Conservatism in the United Kingdom

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Conservatism in the United Kingdom is related to its counterparts in other Western nations, but has a distinct tradition and has encompassed a wide range of theories over the decades. The Conservative Party, which forms the mainstream centre-right party in Britain, has developed many different internal factions and ideologies.



Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke Burke.jpg
Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke is often considered the father of modern English conservatism in the English-speaking world. [1] [2] [3] Burke was a member of a conservative faction of the Whig party; [note 1] the modern Conservative Party however has been described as "the heir, and in some measure the continuation, of the old Tory Party" by Lord Norton of Louth, [4] and the Conservatives are often still referred to as Tories. [5] Australian scholar Glen Worthington has said: "For Edmund Burke and Australians of a like mind, the essence of conservatism lies not in a body of theory, but in the disposition to maintain those institutions seen as central to the beliefs and practices of society." [6]


The old established form of English and, after the Act of Union, British conservatism, was the Tory Party. It reflected the attitudes of a rural land owning class, and championed the institutions of the monarchy, the Anglican Church, the family, property as the best defence of the social order. In the early stages of the industrial revolution, it seemed to be totally opposed to a process that seemed to undermine some of these bulwarks, and the new industrial elite were seen by many as enemies to the social order. It split in 1846 following the repeal of the Corn Laws (the tariff on imported corn). Proponents of free trade in the late 19th century and early 20th century failed to make much headway as "tariff reform" resulted in new tariffs. The coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new Conservative Party. [7]

One-nation conservatism

Benjamin Disraeli was the father of one-nation conservatism. Benjamin Disraeli by Cornelius Jabez Hughes, 1878.jpg
Benjamin Disraeli was the father of one-nation conservatism.

Conservatism evolved after 1820, embracing imperialism and realization that an expanded working classs electorate could neutralize the Liberal advantage among the middle classes. Disraeli defined the Conservative approach and strengthened Conservatism as a grassroots political force. Conservatism no longer was the philosophical defence of the landed aristocracy but had been refreshed into redefining its commitment to the ideals of order, both secular and religious, expanding imperialism, strengthened monarchy, and a more generous vision of the welfare state as opposed to the punitive vision of the Whigs and Liberals. [8] As early as 1835, Disraeli attacked the Whigs and utilitarians as slavishly devoted to an industrial oligarchy, while he described his fellow Tories as the only "really democratic party of England" and devoted to the interests of the whole people. [9] Nevertheless, inside the party there was a tension between the growing numbers of wealthy businessmen on the one side, and the aristocracy and rural gentry on the other. [10] The aristocracy gained strength as businessmen discovered they could use their wealth to buy a peerage and a country estate.

Disraeli set up a Conservative Central Office, established in 1870, and the newly formed National Union (which drew together local voluntary associations), gave the party "additional unity and strength", and Disraeli's views on social reform and the wealth disparity between the richest and poorest in society allegedly "helped the party to break down class barriers", according to Conservative peer Lord Norton. [4] As a young man, Disraeli was influenced by the romantic movement and medievalism, and developed a critique of industrialism. In his novels, he outlined an England divided into two nations, each living in perfect ignorance of each other. He foresaw, like Karl Marx, the phenomenon of an alienated industrial proletariat. His solution involved a return to an idealised view of a corporate or organic society, in which everyone had duties and responsibilities towards other people or groups. [11]

This "one nation" conservatism is still a significant tradition in British politics, in both the Conservative Party [12] [13] [14] and Labour, [note 2] [15] especially with the rise of the Scottish National Party during the 2015 general election. [16]

Although nominally a Conservative, Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working-class against the increasing power of the middle class, helping to found the Young England group in 1842 to promote the view that the rich should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by the middle-class. The conversion of the Conservative Party into a modern mass organisation was accelerated by the concept of Tory Democracy attributed to Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill. [17]

Early 20th century

Winston Churchill, although best known as the most prominent conservative since Disraeli – crossed the aisle in 1904 and became a Liberal for two decades. As one of the most active and aggressive orators of his day, he thrilled the left in 1909 by ridiculing the Conservatives as, "the party of the rich against the poor, of the classes ...against the masses, of the lucky, the wealthy, the happy, and the strong against the left-out and the shut-out millions of the weak and poor." His harsh words were hurled back at him when he rejoined the conservative party in 1924. [18]

The shock of a landslide defeat in 1906 forced the Conservatives to rethink operations, and they worked to build grassroots groups that would help turn out their vote. [19] The Conservative Party responded by creating the Workers Defence Union (WDU) designed to frighten the working-class into voting Conservative. It first promoted tariff reform (that is high tariffs to protect factory jobs). Increasingly the WDU focused on attacking immigrant workers as a threat to jobs that belonged to true Britons. It had considerable success by arousing hatred of "alien subversion." It became a far deeper matter than job loss--the aliens threatened the purity of "English race and the appeal created fears and racism in the middle and upper class as well. [20]

Women played a new role in the early 20th century, signalled in 1906 by setting up the Women's Unionist and Tariff Reform Association (WUTRA). When the Liberals failed to support woman suffrage, the Conservatives acted, especially by passing the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. [21] They realized that women housewives were often conservative in outlook, adverse to the aggressive tone of socialist rhetoric, and supported imperialism and traditional values. [22] Conservatives claimed that they represented orderly politics, peace, and the interests of the ex-serviceman's family. [23] The 1928 Act added five million more women to the electoral roll and had the effect of making women a majority, 52.7%, of the electorate in the 1929 general election, [24] which was termed the "Flapper Election". [25]

