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History Of The Conservative Party

The Conservative Party of the United Kingdom is a successor to the Tory Party, which represented landed gentry in Britain until the 1830s. The Tories began referring to themselves as the Conservatives around 1830. George Canning used the term in 1824, but it was a passage in Quarterly Review of 1830 which is supposed to have really set the trend: "We now are, as we have always been, decidedly and conscientiously attached to what is called the Tory, and which might with more propriety be called the Conservative, Party" (quoted in The Conservatives ed Philip Norman P17). The name quickly caught on. The new name in many ways reflected a party which had to change to adapt to turbulent times. The great change in politics at this time is defined by the Reform Act of 1832. Before this pivotal point, nineteenth century politics had been dominated by the Tories. Lord Liverpool, was Tory prime minister between 1812 and 1827, followed briefly by Tories George Canning (1827) and Viscount Goderich (1827 - 28), and then crucially by the Duke of Wellington (1828 - 30). Wellington was to be the last Tory prime minister. Although showing a forward looking attitude on religious matters - he opposed discrimination against catholics - Wellington was implacably opposed to all notions of political reform. This put him on a collision course with public opinion. By the time Wellington took office in 1828 the nature of British society was changing as a result of the Industrial Revolution. There had been a significant switch from a primarily rural to a primarily urban population. In this situation the old Tory land owners came up against the growing power of a sophisticated urban class. Wellington simply would not accept that people in towns and cities sought wider democratic representation. He foresaw chaos as the result of any moves towards widespread democracy. In 1830 Wellington felt compelled to resign in the face of intense pressure to introduce political reform. It is difficult to appreciate how volatile the mood of the country was about this issue. There was a serious threat of widespread social breakdown. Tory politician Robert Peel was one of those opposed to reform, and Peel's biographer Norman Gash describes the scene in the House of Commons on April 22nd 1831 as the issue of political reform was discussed:

"All semblance of order was lost; members left their seats and invaded the floor of the house: Peel spoke at the top of his voice but was inaudible in the tumult. The Speaker, in a passion of fury himself, at length gained temporary respite and called up Peel. Completely carried away by the tempestuous atmosphere, scarlet and shaking with temper, he plunged into an incoherent denunciation of the ministers to a running accompaniment of groans, cheers and calls to order... " (quoted The Life of Sir Robert Peel After 1830 P16).



The Reform Club - membership was restricted to those who had pledged their support for the Reform Act of 1832.

Wellington's government was replaced by a Whig administration led by Earl Grey, and it was Grey who oversaw the ground breaking Reform Act of 1832. The practical changes of the 1832 Reform Act were actually quite small - fifty six government controlled constituencies with few or no inhabitants were abolished, and thirty two constituencies had their representation changed to one member each. The number of people able to vote in general elections was increased from 500,000 to 800,000. While practically speaking these changes did not amount to much, they did symbolise the moment when the balance of power moved away from the rural Tory elite. The general election of December 1832 was a disaster for the Tories. They won only 185 seats, half the number they'd had in 1830. The Conservatives faced the prospect of adapting or dying. And the adaptation they went through is reflected in that all important name change. In 1834 the divided Whig ministry of Lord Melbourne was dismissed, and a party now calling itself the Conservatives was offered office. Wellington realised that his time had passed, and declined to become prime minister. He suggested Robert Peel instead, and it was this man who was to define the new approach which would take the old Tory Party forward into a new urban Britain. Peel in a manifesto written for his constituents in Tamworth used the new name for his party, referring to himself as leading "the great Conservative Party". His Tamworth Manifesto also made clear that inspite of his earlier opposition to the Reform Act, he now accepted it. The act would not be challenged, but neither would reform be allowed to go further. This represented a compromise that would become typical of the Conservative approach. Unreserved acceptance of the Reform Act would keep reformers happy, while the resolve not to let changes progress further assured landed supporters that established institutions were safe in Conservative hands. This kind of balancing act improved Peel's position. In 1834 when Peel took over from Melbourne he had a minority government which initially was unviable. Power had to be handed back to Melbourne in 1835. But at the general election of 1841 the Conservatives won a majority, allowing Peel and his party to form the first proper Conservative government. The compromises then continued, Peel becoming famous for changing his position on many seemingly fundamental policies. With the need to possibly change course under unknown future circumstances, Peel was always careful to give away as few of his opinions as he could, particularly on financial matters. Tony Blair used the same trick in preparing for the 1997 general election. This kind of approach has led to the accusation that the Conservative Party stands for nothing except winning elections. It could also be looked upon as the pragmatic flexibility required by government in times of unprecedented change.


