Conservative Party (UK)

Conservative Party (UK)
Conservative Party
Conservative and Unionist Party
Leader David Cameron
Co-Chairman Sayeeda Warsi
Andrew Feldman
Founded 1834 (modern party)
1678 (Tory Party)
Preceded by Tory Party
Headquarters Conservative Campaign Headquarters
30 Millbank, London, SW1P 4DP,
Youth wing Conservative Future
Membership  (2008) 250,000 (Newspaper estimate)
Ideology General:
British unionism
Soft euroscepticism[1]
Internal factions:[2]
 · Liberal conservatism[3]
 · Libertarianism
 · One nation conservatism
 · Social conservatism
 · Thatcherism
Political position Centre-right[4][5][6][7][8]
International affiliation International Democrat Union
European affiliation Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists
European Parliament Group European Conservatives and Reformists
Official colours Blue     
House of Commons
306 / 650
House of Lords
217 / 724
European Parliament
25 / 72
London Assembly
11 / 25
Scottish Parliament
15 / 129
Welsh Assembly
14 / 60
Local government[9][10]
9,391 / 21,871
Politics of the United Kingdom
Political parties

The Conservative Party, formally the Conservative and Unionist Party, is a centre-right political party in the United Kingdom that adheres to the philosophies of conservatism and British unionism. It is the largest political party in the UK, and is currently the largest single party in the House of Commons with 307 seats. It governs in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, with party leader David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Colloquially referred to as the Tory Party or the Tories, the Conservative Party emerged in 1834 out of the original Tory Party, which dates to 1678. The party was one of two dominant parties in the nineteenth century, along with the Liberals. It changed its name to Conservative and Unionist Party in 1912 after merging with the Liberal Unionist Party, although that name is rarely used and it is generally referred to as simply the Conservative Party. It is the oldest political party in the world.[11]

In the 1920s, the Liberal vote greatly diminished and the Labour Party became the Conservatives' main rivals. Conservative Prime Ministers led governments for 57 years of the 20th century, including Winston Churchill (1940–45, 1951–55) and Margaret Thatcher (1979–90). Thatcher's tenure led to wide-ranging economic liberalisation, placing the Conservatives firmly as the most free market and eurosceptic of the three major parties. The party was returned to government in 2010 under the more liberal leadership of David Cameron.[12][13][14]

In the European Parliament, the Conservatives are the largest British party with 25 MEPs, who sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, while the party is a member of the soft eurosceptic AECR. They are the third-largest party in the Scottish Parliament and second-largest in the Welsh Assembly. They are currently allied to the Ulster Unionist Party, which is part of the five-party Northern Ireland Executive.



Sir Robert Peel, twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and founder of the Conservative Party.

Origins in the Whig Party

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 Tories, a political grouping that had existed from 1678, but which had no organisational continuity with the Pittite party.[citation needed] 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.

Conservatives and Unionists (1886-1965)

Sir Winston Churchill, twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The widening of the electoral 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 Unionist Party and, under the statesmen Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour, held power for all but three of the following twenty years before suffering a heavy defeat in 1906 when it split over the issue of free trade. In 1912 the party formally merged with the Liberal Unionists.

1929 poster criticizing the Labour Party

The Conservatives served with the Liberals in an 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. Then Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin led the break-up of the coalition and the party governed until 1929, when it was defeated by Labour in a close election. In 1931, following the collapse of the Labour minority government, it entered another coalition, which was dominated by the Conservatives with some support from fractions of both the Liberals and Labour party (National Labour and Liberal Nationals).[15] In May 1940 a more balanced coalition was formed,[15] the National Government, which, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, saw the United Kingdom through World War II. However the party lost the 1945 general election to the resurgent Labour Party.

Upon their election victory in the 1951 general election, the Conservatives supported part of Labour's 'welfare state' policies and industry nationalisation programme, though Winston 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. They oversaw a period of economic prosperity, with Macmillan proclaiming during the 1959 General Election that Britain had 'never had it so good'. Macmillan's bid to join the European Economic Community in early 1963 was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle, and the period saw the decline of the UK as a prominent world figure, with the loss of many British overseas territories.

Edward Heath

Edward Heath's 1970-1974 government was notable for its success in taking the UK into the EEC, although the right of the party objected to his failure to control the trade unions at a time when a declining British industry saw many strikes, as well as a recession which started in 1973 and lasted for two years.

Since accession to the EU, British membership has been a source of heated debate within the Conservative party.

