The Conservative Party: Origins

The origins of the Conservative Party are problematic. The name came into use in the early 1830s, but it did so to describe a phenomenon that was at least a generation older. In its modern form, the hostility to change that is at the heart of Conservatism focused upon events in France after 1789. The results of applying ‘Reason’ to politics in France suggested to Edmund Burke and his English admirers that a little less of that quality and a lot more respect for what had grown organically might be called for. Burke argued that utopian political visions would always be undeliverable because the vehicle through which delivery would have to take place was itself defective; the fallen nature of mankind lies close to the heart of Burkean conservatism.

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A brief history of the Conservative Party

There is no single point in time when the Conservative Party came into existence. It is generally accepted, however, that the Conservative Party in a modern sense came into existence in the 1830s under the leadership of Robert Peel. Since then the party has gradually developed a more formal structure and membership. For most of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, the Conservative Party was largely engaged in resisting the reforms proposed by the Whigs and later the Liberals. In other words, it stood for tradition and stability (conservatism). For most of the twentieth century the party also fought against the growing force of socialism. In this conflict it became a strong supporter of free-market capitalism and individualism. In 1975 Margaret Thatcher became leader of the party. Between then and her downfall in 1990, Thatcher transformed the party, modelling it on her own political philosophy known as 'Thatcherism', 'neo-liberalism' and 'neo-conservatism'.

Traditional conservatism

The Conservative Party can trace its origins back to the Tory Party of the late 17th century, an aristocratic grouping that first came together in defence of the historic privileges of the Crown and the Church of England as powerful landowning institutions. By the 1830s, under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister 1834-35 and 1841-46), it was evolving into a party dedicated to

the defence of property and traditional authority against the threat of revolution. Peel stressed the importance of gradual reform in order to protect, or conserve, established institutions — hence the term 'Conservative'. The party was remarkably successful in the late-19th and 20th centuries, broadening its support by appealing to the middle classes as well as the land-owning aristocracy.

One-nation conservatism

The Conservative Party has evolved from its traditional origins. A siginificant development from traditional Conservatism was one-nation conservatism, originally associated with one of the party's most colourful leaders, Benjamin Disraeli (Prime Minister 1868 and 1874­80). The name came from a passage in one of Disraeli's books, Sybil, in which he contemplates the growing division between rich and poor in the mid-19th century, produced by the development of industrial capitalism. The 'one-nation' philosophy sought to bridge the gulf between the classes through a paternalistic social policy. 

The Conservative Party in the nineteenth century had accepted the emergence of parliamentary government and had developed key characteristic of conservatism that in order to retain the past one must accept the future. Mere reaction would not be enough. It also entered the new century with a mass party organization in the country and the commitment inherited from Disraeli to being a national rather than a sectional force. 

The 'natural leaders' of society would accept an obligation to act benevolently towards the disadvantaged, in return for acceptance of their right to rule. Disraeli, and later Conservative leaders who shared his approach, sought to win popular support by means of social reform and a 'patriotic' foreign policy, designed to strengthen national unity.

In the twentieth century the Conservative Party again adapted to change  in response to a perceived leftward shift in the electorate's preferences, and a in a popular desire for a more interventionist government- i.e. people expected governments to do more and more. The  wishes showed themselves in the Liberal government of 1906–15 and far more the Labour government of 1945–51. The combination of severe defeats as in 1906 and 1945 and the belief that the public mood had changed pushed the Conservatives towards the new middle ground.

One-nation conservatism peaked in the generation after the Second World War, when the party broadly accepted the changes introduced by the Labour administration of 1945-51: the mixed economy, a welfare state and government action to maintain a high level of employment. They prided themselves on a pragmatic, non-ideological approach, maintaining the party contest between themselves and the Labour Party, while undoing few of their opponents' policies when they held office. Post-war Conservatism balanced an attachment to free enterprise with state intervention in economic and social policy.

Thatcherism and the New Right

A  third  adaptation in Conservatism occured after the loss of the elections of 1966 and 1974—is that the party shifted in a rightward or anti-statist direction: much of this agenda was subsequently enacted between 1979 and 1990 and is associated with the leadreship of Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher (Conservative Party leader 1975-90) gave her name to a more sharply ideological form of Conservatism. `Thatcherism' was linked intellectually with the rise of a school of thought known as the New Right. It sought to reduce state intervention in the economy, while restoring order to society in the face of rising challenges from militant trade unions and other groups on the left. Its radical policy agenda rejected the instinct of One Nation Conservatives to seek compromise.

