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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 chosed to succeed him.
See M. Pugh, The Tories and the People (1985); F. O'Gorman, British Conservatism (1986); R. Shepherd, The Power Brokers (1991).
The Conservative Party is descended from the historic Tory Party which was founded in 1678. Due to this lineage the party is still often referred to as the Tory Party. As well as the more correct description of Conservatives, its members are also called Tories. The Conservative Party was in government for two-thirds of the twentieth century, but it has been in opposition in Parliament since losing the 1997 election to the Labour Party.
Currently the Conservatives are the largest opposition party in the United Kingdom and form Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party is the second largest political party in the United Kingdom in terms of sitting Members of Parliament, the largest in terms of public membership, the largest in terms of sitting councillors in local government, and the oldest political party in the world. The current party leader is David Cameron, who acts as the Leader of the Opposition and heads the Shadow Cabinet.
For the months between January and March 2008, the Conservative Party received nearly £5.8 million in donations, compared to just over £3.1 million for the Labour Party, as declared by The Electoral Commission on 22 May 2008. But the Conservatives are also £12 million in debt, compared to Labour's £17.8 million and the Liberal Democrats' £1.13 million. The Conservative Party has recently become highly popular. Polls and prediction markets in 2008 showed that it is close to winning a landslide absolute majority.
As with the Labour Party, membership has long been declining and despite an initial boost shortly after Cameron's election as leader, membership resumed its fall in 2006 and is now actually lower than when David Cameron was elected in December 2005. However, the Conservative Party still has more members (about 290,000) than the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats combined (around 200,000 and 70,000 respectively). However, the party does not publicly provide verifiable membership figures, making this difficult to confirm.
The membership fee for the Conservative party is £25, or £5 if the member is under the age of 23.
According to accounts filed with the Electoral Commission it had income in the year ending 31 December 2004 of about £20 million and expenditure of about £26 million.
The electoral symbol of the Conservative party is a stylised oak tree, replacing the freedom torch. The present motto, adopted by the Party on 6 October 2007, is "It's Time For Change". Before David Cameron, the official party colours were red, white and blue, though blue is most generally associated with the party, in contrast to the red of the Labour Party. The position has become more ambiguous since the logo change in 2006, and the party website is now blue and green. (In the Cumbrian constituencies of Penrith and the Border and Westmorland and Lonsdale the party adopts yellow as its colour after the coat of arms of the Earls of Lonsdale).
The Conservative Party traces its origins to a faction, rooted in the 18th century Whig Party, that coalesced around William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister of Great Britain 1783-1801 and 1804-1806). Originally known as "Independent Whigs", "Friends of Mr. Pitt", or "Pittites", after Pitt's death the term "Tory" came into use. This was an allusion to the attenuated Tories, a political grouping that had existed from 1678, but which had no organisational continuity with the Pittite party. From about 1812 on the name "Tory" was commonly used for the newer party.
Not all members of the party were content with the "Tory" name. George Canning first used the term 'Conservative' in the 1820s and it was suggested as a title for the party by John Wilson Croker in the 1830s. It was later officially adopted under the aegis of Sir Robert Peel around 1834. Peel is acknowledged as the founder of the Conservative party which he created with the announcement of the Tamworth Manifesto.
The widening of the franchise in the nineteenth century forced the Conservative Party to popularise its approach under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, who carried through their own expansion of the franchise with the Reform Act of 1867. In 1886 the party formed an alliance with Lord Hartington (later the 8th Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain's new Liberal Unionists, and under the statesmen Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour the party held power for all but three of the following twenty years. However, the party suffered a landslide election defeat in 1906 when it split over the issue of free trade.
The Conservatives served with the Liberals in the all-party coalition government during World War I, and the coalition continued under Liberal PM David Lloyd George (with half of the Liberals) until 1922. Eventually, Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin led the breakup of the Coalition and the Conservatives came again to dominate the political scene in the inter-war period, albeit from 1931 in another coalition, the National Government. It was this wartime coalition government under the leadership of Winston Churchill that saw the United Kingdom through World War II. However, the party lost the 1945 general election in a landslide to the resurgent Labour Party.