Heath had come to power in June 1970 and had until mid-1975 to call the next general election,[16] but chose to do so in February 1974 in a bid to win public support as tensions ran high over the miners strike. However, his attempt to win a second term in power at this "snap" election backfired spectacularly as a deadlock result left no party with an overall majority. The Conservatives had more votes than Labour, who had four more seats. Heath resigned within days after failing to gain Liberal Party support in order to form a coalition government, paving the way for Harold Wilson and Labour to return to power as a minority government. Heath's hopes of returning to power later in the year were ended when Labour won the October 1974 election with a majority of three seats.[17]

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher,[18] Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990).

Margaret Thatcher won her party's leadership election in 1975 and led them to subsequent victory in the 1979 general election. In the years preceding her election, the UK had experienced sustained inflation (above 20% by the time of the election, and rarely below 10%), rising unemployment and the "Winter of Discontent" in which the UK was blighted by a series of strikes.[19]

As prime minister, Thatcher focused on establishing a political ideology that became known as the "New Right" or Thatcherism, based on social and economic ideas from the United States. Thatcher believed that too much socialist orientated government policy was leading to a long term decline in the British economy. As a result, her government pursued a programme of Economic Liberalism, adopting a free-market approach to public services based on the sale of publicly-owned industries and utilities, as well as a reduction in trade union power. She held the belief that the existing trend of Unions was bringing economic progress to a standstill by enforcing "wildcat" strikes, keeping wages artificially high and forcing unprofitable industries to stay open.

Thatcher led the Conservatives to two further election victories with landslide majorities in 1983 and 1987. She was greatly admired by her supporters for her leadership in the Falklands War of 1982 - which coincided with a dramatic boost in her popularity — and for policies such as giving the right to council house tenants to buy their council house at a discount on market value. However, she was also deeply unpopular in certain sections of society due to unemployment, which reached its highest level since the 1930s, peaking at over 3 million following her economic reforms, and her response to the miners' strike. While unemployment had doubled between 1979 and 1982, this was largely due to Mrs Thatcher's committed battle against the inflation which had ravaged the British economy throughout the 1970s. At the time of the 1979 election, inflation was at a modern day high of 27%; but it had fallen to 4% by the start of 1983.[20]

However, the period of deep unpopularity of the Conservatives in the early 1980s coincided with a crisis in the Labour Party which now formed the opposition. The Social Democratic Party was formed in 1981 and consisted of more than 20 breakaway Labour MPs, who quickly formed an alliance with the Liberals. By the turn of 1982, the Alliance was ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls, but the Falklands triumph in June that year, along with the recovering British economy, saw the Conservatives returning quickly to the top of the opinion polls and winning the 1983 General Election with a landslide majority.[20]

Thatcher now faced, arguably, her most serious rival yet after the 1983 election, when Michael Foot resigned as Labour leader and was succeeded by Neil Kinnock. With a new leader at the helm, Labour were clearly determined to topple the Conservatives at the next election and for virtually the entirety of Mrs Thatcher's second government it was looking a very serious possibility, as the lead in the opinion polls constantly saw a change in leadership from the Conservatives to Labour, with the Alliance occasionally scraping into first place.[21]

By the time of the election in June 1987, however, the economy was stronger, with lower inflation and falling unemployment and Mrs Thatcher secured her third successive election victory with a second landslide majority.[22]

The introduction of the Community Charge (known by its opponents as the poll tax) in 1989 is often cited as contributing to her political downfall. The summer of 1989 saw her fall behind Neil Kinnock's Labour in the opinion polls for the first time since 1986, and her party's fall in popularity continued into 1990. By the autumn of that year, opinion polls were showing that Labour had a lead of up to 16 points over the Conservatives and they faced a tough 18 months ahead of them if they were to prevent Neil Kinnock's ambition to be prime minister from being realised. At the same time, the economy was sliding into another recession.[21]

Internal party tensions led to a leadership challenge by the Conservative MP Michael Heseltine, and after months of speculation about her future as prime minister she finally resigned on 22 November 1990, making way for a new Conservative leader more likely to win the next general election in the interests of party unity.[23]

John Major

John Major, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1990-1997

John Major won the party leadership contest on 27 November 1990, and his appointment led to an almost automatic boost in Conservative fortunes. A MORI poll six days before Mrs Thatcher's resignation had shown the Conservatives to be 11 points behind Labour, but within two months the Conservatives had returned to the top of the opinion polls with a slim lead.[21]

An election had to be held within the next 18 months and the UK economy was sliding into recession, but 1991 was a year of electoral uncertainty as the Conservatives and Labour regularly swapped places at the top of the opinion polls, and Major resisted Neil Kinnock's numerous calls for an immediate election.[21]

The election was finally held on 9 April 1992 and the Conservatives won, even though the economy was still in recession and most of the pollsters had predicted either a Labour win or a hung parliament. Major's vigorous campaigning, notably his claim that the UK would have higher prices and higher taxes under a Labour government, was seen to have been crucial in his election win (in which he became the first prime minister to attract 14,000,000 votes in a general election), as was a high profile campaign by The Sun newspaper against Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who resigned in the aftermath of the election to be succeeded by John Smith.[24]

The UK economy was deep in recession by this stage and remained so until the end of the year. The pound sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, a day thereafter referred to as "Black Wednesday".

