The Conservative Party
A brief history of the Conservative Party
The Conservative Party
A brief history of the Conservative Party
The Conservative Party is the world's oldest political party having its origins in the 17th Century. The modern party can be seen to have begun in either the 1830s under the leadership of Robert Peel. Since then the party has gradually developed a more formal structure and membership or in the 1860s under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli and the advent of mass party politics and 'One Nation Conservatism'. 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 transformed again as 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'.
A 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 '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.
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
Thatcherism - and its U.S. cousin Reaganomics, after the president, Ronald - were seen as radical departures. The term privatization, for example, was barely known before her tenure.
When Thatcher took over Britain, much of its industry like those of other European countries was in the hands of the state.
She sold off steelmakers, carmakers, aerospace firms, oil and gas giants, airlines and the telecoms monopoly - often to strong objections from political opponents and workers within the former state-owned industries. Even public housing was offered for sale, at a discount, to the tenants who lived in it.
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. The term New Right more specifically refers to a strand of Conservatism that the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan influenced. Thatcher's style of New Right ideology, known as Thatcherism, was heavily influenced by the work of Friedrich Hayek (in particular the book The Road to Serfdom). They were ideologically committed to economic liberalism as well as being socially conservative. Key policies included: deregulation of business, a dismantling of the welfare state, privatisation of state-owned industries and restructuring of the national workforce in order to increase industrial and economic flexibility in an increasingly global market
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).
Thatcherism is an ideological agenda that was associated with the ideas and values of Margaret Thatcher and the policies of her government, 1979–90. Thatcherism does not so much constitute a coherent and systematic philosophy as an attempt to marry two distinct traditions. Although there is political and ideological tension between these two traditions, they can be combined in support of the goal of a strong but minimal state: in Andrew Gamble’s (1994) words, ‘the free economy and the strong state’. The two elements within Thatcherism are:
• Neoliberalism (sometimes called ‘economic Thatcherism’). This is an updated version of classical liberalism. Its central pillars are the free market and the self-reliant individual.
• Neoconservatism (sometimes called ‘social Thatcherism’). This is a form of authoritarian conservatism that calls for a restoration of order, authority and discipline in society.
A post-Thatcherite party?
John Major (Prime Minister 1990-97) follwed some of the same policies of Thatcherism, with the privatisation of coal and railways, but he projected a less confrontational image. After his election victory in April 1992, his party was increasingly divided over Europe. Major was moderate pro-European and tried 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. In this period many wondered if Labour was now the natural party of government.
David Cameron 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, and suggested an more understanding attidue to young people and crime 'Hug a hoodie'
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,”
• 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'. 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. The Corona virus has led to calls for a rethink of NHS spending
· 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. Boris Johnosn indicated a return to trditional Conservative approaches to law and order by gly tough stance with announcements on extending jail terms, building new prisons and increasing police stop-and-search powers. Johnson said punishments “must truly fit the crime”. The new policies, following on from a plan for 20,000 extra police officers, were unveiled in a series of supportive newspapers, with accompanying opinion pieces from Johnson and Priti Patel, the home secretary.
· 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. 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