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain (son of Joseph Chamberlain, mentioned earlier). Chamberlain inherited from Baldwin a country that was facing the rising challenge of fascism in Europe, whilst still reluctant to commit to large-scale rearmament. He is now best remembered for his failed efforts to contain fascism through a policy called “appeasement”, but domestically he was a continuation of the One Nation Conservative trend. He had to resign in 1940, after the invasion of France, with his government under attack from within the Conservative Party and outside for its handling of the war. He was replaced by Winston Churchill.
Churchill went on to lead the country to victory in Europe over fascism, and called a general election for the summer of 1945. Before victory over Japan was secured, and to considerable shock, he was replaced as Prime Minister by Labour’s Clement Attlee, with the first majority Labour government. Churchill remained on as party leader, and eventually came back as Prime Minister in the 1951 general election. However, his health began to fail him soon after, and in 1955 he resigned, to be replaced by Anthony Eden. Eden, in turn, made a colossal error of judgement in attempting to use armed force to seize control of the Suez Canal in Egypt (the Suez Crisis) and had to resign within little over a year; he was replaced as Conservative leader by Harold Macmillan.
Macmillan is perhaps the best embodiment of the One Nation Conservative philosophy ever to serve as Prime Minister. He mixed an appearance of steadiness and reliability with incremental reforms – he was, for example, the man who introduced Premium Bonds. During the 1930s, he had strongly endorsed more government spending on the economy, and during his time as Prime Minister he faced down ministers who called for spending cuts to deal with inflation. Ultimately, he was laid low by a combination of personal health issues and a rising tide of scandal within his party. He was replaced as Prime Minister in 1963 by the Earl of Home (pronounced ‘hume’), who sought election in the Commons shortly afterwards as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Home was only Prime Minister for a little over a year, before narrowly losing to Labour in 1964.
Home was, however, responsible for a considerable change in the Conservative Party after losing that election. Until then, Conservative leaders had “emerged” from an informal internal process – Home now put in place a proper system for electing Conservative Party leaders, and this was implemented in 1965, when he resigned. Edward Heath was elected to replace him; and in 1970, would go on to be elected as Prime Minister. Whilst Heath’s government promised considerable change when first elected, it essentially reverted to One Nation policies throughout – and was defeated in two elections in 1974, as industrial action, inflation, and trouble in Northern Ireland flared. Despite having lost 3 of the four general elections he contested as leader (the exception being 1970), Heath only agreed to a leadership election in 1975 in an effort to renew his mandate – he finished behind former Secretary of State for Education Margaret Thatcher on the first ballot, and had to resign.
Thatcher’s period as leader of the opposition was not an especially radical departure from what had gone before; in many ways, her positioning echoed that of the newly elected Heath government of 1970. When the Conservatives won the 1979 general election, Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister – she would go on to win two more elections in 1983, and 1987, before being forced out by the party in 1990 over the issues of Europe, and her style of leadership, to be replaced by John Major. Major would win more votes than any other UK party leader before or since – over 14 million – in 1992, but then go down to a crushing defeat to the Labour Party in 1997. None of three successors – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard – would serve as Prime Minister, a record breaking streak for the party. Indeed, Hague was the first leader of the party (since the position was formally established in the 1920s) to never be elected as Prime Minister. It was only under David Cameron’s self-consciously modernising leadership of the party that they would return to office in 2010 – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – and finally alone in the 2015 general election.
During this later period, the party also changed ideological direction. Mrs Thatcher’s three governments drove forward a radical set of changes in Britain that totally departed from the previous One Nation perspective. They were founded on a notion that might best be summed up as “free economy and the strong state”; that is, cutting both spending and taxes, whilst being tough on issues such as defence, crime and immigration. Unlike Macmillan, Thatcher was prepared to sell off state-run businesses, radically reduce levels of taxation, and engage in other dramatic economic and social policies. She was also, by the end of her term in office, willing to take an increasingly strident tone towards Europe.
In many ways, the modern Conservative Party is the product of Mrs Thatcher’s terms in government, and her world view. There are still One Nation Conservatives left; there are still pro-European Conservatives left; but they are both comparatively small minorities within the party compared to Thatcherites of various intensities. It is not unreasonable to argue that Thatcherism’s radical position means the Conservative Party is no longer merely “reforming to survive”; that is has abandoned fundamental conservative values in some sense; though the present author would note that this is not a settled argument. Whether Thatcherism is “right” or “wrong” is another matter – what is absolutely clear is that every Conservative leader since then has been defined in terms of Thatcherism. Whether Theresa May will – or wants – to change that, will be a matter of great interest to historians.
As we have seen, the Conservative Party has a long history – often in government, but also often tumultuous. The party has split several times, changed its ideological view point – in recent years quite radically – but has survived and indeed thrived in spite of that. The direction of the country has often been significantly influenced by internal Conservative Party politics – Europe being the most recent, but by no means the only, policy area where this is true.