Soon after approximately one million householders faced re-possession of their homes during a recession that saw a sharp rise in unemployment, taking it close to 3,000,000. The party subsequently lost much of its reputation for good financial stewardship although the end of the recession was declared in April 1993[25] bringing economic recovery and a rise in employment.

The Conservative government was also increasingly accused in the media of "sleaze". Their support reached its lowest ebb in late 1994, after the death of Labour Party leader John Smith and the election of Tony Blair as his successor, when Labour had up to 60% of the vote in opinion polls and had a lead of some 30 points ahead of the Conservatives. The Labour lead was gradually narrowed over the next two years, as the Conservatives gained some credit for the strong economic recovery and fall in unemployment. But as the 1997 general election loomed, it was still looking certain that Labour would win.[21]

An effective opposition campaign by the Labour Party culminated in a landslide defeat for the Conservatives in 1997 that was Labour's largest ever parliamentary victory. The 1997 election left the Conservative Party with MPs in just England, all remaining seats in Scotland and Wales having been lost and not a single seat having been gained anywhere.

Back in opposition: William Hague

John Major resigned as party leader after the Conservatives were voted out of power and was succeeded by William Hague. Though a strong debater, a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph found that two-thirds of voters regarded him as "a bit of a wally",[26] 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.[27] Shortly before the 2001 election, Hague was much maligned for a speech in which he predicted that a re-elected Labour government would turn the UK into a "foreign land".[28] 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 said the British were becoming "a mongrel race", although Hague did reject Townend's views.[29]

The 2001 election resulted in a net gain of just one seat for the Conservative Party, just months after the fuel protests of September 2000 had seen the Conservatives briefly take a narrow lead over Labour in the opinion polls.[21]

Having privately set himself a target of 209 seats, matching Labour's performance in 1983 – a target which he missed by 43 - William Hague resigned soon after.

Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard

Iain Duncan Smith (2001–2003) (often known as IDS and by satirists as "the quiet man") is a strong Eurosceptic, but the issue did not define Duncan Smith's leadership, though during his tenure 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 he could lead the party in a general election Duncan Smith lost the vote on a motion of no confidence by MPs who felt that the party would not be returned to government under his leadership. This was despite the Conservative support equalling that of Labour in the months leading up to his departure from the leadership.[21]

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 on 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 after allowing time for the party to amend its leadership election rules.

David Cameron

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party.

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 recent staunchly right-wing platform.[30] Although Cameron's views are probably left of the party membership and he has sought to make the Conservative brand more attractive to young, socially liberal voters,[31] he has also expressed his admiration for former PM Margaret Thatcher, describing himself as a "big fan of Thatcher's", though 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.[32]

Polls became more volatile in the summer of 2007 with the accession of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister although polls gave the Conservatives a lead after October of that year and, by May 2008, with the UK's economy sliding into its first recession since 1992, and a week after local council 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.[33] The Conservatives gained control of the London mayoralty for the first time in May 2008 after Boris Johnson defeated Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone.[34]

The Conservative lead in the opinion polls had been almost unbroken for nearly three years when Britain finally went to the polls on 6 May 2010, though since the turn of 2010 most polls had shown the Conservative lead as less than 10 points wide. The election ended in a hung parliament with the Conservatives having the most seats (306) but being 19 seats short of an overall majority. Following the resignation of Gordon Brown as prime minister and Labour Party leader five days afterwards, David Cameron was named as the country's new prime minister and the Conservatives entered government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats - the first postwar coalition government.[35]


Economic policy

The party's reputation for economic stewardship was dealt a blow by Black Wednesday in 1992, in which billions of pounds were spent in an effort to keep the pound within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) system at an overvalued rate. Combined with the recession of the early 1990s 'Black Wednesday' allowed Tony Blair and then-Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to promise greater economic competence.