Upon their election victory in the 1951 general election, the Conservatives accepted the reality of Labour's 'welfare state' and its industry nationalisation programme, though Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home continued to promote relatively liberal trade regulations and less State involvement throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
Edward Heath's 1970-1974 government was notable for its failure to battle the increasingly militant trade unions, although it was successful in taking Britain into the European Economic Community. Macmillan's earlier bid to join the EC in early 1963 had been blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. As an example of the Conservatives' divided stance on the issue, Churchill at one point argued strongly for a 'United States of Europe', although he was against British membership of any federal European state and specifically the EEC. Since accession, British membership in the EU has been a source of significant and heated debate over the decades within the Conservative party.
Margaret Thatcher won her party's leadership election in 1975. Following victory in the 1979 general election, the Conservatives briefly pursued a monetarist economic programme. More generally, the party adopted a free-market approach to government services and focused on the privatisation of industries and utilities nationalised under Labour in the 1940s and 1960s. Thatcher after her initial election led the Conservatives to two landslide election victories in 1983 and 1987. She was greatly admired by some for her leadership in the Falklands War of 1982 and policies such as the right of council house tenants to buy their house. However, she was also deeply unpopular in certain sections of society, in part due to the high unemployment following her economic reforms and also for what was seen as a heavy-handed response to issues such as the miners' strike. Yet it was Thatcher's introduction of the Community Charge (known by its opponents as the poll tax) which most contributed to her political downfall. Her increasing unpopularity and unwillingness to compromise on policies perceived as vote losers saw internal party tensions lead to a leadership challenge by the Conservative MP Michael Heseltine, after which she was forced to stand down from the premiership in 1990.
William Hague assumed the leadership after the party's electoral collapse in 1997. Though a strong debater in the House of Commons, a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph found that two-thirds of voters regarded him as laughable, mocked as he was for headlines such as his claim that he drank 14 pints of beer in a single day in his youth. He was also criticised for attending the Notting Hill Carnival and for wearing a baseball cap in public, in what were seen as poor attempts to appeal to younger voters. Shortly before the 2001 election, Hague was much maligned by some Labour and Consrvative supporters for a speech in which he predicted that a re-elected Labour government would turn Britain into a "foreign land". The BBC also reported that Conservative peer Lord Taylor criticised Hague for not removing the whip from Conservative MP John Townend, after the latter made a speech in which he termed the British "a mongrel race", although Hague did reject Townend's views. The 2001 election resulted in a net gain of just one seat for the Conservative Party and William Hague resigned soon after, having privately set himself a target of 209 seats – Labour's performance in 1983 – a target which he missed by 43.
Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003) (often known as IDS and by satirists as "the quiet man") was a strong Eurosceptic. But Euroscepticism did not define Duncan Smith's leadership—indeed it was during his tenure that Europe ceased to be an issue of division in the party as it united behind calls for a referendum on the proposed European Union Constitution. However, before ever facing the public at a general election, Duncan Smith lost a vote of no confidence to MPs who felt he was unelectable. Michael Howard then stood for the leadership unopposed on 6 November 2003.
Under Howard in the 2005 general election, the Conservative Party increased their total vote share by around 0.6% (up to 32.3%) and – more significantly – their number of parliamentary seats by 33 (up to 198 seats). This gain accompanied a large fall in the Labour vote, and the election reduced Labour's majority from 167 to 66. The Conservative party actually won the largest share of the vote in England, though not the largest number of seats. The campaign - based around the slogan,"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" - was designed by Australian pollster Lynton Crosby. The day after the election, on 6 May, Howard announced that he did not feel it was right to continue as leader after defeat in the general election, also saying that he would be too old to lead the party into another campaign and would therefore step down, while first allowing time for the party to amend its leadership election rules.
David Cameron won the subsequent leadership campaign. Cameron beat his closest rival, David Davis, by a margin of more than two to one, taking 134,446 votes to 64,398. He then announced his intention to reform and realign the Conservatives, saying they needed to change the way they looked, felt, thought and behaved, advocating a more centre-right stance as opposed to their traditional staunchly right-wing platform. Although Cameron's views are significantly to the left of the grassroots party, he has expressed his admiration for former PM Margaret Thatcher, describing himself as a 'big fan of Thatcher's', however, he questions whether that makes him a Thatcherite. For most of 2006 and the first half of 2007, polls showed leads over Labour for the Conservatives. Polls became more volatile in the summer of 2007 with the accession of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister although a strong Conservative lead has once again become apparent since October 2007. On Thursday 8 May 2008, a week after the local elections a YouGov poll commissioned by The Sun newspaper was published, giving the Conservative Party a 26 point lead over Labour, its largest lead since 1968. The Conservatives gained control of the London mayoralty for the first time in May 2008 after Boris Johnson defeated Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone.