It is sometimes forgotten that the flexibility of Conservative governments allowed them to respond in an often dramatic fashion to social change. Peel may have promised no more reform, but that was soon forgotten when further reform became essential. Following the end of Peel's administration the Earl of Derby formed three governments, in 1852, 1858 and 1866 - 67. Significantly it was the Reform Act of 1866 which went beyond anything that had gone before. The 1866 act increased the electorate by 88% and redrew the map of political constituencies. This openness to necessary reform is also seen during the government of Benjamin Disraeli, 1874 - 1880. Disraeli is perhaps typical of Conservative leaders in that he had no grand designs, no deeply held beliefs, and did not feel the need to go on any crusade. In fact he used the belief of more earnest people in making his political chess moves. For example, while others took religion seriously, Disraeli, in a completely calculating way, decided to use its symbolism to his advantage. In 1857 he aligned himself more closely with the Church of England. The plan was to appear conventional on religious questions, which would then provide cover for a more radical attitude on political and social reform. This kind of thing drove his great Liberal opponent, the serious minded, William Gladstone, to distraction. To Disraeli it was just politics. But even if people of a crusading tendency might dismiss Disraeli as cynical and unprincipled, his flexibility allowed him to hold various factions of his party together and so get something done. Disraeli's government was just as progressive as that of Gladstone, with measures regarding slum clearance, social welfare, public health, food and medicine quality, all being passed during his time in office. Gladstone on the other hand would tend to stand rigidly on his principles, which could and did cause huge problems. Gladstone's unyielding support for a united Ireland, for example, destroyed his party, and led to his defeat in the general election of 1874. This was when Disraeli the opportunist took over, and by the end of his term in 1880 the Conservative Party, adaptable because of its very lack of principle, was no longer simply the party of the landed interest. In his novel Sybil Disraeli had written: "I have been told that the Privileged and the People formed two nations." As leader he sought to extend the party's reach beyond the privileged and create "One Nation".



The shop in Grantham where Margaret Thatcher was born and spent her early life

From 1886 there was a century of Conservative dominance, with the party only out of power for four significant periods, 1905 - 15, 1945 - 51, 1964 - 70, and 1974 - 79. It has often been remarked how unlikely it should be that in a period of profound economic reform, a party rooted in England's old aristocratic landed interest should have dominated. None other than Labour prime minister Tony Blair wrote in the foreword of a book on the history of the Labour Party the following about Conservative dominance: "any honest assessment of Labour's first 100 years also contains a puzzle. Why has a popular progressive party, formed out of communities up and down the country, in a country where reform is so necessary, spent the majority of the last century out of power?" (Foreword to The Labour Party, A Centenary History Ed Brivati and Heffernan). Explanations are likely to involve the fact that Disraeli's One Nation idea had something in it. It is true that the Conservatives were still linked with a social elite, especially in their choice of prime ministers: Lord Salisbury (1885, 1886 - 92, 1895 - 1902) was a marques, Arthur Balfour (1902 - 1906) was a nephew of Lord Salisbury, Alec Douglas-Home (1963 - 64) was an earl, Winston Churchill (1940 - 45 and 1951 - 55) was of the titled Marlborough family, Anthony Eden (1955 - 57) was a baronet, and Harold Macmillan (1957 - 64) married into the ducal Devonshire family. But this was to change. In 1945 the Conservatives modified their criteria for the selection of candidates for entry to Parliament. Before 1945 rich men could buy safe seats, by offering large amounts of money to local Conservative associations. The new 1945 rules limited the sum that any candidate or MP could subscribe annually to his local association. This change attracted people from a wider social spectrum, and also attracted younger candidates. By the later twentieth century Conservative leaders were being drawn from wide social backgrounds. The beginnngs of a change pre-date 1945 and can be seen with the selection of Andrew Bonar Law (1922), Stanley Baldwin (1923, 1924 - 29, 1935 - 37) and Neville Chamberlain (1937 - 1940) who were rich business men. Then from 1965, Edward Heath, (1970 - 74), Margaret Thatcher (1979 - 90) and John Major (1990 - 97) all came from middle class or lower middle class families. Only David Cameron (2010 - ), who was educated at Eton, has to some extent reversed this trend for the Conservatives to choose leaders from outside the social elite.