One concrete 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, such as Kenneth Clarke, were personally supportive of EMU participation. Following Major's resignation after the 1997 defeat, each of the four subsequent Conservative leaders, including David Cameron, have positioned the party firmly against the adoption of the euro. 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.[36]

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 - 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.[37] The Conservatives accepted Labour's policy in early 2000.[38]

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".

In the wake of the 2008-9 recession, the Conservatives have not ruled out raising taxes, and have said it will be difficult to scrap the 50% top rate of income tax. They have said how they would prefer to cut a recent rise in national insurance. Furthermore, they have stated that government spending will need to be reduced, and have only ringfenced international aid and the NHS.

Social policy

Scarborough Conservative Club.

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. 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 and William Hague, 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,[citation needed] as well as the election of the stop-Kenneth Clarke candidate Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Iain Duncan Smith, however, remains influential. It has been argued by analysts[citation needed] that his Centre for Social Justice has forced Cameron to the right on many issues, particularly crime and social welfare.

The party has strongly criticised Labour's "state multiculturalism".[39] Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said in 2008 that multiculturalism had created a "terrible" legacy, a cultural vacuum that has been exploited by "extremists".[40] However conservative critics such as Peter Hitchens assert that Cameron's is an equally multicultural outlook[41] and accuse the Conservative Party of promoting what they see as "Islamic extremists."[42]

Foreign policy

For much of the twentieth century the Conservative party took a broadly Atlanticist stance in relations with the United States, favouring close ties with the United States and similarly aligned nations such as Canada, Australia and Japan. The Conservatives have generally favoured a diverse range of international alliances, ranging from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Commonwealth of Nations.

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 John 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.[citation needed] 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. However, Republican 2008 presidential candidate John McCain spoke at the 2006 Conservative Party Conference.[43]

The Conservatives have proposed a Pan-African Free Trade Area, which it says could help entrepreneurial dynamism of African people.[44] The Conservatives have also pledged to increase aid spending to 0.7% of national income by 2013.[44]

David Cameron had sought to distance himself from former US President Bush and his neoconservative foreign policy, calling for a "rebalancing" of US-UK ties[45] and met with Barack Obama during his 2008 European tour. Despite traditional links between the UK Conservatives and US Republicans, and between Labour and the Democrats, London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, endorsed Obama in the 2008 election.

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.



Improving the welfare of Britain's military service personnel is a priority for the Conservative Party. One of their main goals is to repair the Military Covenant[46] and strengthen the ties between the armed forces and government. Policies introduced in 2010 include those to double the operational bonus for troops serving in Afghanistan; to fund higher education for children of those service personnel killed in action; and to properly resource and staff the NHS to deal optimally with the particular needs of the Armed Forces.

Mental health has always a been a very important issue for the Conservative Party, particularly when it comes to service personnel.[47] The Party is committed to addressing issues of mental health before they arise with a mental health follow-up telephone service for veterans and personnel who have deployed on operations or to places in support of operations. This is customer-service driven and at the convenience of the veteran. The Conservative Party have also pledged to support greater awareness of the programmes that offer help to armed forces personnel.


Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Conservative party has supported the coalition military action in Afghanistan. The Conservative Party believes that success in Afghanistan is defined in terms of the Afghans achieving the capability to maintain their own internal and external security.[48] They have repeatedly criticised the former Labour Government for failing to equip British Forces adequately in the earlier days on the campaign—especially highlighting the shortage of helicopters for British Forces resulting from Gordon Brown's £1.4bn cut to the helicopter budget in 2004.[49]

Strategic Security and Defence Review

The Conservative Party believes that in the 21st century defence and security are interlinked. They have pledged to break away from holding a traditional Strategic Defence Review and have committed to carrying out a more comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) immediately upon coming into office. This review will include both defence and homeland security related matters. The Labour Government last conducted a review in 1998. To prevent a long gap in the future they have also pledged to hold regular defence reviews every 4–5 years, and if necessary will put this requirement into legislation. Party officials claim that the SDSR will be a major improvement, and will ensure that Britain maintains generic and flexible capability to adapt to any changing threats. It will be a cross-departmental review that will begin with foreign policy priorities and will bring together all the levers of domestic national security policy with overseas interests and defence priorities.[50]

As well as an SDSR, the Conservative Party pledged in 2010 to undertake a fundamental and far reaching review of the procurement process and how defence equipment is provided in Britain. They have pledged to reform the procurement process, compile a Green Paper on Sovereignty Capability, and publish another Defence Industrial Strategy following on from the Defence Industrial Strategy in 2005. The Conservative Party has said that there will be four aims for British defence procurement: to provide the best possible equipment at the best possible price; to streamline the procurement process to ensure the speedy delivery of equipment to the front line; to support our industry jobs at home by increasing defence exports; to provide defence procurement that underpins strategic relationships abroad and; to provide predictability to the defence industry.