The Conservative Party, as the largest in the UK Parliament after the Labour Party, provides Her Majesty's Official Opposition to the Labour Government of Gordon Brown. Labour currently holds a majority of 64 in a House of Commons of 646 Members of Parliament. The Conservatives now number 193 MPs.
On Europe many commentators believe that their failures in UK politics from 1997 were partly as a result of continued internal tension between Europhiles (such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine) and Eurosceptics (such as John Redwood and William Hague). However, the Conservative party has in recent years largely come to terms with these issues, or has at least ceased to argue quite as publicly over what remains a contentious internal issue.
Since the election of David Cameron as leader, party policy has increasingly focused on such "quality of life" issues as the environment, the improvement of government services (most prominently the National Health Service and the Home Office), and schools. Since Cameron became leader the party has taken a stance on fixing what he claims is Britain's "broken" society.
Conservatives hold a varying record of opposition and support on parliamentary devolution to the nations and English regions of the UK. They opposed devolution to Wales and Scotland in the 1997 referendums, whilst supporting it for Northern Ireland. They also opposed the government's unsuccessful attempt at devolution of power to North East England in 2004. However, with a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly now in existence, the Conservatives have pledged not to reverse these reforms. Recently the Conservatives have begun to take a stance on the difficult West Lothian Question, supporting - as a proposal but not yet as a policy - the idea that only English MPs should vote on policies that affect only England. (See the article on the 'West Lothian Question' for fuller explanation of the issues involved).
Following Labour's victory in the 1997 general election, the Conservative Party opposed Labour's decision to grant the Bank of England independent control of interest rates. Economists had long advocated independent central banks as a means of depoliticising monetary policy and overcoming the problem of time inconsistency (a situation in game theory which shows how a policymaker who cares about both low unemployment and low inflation will achieve neither). Moreover, in the 1990s a number of countries (e.g. New Zealand) pursued such reforms. However, the Conservatives initially opposed independence for the Bank of England on the grounds that it would be a prelude to the abolition of the pound sterling and acceptance of the European single currency, and also expressed concern over the removal of monetary policy from democratic control. However, Bank independence was popular amongst the financial community as it helped to keep inflation low. The Conservatives accepted Labour's policy in early 2000.
The Conservative Party under David Cameron has redirected its stance on taxation, still committed to the general principle of reducing direct taxation whilst arguing that the country needs a "dynamic and competitive economy", with the proceeds of any growth shared between both "tax reduction and extra public investment".
Perhaps the most notable Conservative economic policy of recent years has been opposition to the European single currency. Anticipating the growing Euroscepticism within his party, John Major negotiated a British opt-out from the single currency in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, although several members of Major's cabinet (Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Stephen Dorrell) were personally supportive of EMU participation. Following Major's resignation after the 1997 defeat, each of the four successive Conservative leaders (William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron) have positioned the party firmly against the abolition of the pound. This policy is broadly popular with the British electorate, although voters typically rank Europe as an issue of low importance compared to education, healthcare, immigration and crime. In a study by the European Parliament in 2004, only 9% of voters questioned agreed that the EU was an important issue for the country.
In recent years, 'modernisers' in the party have claimed that the association between social conservatism and the Conservatives (manifest in policies such as tax incentives for married couples, the removal of the link between pensions and earnings, and criticism of public financial support for those who do not work) have played a role in the electoral decline of the party in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, David Willetts has criticised what he termed "the war on single parents", whilst former Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney observed that the party had "created the impression that if you weren't in a traditional nuclear family, then we weren't interested in you". Since 1997 a debate has continued within the party between 'modernisers' such as Michael Portillo, who believe that the Conservatives should modify their public stances on social issues, and 'traditionalists' such as Boris Johnson, William Hague, and David Davis, who believe that the party should remain faithful to its traditional conservative platform. This may have resulted in William Hague's and Michael Howard's pre-election swings to the right in 2001 and 2005, as well as the election of the stop-Kenneth Clarke candidate Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Theresa May famously remarked that the result of all this was that the Conservatives were perceived as "the nasty party". Iain Duncan Smith, however, remains influential. It has been argued by analysts that his Centre for Social Justice has forced Cameron to the right on many issues, particularly crime and social welfare.
