Conservative party (British political party)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Conservative party (British political party)

Conservative party, British political party, formally the Conservative and Unionist party and a continuation of the historic Tory party.

The Rise of the Conservative Party

The name "conservative" was used by George Canning as early as 1824 and was first popularized by John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review in 1830. The Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts), which created some 500,000 middle-class voters, marked the advent of the new party. The 19th-century Conservatives, like their Tory predecessors, were defenders of the established Church of England. They supported aristocratic government and a narrow franchise. They attempted, by passing factory acts and moderating the poor law of 1834, to ease hardships stemming from the Industrial Revolution, but they had no comprehensive plan to cope with its widespread dislocations. They were stronger in rural than in urban areas and were defenders of agricultural interests.

Sir Robert Peel, in his Tamworth Manifesto (1834) and after, attempted to make the party attractive to the new business classes and formed the first Conservative government. But his repeal (1846) of the corn laws brought about an angry reaction from protectionist agricultural interests, led by Lord George Bentinck and Benjamin Disraeli, and resulted in a party split. The "Peelites" eventually merged with the Liberal party, and the Conservatives were hampered by the loss to the Liberals of able young leaders like William Gladstone.

From Disraeli to World War I

In the heyday (1846–73) of free trade and anti-imperial sentiment, the Conservatives were out of office, except for three brief ministries, until the Disraeli government of 1874–80. Disraeli's strong imperialism and his wooing of a broadened electorate with plans for reform, a program known as "Tory democracy," was attractive in a period of depression and increasing imperial competition. After the Reform Bill of 1884 campaign, organizations like the Primrose League and the development of the caucus gave the Conservatives greater solidarity and cohesion. They gained additional strength as a result of the secession (1886) from the Liberal party of the Liberal Unionists, who, like the Conservatives, opposed Home Rule for Ireland. (In 1912 the Liberal Unionists formally merged with the Conservative party.)

The party was in office under the 3d marquess of Salisbury (1885–86; 1886–92; 1895–1902) and Arthur Balfour (1902–5). Efforts by Lord Randolph Churchill to implement further domestic reforms in the tradition of Tory democracy were unsuccessful, but the popular imperialist emphasis remained. In this period the party was gradually drawing closer to middle-class business interests, but the insistence of Joseph Chamberlain on a program of tariff reform, including imperial preference, split the party, which lost (1906) to the Liberals. Conservatives were next in office as part of the coalition government during World War I.

The Dominant Party

In 1922 the Conservatives refused to continue the coalition formed during the war, and under Andrew Bonar Law emerged victorious at the polls. With the Liberals in decline and the Labour party still developing, the Conservatives entered a period of almost continuous hegemony. They held office from 1922 to 1929, interrupted only by a brief Labour ministry in 1924. They were the dominant power in the National governments of Ramsay MacDonald (1931–35), Stanley Baldwin (1935–37), and Neville Chamberlain (1937–40). Under the long leadership of Baldwin (1922–37), the party spoke for the interests of business, the professional and white-collar classes, and farmers. They lost prestige with Chamberlin's appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany, but the country rallied to his successor, Sir Winston Churchill.

Postwar Years

Triumph in war preceded electoral defeat (1945), owing to popular demand for urgently needed social reform, which the Conservatives would not carry through. Returning to office (1951) under Churchill, the Conservatives displayed a sense of pragmatic modernity in accepting many of the social reforms instituted by the Labour government. The party's majority in the House of Commons was increased in 1955, and Sir Anthony Eden became (1955) prime minister upon Churchill's retirement. Popularity diminished temporarily during the Suez Canal crisis, but favorable economic conditions and the political skill of Harold Macmillan, who headed the government after Eden's resignation (1957), resulted in a solid electoral victory in 1959. Under the leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded Macmillan (1963), the party lost narrowly to the Labour party in 1964. After that defeat, Lord Home instituted a formal balloting system for choosing future party leaders.

Heath, Thatcher, and Major

In 1965, Edward Heath became the first leader chosen through election. Heath led a Conservative government from 1970 to 1974 that faced the problems of a stagnant economy and a declining international political position. In response, the party moved to curb the power of trade unions and encouraged more economic self-reliance. In foreign affairs, it continued the policy of restricting Great Britain's Commonwealth and international roles while expanding ties with Western Europe, as demonstrated by Britain's entry (1973) into the European Community (now the European Union [EU]). In subsequent years, however, divisions within the party over Britain's relationship with Europe remained unresolved and at time undermined Conservative governments.

In 1974, the Conservatives lost two elections and Heath was replaced as party leader by Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to lead the party. Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990, the longest uninterrupted government of the 20th cent. Her government dismantled much of Britain's postwar welfare state, and the party became identified with free-market economic policies. In 1990, Thatcher's leadership was challenged by members of the party; in the ensuing elections, she was succeeded by John Major. Under his leadership, the Conservatives won the 1992 general election. The party received a resounding defeat in the 1997 elections, and Major was replaced as party leader by William Hague.

In 2001 the party, which had come to be seen as anti–European Union, was again trounced at the polls by Labour, leading Hague to resign. Iain Duncan Smith was chosen to succeed Hague but served only two years as party leader before he was replaced by Michael Howard. The party made gains in the 2005 elections, but Labour's majority, though reduced, remained secure. Following the elections Howard announced his resignation, and David Cameron was chosen to succeed him. Cameron moved the party more toward the center, and in 2010 the Conservatives won a plurality. They formed a coalition (2010–15) with the Liberal Democrats, and Cameron became prime minister. Cameron remained in office after the party won a slim majority in 2015, but his promises to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU and to hold an referendum on EU membership exacerbated the party divisions that had led to those commitments. Cameron, who supported remaining in the EU, subsequently (2016) failed to secure a pro-EU result in the referendum, and resigned as prime minister and party leader; Theresa May succeeded him. Early elections in 2017 resulted in a Conservative plurality; the party formed a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists.


See M. Pugh, The Tories and the People (1985); F. O'Gorman, British Conservatism (1986); R. Shepherd, The Power Brokers (1991).

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