A Neo-Tory movement flourished in the 1930s as part of a pan-European reaction against modernity. A network of right-wing intellectuals and allied politicians ridiculed democracy, liberalism and modern capitalism as degenerate. They warned against the emergence of a corporate state in Britain imposed from above». The intellectuals involved followed trends in Italy. France and especially Germany. The exchange of ideas with the continent was at first a source of inspiration, reassurance and hope. After Hitler's rise in 1933 it meant their downfall. War with Germany in 1939 ended British participation in transnational radical conservatism. [26]

Post-war consensus

During and after World War II, the Conservative Party made concessions to the socialist policies of the left. This compromise was a pragmatic measure to regain power, but also the result of the early successes of central planning and state ownership forming a cross-party consensus. The conservatism version was known as Butskellism, after the almost identical Keynesian policies of Rab Butler on behalf of the Conservatives, and Hugh Gaitskell for Labour. The "post-war consensus" emerged as an all-party national government under Churchi;ll promised Britons a better life after the war. Conservatives especially promoted educational reforms to reach a muchb larger population. The foundations of the post-war consensus was the Beveridge Report. This was a report by William Beveridge, a Liberal economist who in 1942 formulated the concept of a more comprehensive welfare state in Great Britain. [27] The report sought widespread reform by identifying the "five giants on the road of reconstruction": "Want… Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness". [28] In the report were labelled a number of recommendations: the appointment of a minister to control all the insurance schemes; a standard weekly payment by people in work as a contribution to the insurance fund; old age pensions, maternity grants, funeral grants, pensions for widows and for people injured at work; a new national health service to be established.

In the period between 1945-1970 (consensus years) that unemployment averaged less than 3%. The post-war consensus included a belief in Keynesian economics, [27] a mixed economy with the nationalisation of major industries, the establishment of the National Health Service and the creation of the modern welfare state in Britain. The policies were instituted by all governments (both Labour and Conservative) in the post-war period. The consensus has been held to characterise British politics until the economic crises of the 1970s (see Secondary banking crisis of 1973–1975) which led to the end of the post-war economic boom and the rise of monetarist economics. The roots of his economics, however, stem from critique of the economics of the interwar period depression. Keynes' style of economics encouraged a more active role of the government in order to "manage overall demand so that there was a balance between demand and output". [29]

The post-war consensus in favour of the welfare state forced conservative historians, typified by Herbert Butterfield to re-examine British history. They were no longer optimistic about human nature, nor the possibility of progress, yet neither were they open to liberalism's emphasis on individualism. As a Christian, Butterfield could argue that God had decided the course of history but had not necessarily needed to reveal its meaning to historians. [30] Thanks to Iain Macleod,Edward Heath and Enoch Powell, special attention was paid to "One-nation conservatism" (coined by Disraeli) that promised support for the poorer and working class elements in the Party coalition. [31]

Rise of Thatcherism

Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher stock portrait (cropped).jpg
Margaret Thatcher

However, in the 1980s, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, and the influence of Keith Joseph, there was a dramatic shift in the ideological direction of British conservatism, with a movement towards free-market economic policies and neoliberalism (commonly referred to as Thatcherism ). [32] As one commentator explains, "The privatisation of state owned industries, unthinkable before, became commonplace [during Thatcher's government] and has now been imitated all over the world." [33] Thatcher was described as "a radical in a conservative party", [33] and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite", [33] both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of conservatism as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention ( status quo ). [34]

Modern conservatism

Following a third consecutive general election defeat in 2005, the Conservative Party selected David Cameron as party leader, followed by Theresa May in 2016, both of whom have served as Prime Minister and sought to modernise and change the ideological position of British conservatism.[ citation needed ]

In efforts to rebrand and increase the party's appeal, both leaders have adopted policies which align with liberal conservatism. [35] [36] This has included a "greener" environmental and energy stance, and adoption of some socially liberal views, such as acceptance of same-sex marriage. However, these policies have been accompanied by a fiscal conservatism, in which they have maintained a hard stance on bringing down the deficit, and embarked upon a programme of economic austerity. Other modern policies which align with one-nation conservatism [37] and Christian democracy [38] [39] include education reform, extending student loan applicants to postgraduate applicants, and allowing those from poorer backgrounds to go further, whilst still increasing tuition fees and introducing a higher cap. There has also been an emphasis on human rights, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, [40] whilst also supporting individual initiative. However, with the global rise of populism, the Conservative party has become more populist with many viewing it as undoing the previous modernising work [41]

In the 2010s during the Brexit negotiations, the Conservative Party appeared very divided over Brexit. In 2019, two new parliamentary caucuses were formed; One Nation Conservatives and Blue Collar Conservatives. [42]

Conservative political parties in the United Kingdom

In British Overseas Territories

See also


  1. However, Burke lived before the terms "conservative" and "liberal" were used to describe political ideologies, and he dubbed his faction the "Old Whigs". cf. J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1660–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 5, p. 301.
  2. See: One Nation Labour.

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