Close US-British relations have been an element of Conservative foreign policy since World War II. Winston Churchill during his 1951-1955 post-war premiership built up a strong relationship with the Eisenhower Administration in the United States. Harold Macmillan demonstrated a similarly close relationship with the Democratic administration of J.F. Kennedy. Though the US-British relationship in foreign affairs has often been termed a 'Special Relationship', a term coined by Sir Winston Churchill, this has often been observed most clearly where leaders in each country are of a similar political stripe. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher built a close relationship with American President Ronald Reagan in his opposition to the former Soviet Union, but John Major was less successful in his personal contacts with former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Out of power and perceived as largely irrelevant by American politicians, Conservative leaders Hague, Duncan-Smith, and Howard each struggled to forge personal relationships with presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
The Conservatives have proposed Pan-African Free Trade Area, which could help entrepreneurial dynamism of African people. The Conservatives have also pledged to increase aid spending to 0.7% of national income by 2013.
David Cameron has recently sought to distance himself from President Bush and his neoconservative foreign policy, and has called for a "rebalancing" of US-UK ties. Republican 2008 presidential candidate John McCain spoke at the 2006 Conservative Party Conference.
No subject has more divided the Conservative Party in recent history than the UK's relations with the European Union (EU). Though the principal architect of Britain's entry into the then-Common Market (later European Community and European Union) was Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, and both Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan favoured some form of European union, the bulk of contemporary Conservative opinion is opposed to closer economic and particularly political union with the EU. This is a noticeable shift in British politics, as in the 1960s and 1970s the Conservatives were more pro EU than the Labour Party. Divisions on Europe came to the fore under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and were cited by several ministers resigning, including Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation triggered the challenge that ended Thatcher's leadership, although other factors such as the poll tax also played a role. Under Thatcher's successor, John Major (1990-1997), the slow process of integration within the EU forced party tensions to the surface. A core of Eurosceptic MPs under Major used the small Conservative majority in Parliament to oppose Government policy on the Maastricht Treaty. By doing so they undermined Major's ability to govern.
In recent years the Conservative Party has become more clearly Eurosceptic, as the Labour Government has found itself unwilling to make a positive case for further integration, and Eurosceptic or pro-withdrawal parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party have made showings in UK elections. But under current EU practices, the degree to which a Conservative Government could implement policy change regarding the EU would depend directly on the willingness of other EU member states to agree to such policies.
The Conservatives are a member of the International Democrat Union and its European Democrat Union. In the summer of 2006 the Conservatives became founding members of the Movement for European Reform, following Cameron's pledge to end the fourteen-year-old partnership between the largely Eurosceptic Conservatives and the more Euro-integrationist, European People's Party (EPP). Within the European Parliament, however, the Conservatives remain members of an informal bloc called the European Democrats (ED), which is committed to sit in a coalition arrangement with the EPP as the EPP-ED group until 2009. Paradoxically, the EPP group is a strongly pro-EU integrationist grouping in the EP, while the EDD is a eurosceptic grouping.
Beyond relations with the United States, the Commonwealth and the EU, the Conservative Party has generally supported a pro free-trade foreign policy within the mainstream of international affairs. The degree to which Conservative Governments have supported interventionist or non-interventionist Presidents in the US has often varied with the personal relations between a US President and the British Prime Minister.
Many take inspiration from Thatcher's anti-EU Bruges speech in 1988, in which she declared that "we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level". Thatcherites also tend to be Atlanticist, dating back to the close friendship between Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher herself claimed philosophical inspiration from the works of Burke and Friedrich Hayek for their defence of liberal economics. Groups associated with this tradition include the No Turning Back Group and Conservative Way Forward.
Sometimes two groupings have united to oppose the third. Both Thatcherite and Traditionalist Conservatives rebelled over Europe (and in particular Maastricht) during John Major's premiership; and Traditionalist and One Nation MPs united to inflict Margaret Thatcher's only defeat in parliament, over Sunday trading.
Not all Conservative MPs can be easily placed within one of the above groupings. For example, John Major was the ostensibly "Thatcherite" candidate during the 1990 leadership election, but he consistently promoted One-Nation Conservatives to the higher reaches of his cabinet during his time as Prime Minister. These included Kenneth Clarke as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister.