A Brief History of the Conservative Party

A Brief History of the Conservative Party

By Stuart Ball, Reader, School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester


The Conservative Party has a long history, during which it has passed through many phases and changes. For significant periods of modern British history it has been the dominant governing party, but it has also suffered divisions, defeats and spells in the political wilderness. The Conservative Party has remained relevant because its programme and outlook have adapted to the changing social and political environment, and it has never been exclusively linked to any one issue or group. Continuity is provided by the fact that the Conservative Party has always stood for social stability and the rights of property.

The origins of the Conservative Party can be traced to the 'Tory' faction which emerged in the later seventeenth century. This 'Tory Party' established a secure hold on government between 1783 and 1830. However in 1827 the unity of the party was destroyed when the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, were forced, largely as a result of events in Ireland, to concede full political emancipation to Roman Catholics. The Tory collapse opened the way for a return of the Whigs (Liberals) in the 1830s and a series of measures including the Great Reform Act of 1832 which changed the political scene. In the general election which followed the Act the Tories were reduced to only 180 MPs.

It was in the wake of these upheavals that the name 'Conservative' first began to be used as Peel sought to rally the opponents of further reform in the mid-1830s. He was successful in drawing support back to the party and became Prime Minister after winning the election of 1841. However his decision in 1846 to reverse course and repeal the protectionist Corn Laws outraged many of his followers, and the party split from top to bottom.

Disraeli and Modern Conservatism

The continuous modern history of the Conservative Party begins with the era of Disraeli, and he has perhaps the strongest amongst the many claims to be regarded as its founding father. In 1866 the collapse of the Whig ministry allowed a minority Conservative administration under the 14th Earl of Derby to tackle the question of extending the franchise. The Second Reform Act of 1867 was a bold stroke by Disraeli which sought to protect Conservative interests and restore their credibility as a governing party.

Most of the new voters were in the industrial towns and cities, and it was with the aim of improving Conservative prospects here that Disraeli founded what became the central pillars of the party organisation: the National Union, which began as a modest gathering in 1867, and the Central Office, established in 1870.

Disraeli's government of 1874-1880 was a landmark in Conservative fortunes and its domestic measures widened its appeal to the urban lower and middle classes. At the same time, Disraeli forged the crucial link between the Conservative Party and patriotic pride in nation and empire. However, economic problems and Gladstone's revival of Liberal spirits led to Conservative defeat in 1880. No longer the defender of the landed and aristocratic elite alone, the Conservative Party was becoming a national presence with an appeal to all communities and it was this combination which led to its first period of dominance from 1886 to 1906.

A section of the Liberal Party, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, could not accept Gladstone's policy of Home Rule for Ireland and broke away. These Liberal Unionists first gave informal support to Lord Salisbury's Conservative government of 1886-1892, and then shared office as a junior partner when Salisbury returned to power in 1895. As a result, from the 1890s to the 1920s, 'Unionist' displaced Conservative as the general term for the Party and its supporters - in Scotland until the 1960s.

Defeat and Disunity
Arthur Balfour was Lord Salisbury’s nephew and his successor, and the period from 1902 to 1914 was the worst period of defeat and disunity in the Party's modern history - principally because of divisions over Joseph Chamberlain's programme of pro-Empire tariff reform, which was strongly opposed by a small group of free traders. More seriously, working-class fears that duties on food imports would raise the cost of living made it an electoral liability.
The internal divisions which followed caused a purge of the Cabinet in 1903 and did much to cause three successive electoral defeats - the landslide of 1906, which left only 157 Conservative MPs, and narrower reverses in January and December 1910. The Party was further divided over resistance to the Liberal government's reform of the House of Lords in 1911, and Balfour finally resigned the leadership.

The defeats also led to organisational reforms, and in 1911 the post of Party Chairman was created to oversee the work of the Central Office. Balfour's unexpected successor, Andrew Bonar Law, restored Party morale with a series of vigorous attacks upon the government and by his support of Ulster during the passage of the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912-1914.

First World War
The First World War transformed the position of the Conservative Party. As the 'patriotic' party, its advocacy of vigorous prosecution of the war led to increased popularity, and it also benefited from the splits and eventual decline of the Liberal Party. In May 1915 the Conservatives agreed to join a coalition under the Liberal Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith.

In December 1916, concerned over lack of direction in the war, the Conservative leaders supported the supplanting of Asquith by a more energetic and charismatic Liberal, David Lloyd George. When victory came in 1918 Lloyd George was at the height of his popularity and Bonar Law readily agreed that the Coalition should continue in order to tackle the problems of peace-making and reconstruction. However after economic depression and failures of policy in 1920-1921, the Coalition became increasingly unpopular amongst Conservative MPs and local activists.

In March 1921 Bonar Law resigned for reasons of health, and Austen Chamberlain became the Conservative leader. A revolt against the Coalition swelled up from the lower ranks of the party, and Chamberlain was defeated at the meeting of Conservative MPs held at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922. Bonar Law led the victorious rebels, and thus ousted both Chamberlain as Party Leader and Lloyd George as Prime Minister.

Inter-war Ascendancy
The fall of the Coalition was the formative event in Conservative politics between the wars. It marked a decision to return to normal party politics, with Labour replacing the Liberals as the main opposition. Stanley Baldwin replaced the dying Bonar Law as party leader and Prime Minister in May 1923. Despite leading the Conservatives into an unnecessary defeat in December 1923 and a serious assault upon his position in 1929-1931, Baldwin remained leader until 1937. Between 1918 and 1945 the Conservative Party were the largest party in the House of Commons for all but two and a half years.

In the crisis of August 1931 the Conservatives agreed to serve under the former Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in a National government in which the Conservatives formed by far the largest element. In 1935 Baldwin replaced MacDonald as Prime Minister, and in 1937 he handed on both the Premiership and the Conservative leadership to Neville Chamberlain.
The latter's period as leader was dominated by controversy over the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain was strongly supported by the grass-roots and almost all MPs. However, he seemed less suited to the demands of wartime, and a revolt of Conservative MPs in the Norway debate of 8-9 May 1940 forced his resignation as Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill, an isolated Conservative critic during the 1930s, now became Prime Minister and later in the same year he succeeded Chamberlain as party leader. Churchill rallied the nation but even his prestige could not shelter the Conservative Party from popular blame for the failures of the 1930s. This led to its second major electoral defeat of the century in 1945, when it was reduced to only 210 MPs.

The Post-War Consensus
The Conservatives adapted to this setback whilst in opposition during the 1945-1951 Labour governments, and overhauled both organisation and policy. As a result, between the late 1940s and the early 1970s the Conservatives accepted the pillars of the post-war 'consensus': the Welfare State, the public ownership of certain industries, government intervention in economic affairs, and partnership in industry between trade unions and employers. Although Churchill remained rather unenthusiastic, these policies enabled the Conservatives to regain power in 1951 and then to remain in office continuously until 1964.

The key figures in this period were Anthony Eden, who succeeded Churchill in April 1955 but retired after the failed Suez invasion in January 1957; Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister and Conservative leader from 1957 until November 1963; and R.A. Butler. Butler twice seemed on the brink of becoming leader and Prime Minister but in 1963 Macmillan was instead unexpectedly succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Macmillan's sudden resignation was due to ill-health, but since 1961 his ministry had been mired in economic stagnation and public scandal, and by 1963 defeat seemed likely.

Although his aristocratic lineage was an easy target for the meritocratic campaign of Labour, Douglas-Home managed to regain some lost ground and the Conservatives only narrowly lost the general election in 1964. In August 1965 Douglas-Home stood down, and the first formal party leadership election by a ballot of MPs took place; it was also the first change of leadership whilst in opposition since 1911. The victor was Edward Heath, whose lower middle-class background was thought more publicly acceptable than the aristocratic image of Macmillan and Douglas-Home. Heath survived the Party's loss of further seats to Labour in the 1966 election, but never secured the affection of the public or Conservative backbenchers. To general surprise, he won the 1970 election and became Prime Minister.