It is also often forgotten that there has long been a strong working class involvement in Conservatism. David Denver has said that "roughly one in three working class voters during post war decades cast their votes for Conservative candidates" (see The Conservative Party ed Philip Norman, Ch 11). Robert Taylor in describing early Labour Party history describes how numerous were the working class branches of the Conservative Party: "It is... a sobering fact that the 6000 strong branch of the Conservative Primrose League in Bolton in 1900 was larger than the entire membership of the Independent Labour Party." (The Labour Party, A Centenary History Ed Brivati and Heffernan P 1)

As the twentieth century continued Conservatives were sometimes driven by philosophies which the Labour Party would easily recognise. Harold Macmillan, for example, became MP for the depressed area of Stockton-on-Tees in 1923. In his book The Next Five Years (1935) he laid out a set of proposals which wouldn't obviously be associated with the Conservatives. These proposals included public control of transport, gas and electricity, nationalisation of the Bank of England, reduction in working hours, raising of the school leaving age, and an increase in death duties. In May 1938 Macmillan published The Middle Way in which he suggested central control of the economic system, and distribution of basic food resources on a basis of need rather than profit. There was a call for a mixed economy which combined individual enterprise with regulation and control of certain aspects of the economy for the greater good. Many famous Conservatives were influenced by this book. Edward Heath, then an undergraduate at Oxford is an example (see Harold Macmillan by Nigel Fisher P 54). It is often forgotten that the kind of ideas espoused by Macmillan were as much a part of the Conservative Party as harsh individualism. Margaret Thatcher (1979 - 90) may have linked the Conservatives indelibly with aggressive free enterprise, but throughout her term she had to fight a battle with the Conservative left wing, or "wets" as she called them. The wets were just as much a part of the Conservative Party as Margaret Thatcher was, and had in fact been an essential aspect of the party's appeal since Disraeli.


In the final analysis this confusion over what a Conservative actually is takes us back to the same lack of firm principles which Robert Peel found so useful in the party's earliest days. Interestingly the success of New Labour, in government between 1997 and 2010 is often ascribed to the modelling of Labour on the Conservative Party. A.J. Davis in We The Nation: The Conservative Party And The Pursuit Of Power expresses the standard view that the Conservatives stand for nothing so much as winning power. Similarly Tony Blair's first and overriding commitment in the 1997 general election was to win. Many of Labour's long held principles - such as the commitment to public ownership of the means of production, distribution and supply - were dropped in pursuit of electoral success. Roy Jenkins said that Blair's "role in history" was simply to win 1997's election. Blair was not the first Labour prime minister to think in this way. As early as 1905 James Ramsay Macdonald was being criticised for making deals with the Liberals. Macdonald's unromantic pursuit of office inspired John Lister, the Independent Labour Party's first treasurer, to write a bitter little poem which included the lines: "Anything! Anything! just to get in/ Anything! Anything! so you may win." (Quoted in Keir Hardie by Caroline Benn P177). These were lines about a Labour leader who did what it took to win power. It seems that only a capacity for lack of principle allows the flexibility needed to deal with the unpredictability of life. There have been occasional Conservative prime ministers who have been crusaders, Margaret Thatcher being the most striking example. But generally speaking Conservative leaders have been characterised by pragmatism, with Disraeli as their champion. Sometimes these pragmatists have been criticised for lacking the ability to lead and inspire, with John Major often having to endure that charge. Lack of principle can also be linked to allegations of selfishness and "sleaze", with Margarat Thatcher's government being famously linked with self interest, and John Major's government with sleaze. But in reality it would be foolish to believe that selfishness and sleaze are confined to Conservative administrations. The early twentieth century socialist radical Beatrice Webb wrote colourfully of the Labour MPs she had to work with, claiming that with a few exceptions, Labour MPs were "a lot of ordinary workmen who neither know nor care about anything but the interests of their respective trade unions and a comfortable life for themselves" (quoted in The Labour Party, A Centenary History P34). As for lack of principles being reflected in "sleaze", the MPs expenses scandal, which broke following reports in The Telegraph newspaper in 2009, involved MPs from all main parties, and destroyed the careers of a number of Labour cabinet ministers, the home secretary Jacqui Smith amongst them.

The arguments can go back and forth, but the crucial judgement lies in the record of election victories, which indicate that people have historically preferred the flexible Conservative approach. Even Conservative defeats, to parties modelling themselves on Conservatism, tend to show this preference. The Greek thinker Plutarch is supposed to have said of politics: "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, something to be done with a particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life" (Attributed to Plutarch in The Great Quotations by Georges Seldes P 570). There is much wisdom in what Plutarch says, and it could be argued that the Conservatives have lived by Plutarch's way of life principle more closely than any other party, and have gained the most success as a result.