The Conservative Party also pledged to increase Britain's share of the global defence market as Government policy.

Europe and NATO

The Conservative Party aims to build enhanced bilateral defence relations with key European partners and believes that it is in Britain's national interest to cooperate fully with all its European neighbours. They have pledged to ensure that any EU military capability must supplement and not supplant British national defence and NATO, and that it is not in the British interest to hand over security to any supranational body.[51]

The Conservatives see it as a priority to encourage all members of the European Union to do more in terms of a commitment to European security at home and abroad.

Regarding the defence role of the European Union, the Conservatives pledged to re-examine some of Britain's EU Defence commitments to determine their practicality and utility; specifically, to reassess UK participation provisions like Permanent Structured Cooperation, the European Defence Agency and EU Battlegroups to determine if there is any value in Britain's participation.

The Conservative Party upholds the view that NATO should remain the most important security alliance for United Kingdom.[52] They believe that NATO, which has been the cornerstone of British security for the past 60 years, should continue to have primacy on all issues relating to Europe's defence, and pledged in 2010 to make NATO reform a key strategic priority.

They have also called on the so called fighting/funding gap to be changed and have called on the creation of a fairer funding mechanism for NATO's expeditionary operations. As well as this, the Conservatives believe that there is scope for expanding NATO's Article V to include new 21st Century threats such as energy and cyber security.

Nuclear Deterrent

The 2010 manifesto said the Conservatives will maintain Britain's continuous at sea, independent, submarine based strategic nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system.[51]

Health policy

In 1945, the Conservatives first declared support for universal healthcare.[53] Since then, they have continuously supported the NHS. Since entering office in 2010, they have introduced the Health and Social Care Bill 2011, which will conduct the biggest reformation that the NHS has ever undertaken.

Education policy

In education, the Conservatives have pledged to review the National Curriculum, and introduce the English Baccalaureate. The restoration of discipline was also highlighted, as they want it to be easier for pupils to be searched for contraband items, the granting of anonymity to teachers accused by pupils, and the banning of expelled pupils being returned to schools via appeal panels.

In Higher education, the Conservatives have increased tuition fees to £9,000 per year, however have ensured that this will not be paid by anyone until they are earning over £21,000, and that those who fail their studies, will not pay anything at all. The Scottish Conservatives also support the re-introduction of tuition fees in Scotland.

Jobs and welfare policy

One of the Conservatives' key policy areas of 2010, was to reduce the amount of people in the UK claiming state benefits, and increase the amount of people in the workforce. They have stated that all those in the UK claiming incapacity benefit, will face a review of their cases. Until 1999, Conservatives opposed the creation of the National Minimum Wage, citing that they believed it would cost jobs, and businesses would be reticent to start business in the UK from fear of high labour costs.[54] However the party have since pledged support. They support, and have implemented, the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings, and seek to raise retirement age from 65 to 66.

Energy/climate change policy

In his effort to modernise the Conservative Party, David Cameron brought several 'green' issues to the forefront of his 2010 campaign. These included proposals designed to impose a tax on workplace car parking spaces, a halt to airport growth, a tax on gas-guzzling 4x4s and restrictions on car advertising. .[55]

Justice and crime policy

In 2010, the Conservatives campaigned with the conviction to cut the perceived bureaucracy of the modern police force and pledged greater legal protection to people convicted of defending themselves against intruders. They also supported the creation of a UK Bill of Rights, however this was vetoed by their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats. Some Conservatives, particularly within the socially conservative Cornerstone Group, support the re-introduction of the death penalty.

European Union policy

No subject has proved more divisive in the Conservative Party in recent history, than the role of the United Kingdom within the European Union. Though the principal architect of the UK's entry into the then European Communities (now the 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-Europe 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. 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.

In 2009 the Conservative Party actively campaigned against the Lisbon Treaty, which it believes would give away too much sovereignty to Brussels. Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that, should the Treaty be in force by the time of an incoming Conservative government, he would "not let matters rest there".[56] However, on 14 June 2009 shadow Business Secretary Kenneth Clarke said in an interview to the BBC that the Conservative party would not reopen negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty if the Irish backed it in a new referendum,[57] which they did on 2 October 2009.

Union policy

The Conservatives staunchly support the maintenance of the United Kingdom, and oppose the separation of any of the countries of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland from it. They have had a mixed history on support for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution.