Despite his personal achievement in taking Britain into the Common Market, the failures of the Heath ministry of 1970-1974 have been the catharsis of modern Conservatism. The reversals of policy, the failure to control inflation or contain the trade unions through legislation on industrial relations, and two defeats at the hands of the coal-miners led first to the fall of Heath and second to the rise and development of Thatcherism. After losing the two elections of February and October 1974, Heath was forced to hold a ballot for the Party leadership in February 1975 in which he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher.

The Rise of Thatcherism
In opposition during 1975-1979 the new leader developed a radical agenda founded upon the 'free market', rolling back government intervention and leaving as much as possible to individual initiative. This was the core of Thatcherism.
Concern over economic decline and the power wielded by the trade unions created a receptive public mood, and Mrs Thatcher led the Conservatives to three successive victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. She was the dominant political personality throughout the 1980s, especially after securing victory in the Falklands war of 1982. She is widely credited with restoring Britain's status as an enterprise-based economy and as a significant influence on the international stage. However, at the end of the decade economic recession, her commitment to the deeply unpopular 'poll tax', and internal disputes over European policy led to Mrs Thatcher's defeat in a leadership ballot in November 1990.

From Major to Howard
The successor to emerge from this contest was the relatively unknown figure of John Major, the candidate thought most able to unify a divided and traumatised party. Major abandoned the 'poll tax' and presented a more 'caring' image, and support for the Conservatives improved enough for him to hold on to a narrow majority in the general election of April 1992. However, this margin was steadily eroded during the following parliament, and by 1997 his administration was clinging on by its fingertips.
The most serious problems of the Major government were caused by a recession which hit Conservative support in southern England, a collapse of normal party unity over the increasingly contentious issue of Europe, and 'sleaze' - a string of personal scandals involving Conservative ministers and MPs. On 1 May 1997 they suffered their third and final sweeping defeat of the twentieth century. Only 165 MPs survived, and Major at once resigned the leadership; in his place, the Party selected its youngest leader in modern times, William Hague.

The party remained unpopular with the public, whilst the Labour government’s careful management of the economy meant that it survived any other difficulties without lasting damage. Hague followed a more ‘Euro-sceptic’ policy, ruling out joining the single European currency. This caused tensions in the party but also led to its greatest success in the period, doubling its seats to 36 in the European Parliament elections of June 1999. However, concentration on Europe was less effective in the June 2001 general election, and Conservative hopes of at least a partial recovery were dashed. 166 MPs were elected, only one more than in 1997, and on the morning after the poll Hague announced his resignation. A new selection procedure had been introduced, and after ballots of Conservative MPs the two leading candidates went forward to a vote of the party membership in September 2001. Iain Duncan Smith became the new leader of the Conservative Party.

During the following two years there was little sign of improvement in the Party's fortunes, as the domestic political and economic situation remained largely unchanged. The Conservatives supported the policy of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003. This was in tune with Conservative opinion whilst the Labour Party was deeply divided over the issue. The criticism of Duncan Smith culminated in a ballot of Conservative MPs on 29 October 2003, in which Duncan Smith was defeated by 75 votes to 90. The desire of the party to avoid further disunity was shown when only one candidate was nominated for the vacant leadership, and so a contest was avoided. Michael Howard was declared Leader on 6 November; although older than both of his predecessors, he had the asset of considerable experience of government, having been a cabinet minister from 1990 to 1997.

On 6 May 2005 after the General Election Michael Howard announced his resignation and in a leadership contest involving a final postal ballot of all Conservative Party members a 39 year old David Cameron was chosen to lead the Party into a new era.
Although only elected in 2001 to the Witney constituency he has previously held the positions of Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (2003), Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party (2003), front bench spokesman on Local Government Finance (2004) and Head of Policy Co-ordination up until May 2005. After the General Election in 2005 David held the position of Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills. In December 2005 he became The Leader of H.M. Opposition.
Speaking without notes at the Conservative conference 2005 in Blackpool Mr Cameron said he wanted to end Tory election failures.  He said he wanted a Conservative party "that has the courage to renew and change" - and he vowed to fight for "modern, compassionate Conservatism".