Thatcherism comprised the following key themes.

·      Control of public spending, combined with tax cuts to provide incentives for business leaders and to stimulate economic growth.

·        Privatisation of industries and services taken into state ownership, to promote improvement and wider consumer choice through competition.

·        Legal limits on the power of trade unions, to deter industrial action.

·      A tough approach to law and order, with increased police and judicial powers.

·      Assertion of British interests abroad, in relation to the challenges posed by the Soviet Union and other external threats.

·      A desire to protect national sovereignty against the growth of the European Community (European Union).

Thatcherites aimed to 'roll back the state' and encourage individuals to take more responsibility for themselves. However, in practice the popularity of the National Health Service and the need to maintain a framework of state welfare provision limited the scope for radical reform.

A post-Thatcherite party?

Margaret Thatcher was a dominant but divisive figure who aroused both admiration and hostility within and beyond her party. Following her departure in November 1990, the party struggled for a decade and a half to develop an identity independent of her. Thatcher's immediate successor, John Major (Prime Minister 1990-97) to some extent represented the continuation of Thatcherism, with the privatisation of coal and railways, but he projected a less confrontational image. After a narrow general election victory in April 1992, his premiership was troubled by growing divisions over Europe. A moderate pro-European, Major sought without success to reconcile two competing party factions — hard-line Eurosceptics wanted stronger resistance to what they saw as the encroaching power of the European Union, while a smaller pro-European group sought to keep British influence over a now rapidly integrating continent. These divisions, together with a series of scandals and a growing sense of exhaustion on the part of the government, contributed to a devastating general election defeat in May 1997.

The next three leaders of the party failed to unseat a triumphant Tony Blair, who successfully held the centre ground of British politics to win two more electoral victories for Labour in 2001 and 2005. William Hague, lain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard failed to distance themselves sufficiently from Thatcherism, which the public identified with a now discredited past. All three seemed unable to move the party beyond an association with traditional issues such as Europe, immigration and law and order. With an ageing membership and outdated policies, the party failed to appeal to an increasingly diverse society

Only with the election of David Cameron as leader in December 2005 did a serious attempt to 'detoxify' the Conservative brand begin. Cameron brought the fresh thinking of a new generation — respectful of Thatcher but aware that Britain had changed considerably since she had left office. He learned from the way in which Blair had reinvented the Labour Party to win support beyond its traditional core vote. Cameron identified himself as a 'liberal Conservative', tolerant of minority groups and different lifestyles. He showed an interest in the environment, which was assuming greater importance as a political issue, even if his critics accused him of staging superficial photo opportunities, such as posing with husky dogs on a visit to a melting glacier in Norway. He also demonstrated that he valued public services such as the NHS, on which the majority of the population relied.

Both Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, maintained that they stood on the side of ordinary people, rather than just the interests of a well-off elite. Where Thatcher had presented the Conservatives as the party of thrusting individualism, Cameron emphasised the bonds between people, arguing the case for co-operation between the state and the voluntary sector in building the 'Big Society'. The morally authoritarian tone of Thatcherism was replaced by, for example, support for the legalisation of gay marriage. In many ways the new approach seemed like an updated version of 'One Nation Conservatism'.

Cameron's moderate tone helped him to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats when he failed to win an outright majority in the May 2010 general election. Although there were tensions — for example, over reform of the voting system and the upgrading of Britain's nuclear weapons system — he managed to work with his coalition partners for a full five years, before winning a slim victory and forming a purely Conservative government in May 2015.

Thesesa May continued the 'One Nation' theme by declaring her desire to stand up for the JAMs- Just About Managing- by this she meant the working families who struggle to make ends meet. Her policy agenda was soon dominated by the issue of Brexit.

Boris Johnson similarly declared himself a 'One Nation' Conservative and outline plans to end austerity policies and embark on a British New Deal of infrastructure spending to upgrade the UK's roads, rail NHS and housing as well as big projects such as HS2 and the Heathrow extension.

In his speech outside 10 Downing Street after his victory in the General election of Decemer 12th 2019, Johnson  clearly stated that his government was to a ‘One Nation Conservative Government'.

“This one nation Conservative Government will massively increase our investment in the NHS, the health service that represents the very best of our country, with a single, beautiful idea that whoever we are – rich, poor, young, old – the NHS is there for us when we are sick, and every day that service performs miracles. And that is why the NHS is this one nation Conservative Government’s top priority,” 

Nonetheless there are were important respects in which the Conservatives remained close to the ideas of Thatcherism.

• Economic policy Cameron's priority was to reduce the budget deficit inherited from the previous Labour government. In traditional Conservative fashion Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, accused their predecessors of irresponsible over-spending, which they blamed for the financial crisis of 2008. Their response in office was to insist on a programme of public spending cuts, dubbed 'austerity', to maintain the confidence of the financial markets and prevent Britain's borrowing costs from rising. The budgets of Whitehall departments (with some exceptions, such as health, schools and international aid) were cut by up to 25 per cent. The concept of the 'Big Society' had never been properly defined, and some now came to regard it as a smokescreen for cutting costs, by withdrawing the state from the provision of public services. However, May and Johnson both indicted an end to austerity and greater public spending. The Corona Virus forced the Conservatives to adopted a big spending and borrowing programme.

· Welfare policy The coalition's policies were intended to cut costs and encourage those receiving benefits to be more self-reliant. Osborne distinguished between hard-working 'strivers' and undeserving 'shirkers', whom the government sought to penalise. The 'universal credit' system, which merges a number of in-work benefits in one payment, is intended to simplify the welfare system and encourage low-income people to take up employment. The coalition also implemented a radical overhaul of the NHS, allowing the private sector to compete with state hospitals. Johnson has stated he is in favour of investing in the NHS although there are suggestion that Brexit will mean US health companies competing for NHS contracts.

· Law and order In opposition Cameron seemed to take a more liberal attitude towards law and order, calling for more understanding of young offenders in a speech dubbed 'hug a hoodie' by the media. In office he tried to follow a balanced approach to crime. He supported tough sentencing for certain crimes, especially after the August 2011 London riots, but promoted a 'rehabilitation revolution' to reduce the problem of re offending by people leaving prison unprepared for life on the outside. The coalition government rewarded private firms and charities that helped criminals in their rehabilitation, using a 'payment by results' scheme. Cameron's policies on law and order resembled Tony Blair's insistence that government must be 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. Although the privatization of the probation service  was widely criticized.

· Foreign policy Cameron's approach was consistent with Thatcherism in most important respects, featuring strong links with the USA, support for air strikes against Islamic terror groups in Syria and Iraq, and a pragmatic Euroscepticism. Cameron tried, as Thatcher did in the 1980s, to fight his corner in the EU. He renegotiated the terms of British membership before holding a referendum, in which he championed the 'Remain' side. He resigned in July 2016 after the referendum resulted in a majority vote to leave the EU. Theresa May adopted a similarly tough approach to getting the best available deal from the remaining members of the EU in the 'Brexit' negotiations. Foreign policy under May and Johnson has been dominated by Brexit and negotiation with the EU. Relations with the USA were strained by Trump's insistence on a ban on Huawei -but China's repressive policies in Hong Kong and towards Uighur Muslims has realigned the UK and USA over Huawei

The main distinctions, summarised, include the following:


Traditional conservatives see society as organic, whereas the New Right sees society as no more than collection of individuals. Margaret Thatcher famously stated, 'there is no such thing as society'.

Traditional conservatives support free markets but take a pragmatic view of economic management, believing that there are times when state intervention is needed. The New Right is ideologically opposed to state intervention.

Traditional conservatives have favoured a mixed economy, with some key industries remaining under state control. The New Right has been determined to virtually eliminate state control of industry and commerce.

Traditional conservatives are more supportive of the welfare state than the New Right.

While traditional conservatives take a pragmatic view of policies generally, judging each case on its merits, the New Right is more ideological and tends to govern on the basis of its fixed ideas

The main similarities, Summarised, include the following: 

Both strands of conservatism take an authoritarian view of law and order issues.

Both support traditional Christian, family and 'British' values.

Both have an instinct for free markets and low taxation, although the New Right is more dogmatic about these principles, while traditional conservatives are more pragmatic.

Both see private property ownership as a key element leading to social responsibility

and order.

Both movements are nationalist in outlook and are determined to pursue British national interests.