In 1968, Ted Heath issued his 'Perth declaration', in support of a Scottish assembly, in the wake of growing nationalism. However the cause went unanswered during his turbulent premiership, and under Margaret Thatcher and John Major's leadership, the Conservatives vehemently opposed devolution, and campaigned against it in the 1997 devolution referendum. Following the Scottish Parliament's establishment in 1999, they have vowed to support it's continued existence, and along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they supported the Scotland Bill (2011), granting further devolution of power.

In Wales, the Conservatives campaigned against devolution in the 1997 referendum, however likewise as with Scotland, they have vowed to maintain the Welsh Assembely's continued existence, and in 2011 supported the further devolution of power.

In Northern Ireland, the Conservatives suspended the parliament in 1973 in the wake of the growing Troubles, and made unsuccessful attempts to re-establish it in the same year, and in 1982. They supported the Belfast Agreement negotiated by the Blair government in 1998, and in 2009, negotiated an electoral pact with the declining Ulster Unionist Party, whom it had previously been allied to before 1973. Interestingly, in 1940, Winston Churchill offered a united Ireland to the Irish Taioseach Eamon de Valera in return for his support against Nazi Germany, however de Valera refused as he believed the unionists would not accept it.[58]

The party opposed Labour's attempt to devolve power to the north of England in 2004, however have recently declared support for a commission into the West Lothian Question, as to whether or not only English MPs should be able to vote on issues solely affecting English matters.


Party structure

Share of the vote received by Conservatives (blue), Whigs/Liberals/Liberal Democrats (orange), Labour (red) and others (grey) in general elections since 1832.[59][60]

In the organisation of the Conservative Party, constituency associations dominate the election of party leaders and the selection of local candidates while the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) leads financing, organisation of elections and drafting of policy. The leader of the parliamentary party forms policy in consultation with his cabinet and administration. This decentralised structure is unusual.[61] The Conservative Party Board is the party's ultimate decision making body, responsible for all operational matters (including fundraising, membership and candidates) and is made up of representatives from each (voluntary, political and professional) section of the Party.[62] The Party Board meets about once a month and works closely with CCHQ, elected representatives and the voluntary membership mainly through a number of management sub-committees (such as membership, candidates and conferences).

Membership declined through the 20th century, and, despite an initial boost shortly after David Cameron's election as leader in December 2005, later resumed its decline in 2006 to a lower level than when he was elected. In 2008 the Conservative Party had about 250,000 members according to The News of the World.[63] The membership fee for the Conservative Party is £25, or £5 if the member is under the age of 23.

In 2004, according to accounts filed with the Electoral Commission, the party had an income of about £20 million and expenditures of about £26 million.[64]

International organisations

Internationally, 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 ED is a eurosceptic grouping.

In June 2009, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron sealed a new alliance with conservative Polish Law and Justice party (PiS), which at the time sat in opposition. Cameron attended a gathering at Warsaw's Palladium cinema celebrating the foundation of the new alliance; also present were Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, and Mirek Topolánek, leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) in the Czech Republic.[65]

As of June 2009, Cameron required a further four partners apart from the Polish and Czech supports to qualify for official fraction status in the parliament; the rules state that a caucus needs at least 25 MEPs from at least seven of the 27 EU member states.[65] In forming the caucus, Cameron is reportedly breaking with two decades of co-operation by the UK's Conservative Party with the mainstream centre-right Christian democrats in the European parliament, the European People's Party (EPP) on the grounds that it is dominated by European federalists and supporters of the Lisbon treaty, which is opposed by the Tories.[65] EPP leader Wilfried Martens, former prime minister of Belgium, has stated "Cameron's campaign has been to take his party back to the centre in every policy area with one major exception: Europe. [...] I can't understand his tactics. Merkel and Sarkozy will never accept his Euroscepticism."[65]

In 2009, then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband accused the Conservative Party of having links to far-Right parties. He reiterated this in October, saying he was "astounded" by comments of the ECR group's chairman, the Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, who had said that he believed that the murder of hundreds of Jews in Jedwabne should be considered a lesser crime than those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.[66] Criticisms such as this have generally been countered by Conservatives making similar claims about members of the Labour Party's group in the European Parliament.[67][68]

In October 2009, the Conservative Party came under pressure from the US administration concerning its alliances in the European Parliament.[69] According to reports, the Conservative party's links to far-right parties within Europe has caused a "host of condemnation"[69] from Jewish groups in the US; Ira Forman, chief executive of the National Jewish Democratic Council, stated that "There is obviously concern in the US when there is legitimacy conferred on individuals and political parties that have had some association with anti-Semitism."[69]

In 2009, the Conservatives won 26 seats in the European Parliament, which increased to 27 in 2011 due to defection by a UKIP MEP.

