UK political party, one of the two historic British parties; the name replaced Tory in general use from 1830 onwards. Traditionally the party of landed interests (those owning substantial land or property), it broadened its political base under Benjamin Disraeli's leadership in the 19th century. In recent history, the Conservative Party was in power under Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) and John Major (1990–97). After the party's defeat in the 1997 general election, a series of often divisive leadership changes ensued: John Major resigned as party leader and was succeeded by William Hague, who in turn resigned following defeat in the 2001 general election. He was replaced by Iain Duncan Smith who was leader for only two years before being defeated by Michael Howard. After the party's third successive electoral defeat in 2005, despite gaining 35 seats, Howard stood down as leader. The subsequent leadership election was won by David Cameron, who became prime minister after the 2010 general election. However, despite showing a lead in the opinion polls for most of the previous three years, the Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority at this election. Rather than attempt a minority government, they negotiated a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the first such coalition since World War II, stating that the prevailing economic recession and financial deficit required this measure.
In the 1980s the party's economic policies increased the spending power of the majority, but also widened the gap between rich and poor; nationalized industries were sold off under privatization schemes; military spending and close alliance with the USA were favoured; and the funding of local government was overhauled with the introduction of the poll tax. The Conservative government of John Major rejected some of the extreme policies of Thatcherism, notably the poll tax, introduced the new Citizen's Charter, and promoted further privatization or market testing. Within the constraints of coalition politics, David Cameron adopted a less overtly right-wing policy stance than his predecessors, while particularly espousing his ‘big society’ agenda intended to empower local people and communities.
History Opposed to the laissez-faire of the Liberal manufacturers, the Conservative Party in the 19th century supported, to some extent, the struggle of the working class against the harsh conditions arising from the Industrial Revolution. The split of 1846 over Robert Peel's Corn Law policy led to 20 years out of office, or in office without power, until Disraeli ‘educated’ his party into accepting parliamentary and social change, extended the franchise to the artisan (winning considerable working-class support), launched imperial expansion, and established an alliance with industry and finance. The Irish home rule issue of 1886 drove Radical Imperialists and old-fashioned Whigs into alliance with the Conservatives, so that the party had nearly 20 years of office, but fear that Joseph Chamberlain's protectionism would mean higher prices led to a Liberal landslide in 1906. The Conservative Party fought a rearguard action against the sweeping reforms that followed and only the outbreak of World War I averted a major crisis. Between 1915 and 1945, except briefly in 1924 and 1929–31, the Conservatives were continually in office, whether alone or as part of a coalition, largely thanks to the break-up of the traditional two-party system by the rise of Labour.
Post-war policies Labour swept to power after World War II, but the Conservative Party formulated a new policy in their Industrial Charter of 1947, visualizing an economic and social system in which employers and employed, private enterprise and the state, work to mutual advantage. Antagonism to further nationalization and post-war austerity returned the Conservatives to power in 1951 with a small majority, and prosperity kept them in office throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The party was narrowly defeated in the general election of 1964 under Alec Douglas-Home. Edward Heath was elected leader in 1965 and became prime minister in 1970. The imposition of wage controls led to confrontation with the unions; when Heath sought a mandate in February 1974, this resulted in a narrow defeat, repeated in a further election in October 1974.
Late-20th-century Conservatism Margaret Thatcher replaced Heath, and under her leadership the Conservative Party returned to power in May 1979. She was re-elected in 1983 and 1987, but was ousted as leader in November 1990 following an intra-party challenge by Michael Heseltine. The Conservative government continued in office under John Major who went on to be re-elected in 1992. By 1995 a clear division had emerged in the party's approach to Europe, with pro-Europeans, including Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the Exchequer, mainly to the left, and ‘Eurosceptics’, including Michael Portillo, the defence secretary, and John Redwood, the former Welsh secretary who later challenged John Major's leadership (1995), mainly to the right.
In the 1997 general election, Conservative support fell to 31%, its lowest level since 1832, and the party fell to a landslide defeat, winning no seats in Scotland or Wales. It held the smallest number of seats (165) since 1906. John Major immediately announced his resignation as party leader. He was succeeded by William Hague.
Hague sought to draw a ‘line in the sand’ over the party's European policy, by ruling out United Kingdom membership of the European Monetary Union for at least ten years. He also reformed the party's organization, giving the rank-and-file a say in the election of future leaders. The party was, nevertheless, unable to win back support at the 2001 general election which, despite a low turnout, the Labour Party won comfortably.
Coalition politics Following a further nine years in opposition, under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, and David Cameron from 2005, the party took power again in May 2010, but only as the senior partner in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron's overriding policy concern was directed at difficulties in the UK economy and national finances in the wake of global market turmoil since 2008. He was also confronted with his party's long-standing divisions over integration with the European Union, and had to dilute aspects of traditional Conservative dogma in the interests of coalition consensus.
Robert Peel on horseback
Thatcher, Margaret Hilda
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