The Conservative Party

 BBC link: Candidates for leader 2019 and how the Conservatives choose their leader

 BBC link: Candidates for leader 2019 and how the Conservatives choose their leader

A Brief History of the Conservative Party

The Conservative Party, which has its origins in the 17th Century, is the oldest political party in the world. Its modern iteration is often traced back to either the 1830s under Robert Peel's leadership or the 1860s under Benjamin Disraeli, marking the rise of 'One Nation Conservatism'. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the party primarily opposed reforms from the Whigs and later, the Liberals, advocating for tradition and stability. As socialism gained traction in the 20th century, the party shifted towards advocating for free-market capitalism and individualism. Margaret Thatcher's leadership from 1975 to 1990 further reshaped the party based on her ideologies known as 'Thatcherism', 'neo-liberalism', and 'neo-conservatism'.

One-nation conservatism

A development from traditional Conservatism was one-nation conservatism, which was originally associated with one of the party's most colorful leaders, Benjamin Disraeli (Prime Minister 1868 and 1874­-80). The term originated from a passage in one of Disraeli's books, Sybil, where he discusses the increasing division between the wealthy and the poor in the mid-19th century due to the rise of industrial capitalism. 

The 'one-nation' philosophy aimed to bridge the gap between social classes through a paternalistic social policy. The 'natural leaders' of society were expected to treat the less fortunate with kindness, in exchange for recognition of their authority. Disraeli, along with subsequent Conservative leaders who adopted his stance, endeavored to gain popular support through social reforms and a 'patriotic' foreign policy aimed at bolstering national unity.

Modern One Nation Conservatism

 One-nation conservatism reached its peak in the post-World War II era, during which the party largely embraced the changes brought about by the Labour government of 1945-51, including the mixed economy, a welfare state, and government initiatives to sustain high employment levels.( Keynsianism)  They prided themselves on a practical, non-ideological approach, maintaining a competitive stance against the Labour Party while making minimal adjustments to their rivals' policies during their time in power. Post-war Conservatism struck a balance between supporting free enterprise and intervening in economic and social matters. (Michael Oakeshott 1901-1990

Benjamin Disraeli

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 aimed to decrease government involvement in the economy, while establishing order in society amidst growing resistance from militant trade unions and other left-wing groups. Its bold policy approach dismissed the inclination of One Nation Conservatives to seek middle ground. The term New Right specifically denotes a branch of Conservatism that was influenced by figures like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Thatcher's version of New Right ideology, known as Thatcherism, drew heavily from the ideas of Friedrich Hayek, particularly his book The Road to Serfdom. They were devoted to economic liberalism and social conservatism. Key initiatives included: relaxing business regulations, dismantling the welfare system, privatizing state-owned businesses, and reorganizing the workforce to enhance industrial and economic adaptability in an increasingly global marketplace. 

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 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 of 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. 

Traditional Conservatism and the New Right Compared


The main similarities, Summarised, include the following: 

A post-Thatcherite party?

John Major, who served as Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, implemented similar policies to Thatcherism by privatizing coal and railways, but presented a less confrontational demeanor. Following his victory in April 1992, his party became increasingly split on European matters. Major, a moderate pro-European, attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile two opposing party factions - hard-line Eurosceptics advocating for stronger opposition to the European Union's perceived encroaching power, and a smaller pro-European faction aiming to maintain British influence over an increasingly integrating continent. These divisions, alongside a series of scandals and a growing government fatigue, led to a significant defeat in the general election of May 1997.

The subsequent three leaders of the party were unable to defeat the successful Tony Blair, who maintained control of the center of British politics and secured two more electoral wins for Labour in 2001 and 2005. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard struggled to distance themselves from Thatcherism, a concept associated with a discredited past. They appeared incapable of steering the party away from traditional issues like Europe, immigration, and law and order. With an aging membership and outdated policies, the party failed to resonate with an increasingly diverse society, leading many to question if Labour was the natural party of government. David Cameron, observing Blair's reinvention of Labour, positioned himself as a 'liberal Conservative,' embracing minority groups and diverse lifestyles. He advocated for the environment and adopted a more empathetic approach towards young individuals and crime, coining the phrase 'Hug a hoodie.' Both Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, emphasized their alignment with ordinary citizens rather than the wealthy elite. Cameron highlighted the importance of community bonds and cooperation between the state and voluntary sector to build the 'Big Society,' departing from Thatcher's individualistic image and supporting causes like gay marriage legalization. Cameron's moderate stance facilitated the formation of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats after falling short of a majority in the May 2010 general election. Despite disagreements on issues such as voting system reform and nuclear weapons, the coalition functioned for a full five years. Cameron later achieved a narrow victory, enabling the establishment of a 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,” 

Conservative Policies Post Thatcher 

• 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 indicated an end to austerity and greater public spending. The coronavirus forced the Conservatives to adopt a big spending and borrowing programme. The brief Liz Truss government saw a radical 'growth agenda' based on borrowing to fund tax cuts- the subsequent economic turmoil led to a rapid reversal and the fall of Truss.  Truss's experiment illustrates the divisions between - one-nation conservatism- pragmatic economics and neo-liberal ideology. This remains a fault line of division in economic policy in the Conservative party. Sunak's return to traditional economic tory management alienated the neo-liberal faction which undermined his authority.  (see Reform Party )

· 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 stated he was in favour of investing in the NHS although there was also a suggestion that Brexit would mean US health companies competing for NHS contracts. The coronavirus has led to calls for a rethink of NHS spending. The pandemic dominated the Johnson government and pushed aside any clear policy direction. The pandemic also exposed the consequences of years of austerity as the NHS and care services were increasingly seen as 'in crisis'.

· 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 Johnson indicated a return to traditional Conservative approaches to law and order by a 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. Therefore the prison population grew dramatically and prisons were seen as being in a state of crisis. 

· 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 negotiations 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 have realigned the UK and the USA over Huawei.

The war in Ukraine and the perceived threat from China resulted in an increase in military spending. The war in Gaza was followed by a very traditional restatement of support for Israel and the USA but as the excesses of the Israeli military became more apparent the government became more critical (relatively) of Israel.