Party factions

One Nation Conservatives

One Nation Conservatism was the party's dominant ideology in the 20th century until the rise of Thatcherism in the 1970s, and included in its ranks Conservative Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath.[70] The name itself comes from a famous phrase of Disraeli. The basis of One-Nation Conservatism is a belief in social cohesion, and its adherents support social institutions that maintain harmony between different interest groups, classes, and—more recently—different races or religions. These institutions have typically included the welfare state, the BBC, and local government. Some are also supporters of the European Union, perhaps stemming from an extension of the cohesion principle to the international level, though others are strongly against the EU (such as Sir Peter Tapsell). Prominent One Nation Conservatives in the contemporary party include Kenneth Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind and Damian Green; they are often associated with the Tory Reform Group and the Bow Group. One Nation Conservatives often invoke Edmund Burke and his emphasis on civil society ("little platoons") as the foundations of society, as well as his opposition to radical politics of all types.[71]

Free-Market Conservatives

The second main grouping in the Conservative party is the "free market" or Thatcherite wing of economic liberals who achieved dominance after the election of Margaret Thatcher as party leader in 1975. Their goal was to reduce the role of the government in the economy and to this end they supported cuts in direct taxation, the privatisation of nationalised industries and a reduction in the size and scope of the welfare state. The group has disparate views of social policy: Thatcher herself was socially conservative and a practising Methodist but market liberals in the Conservative Party harbour a range of social opinions from the libertarian views of Michael Portillo, Daniel Hannan, and David Davis to the traditional conservatism of William Hague. The Thatcherite wing is also associated with the concept of a "classless society."[72]

Many are also Eurosceptic, perceiving most EU regulations as interference in the free market and/or a threat to British sovereignty. EU centralisation also conflicts with the localist ideals that have grown in prominance within the party in recent years. Rare Thatcherite Europhiles include Leon Brittan. Many take inspiration from Thatcher's 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 and classical liberals in the party also tend to be Atlanticist, identifying strongly with the liberal founding principles of the United States. This was demonstrated with the close friendship between Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher herself claimed philosophical inspiration from the works of Burke and Friedrich Hayek for her defence of liberal economics. Groups associated with this tradition include the No Turning Back Group and Conservative Way Forward, whilst Enoch Powell and Sir Keith Joseph are usually cited as early influences in the movement.[73]

Traditionalist Conservatives

This right-wing grouping is currently associated with the Cornerstone Group (or Faith, Family, Flag), and is the third main tradition within the Conservative Party. The name stems from its support for three English social institutions: the Church of England, the unitary British state and the family. To this end, they emphasise the country's Anglican heritage, oppose any transfer of power away from the United Kingdom—either downwards to the nations and regions or upwards to the European Union—and seek to place greater emphasis on traditional family structures to repair what they see as a broken society in the UK. They are strong advocates of marriage and believe the Conservative Party should back the institution with tax breaks and have opposed Labour's alleged assault on both traditional family structures and 'fatherhood'. Most oppose high levels of immigration and support the lowering of the current 24 week abortion limit. Some members in the past have expressed support for capital punishment. Prominent MPs from this wing of the party include Andrew Rosindell, Nadine Dorries and Edward Leigh—the latter a prominent Roman Catholic, notable in a faction marked out by its support for the established Church of England. The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton is a representative of the intellectual wing of the Cornerstone group: his writings rarely touch on economics and instead focus on conservative perspectives concerning political, social, cultural and moral issues.

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 major 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.

Electoral performance

This chart shows the electoral performance of the Conservative Party in general elections since 1835.[74]

Election Votes Vote % Seats Outcome of election
1835 261,269 40.8% 273 Whig Victory
1837 379,694 48.3% 314 Whig Victory
1841 379,694 56.9% 367 Conservative Victory
1847 205,481 42.7% 325 Whig Victory
1852 311,481 41.9% 330 Conservative Victory
1857 239,712 34.0% 264 Whig Victory
1859 193,232 34.3% 298 Whig Victory
1865 346,035 40.5% 289 Liberal Victory
1868 903,318 38.4% 271 Liberal Victory
1874 1,091,708 44.3% 350 Conservative Victory
1880 1,462,351 42.5% 237 Liberal Victory
1885 2,020,927 43.5% 247 Liberal Victory
1886 1,520,886 51.1% 393 (316+77) Conservative and Liberal Unionist Victory
1892 2,159,150 47.0% 313 (268+45) Liberal Victory
1895 1,894,772 49.0% 411 Conservative and Liberal Unionist Victory
1900 1,767,958 50.3% 402 Conservative and Liberal Unionist Victory
1906 2,422,071 43.4% 156 Liberal Victory
Jan 1910 3,104,407 46.8% 272 Liberal Hung Parliament
Dec 1910 2,420,169 46.6% 271 Liberal Hung Parliament
1918 3,472,738 33.3% 332 'Coalition' Conservative Hung Parliament / 'Coalition' Liberal Victory
1922 5,294,465 38.5% 344 Conservative Victory
1923 5,286,159 38.0% 258 Conservative Hung Parliament
1924 7,418,983 46.8% 412 Conservative Victory
1929 8,252,527 38.1% 260 Labour Hung Parliament
1931 11,377,022 55.0% 473 Conservative Victory
1935 10,025,083 47.8% 386 National Government (Conservative) Victory
1945 8,716,211 36.2% 197 Labour Victory
1950 11,507,061 40.0% 282 Labour Victory
1951 13,724,418 48.0% 321 (302+19) Conservative Victory
1955 13,310,891 49.7% 345 Conservative Victory
1959 13,750,875 49.4% 365 Conservative Victory
1964 12,002,642 43.4% 304 Labour Victory
1966 11,418,455 41.9% 253 Labour Victory
1970 13,145,123 46.4% 330 Conservative Victory
Feb 1974 11,872,180 37.9% 297 Labour Hung Parliament / Lib-Lab Pact
Oct 1974 10,462,565 35.8% 277 Labour Victory
1979 13,697,923 43.9% 339 Conservative Victory
1983 13,012,316 42.4% 397 Conservative Victory
1987 13,760,935 42.2% 376 Conservative Victory
1992 14,093,007 41.9% 336 Conservative Victory
1997 9,600,943 30.7% 165 Labour Victory
2001 8,357,615 31.7% 166 Labour Victory
2005 8,785,941 32.4% 198 Labour Victory
2010 10,704,647 36.1% 306 Conservative Hung Parliament / Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition

Associated groups

Ideological groups

Interest groups

Think tanks


  • Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists
  • Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force

Party structures

See also


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Bibliography and further reading

  • Bale, Tim. The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron (2011)
  • Beer, Samuel. "The Conservative Party of Great Britain," Journal of Politics Vol. 14, No. 1 (Feb., 1952), pp. 41–71 in JSTOR
  • Blake, Robert and Louis William Roger, eds. Churchill: A Major New Reassessment of His Life in Peace and War (Oxford UP, 1992), 581 pp; 29 essays by scholars on specialized topics
  • Campbell, John. Margaret Thatcher; Volume Two: The Iron Lady (Pimlico (2003). ISBN 0-7126-6781-4
  • Crowson, N. J., ed. The Longman Companion to the Conservative Party Since 1830 (2001); chronologies; relations with women, minorities, trade unions, EUm Ireland, social reform and empire.
  • Evans, Eric J. Thatcher and Thatcherism (2004)
  • Garnett, Mark, and Philip Lynch. The conservatives in crisis: the Tories after 1997 (1994)
  • Green, E. H. H. Ideologies of conservatism: conservative political ideas in the twentieth century (2004)
  • Green, E. H. H. The Crisis of conservatism: The politics, economics, and ideology of the British Conservative Party, 1880-1914 (1996)
  • King, Anthony, ed. British Political Opinion 1937-2000: The Gallup Polls (2001)
  • McKenzie, R. T. and A. Silver (1968), Angels in Marble: Working-class Conservatives in Urban England
  • Mowat, Charles Loch. Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940 (1955) 694 pp;
  • Norton, Bruce F. Politics in Britain (2007) textbook
  • Parry, J. P. "Disraeli and England," Historical Journal Vol. 43, No. 3 (Sep., 2000), pp. 699–728 in JSTOR
  • Powell, David. British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System (2004)
  • Reitan, Earl Aaron. The Thatcher Revolution: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979–2001 (2003) Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0742522032
  • Searle, G. R. A New England?: Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005) 976pp survey
  • Taylor, A. J. P. English History, 1914-1945 1965, standard political history of the era
  • Thackeray, David. "Home and Politics: Women and Conservative Activism in Early Twentieth‐Century Britain," Journal of British Studies October 2010, Vol. 49, No. 4:826-848.
  • Windscheffel, Alex. "Men or Measures? Conservative Party Politics, 1815-1951," Historical Journal Vol. 45, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 937–951 in JSTOR

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