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Conservative Party History in United Kingdom

Conservative Party History

The forebears of Conservatives were the Cavaliers of the 17th century and the Tories of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Conservative Party was formed from various conservative associations established throughout England following the Reform Bill of 1832. This bill granted more parliamentary seats to industrial areas and lessened voting restrictions, resulting in a broader electorate. To attract these new voters, Sir Robert Peel, then the leader of the Tory Party, adopted the name Conservative and broadened the Tory program.

The statesman Benjamin Disraeli further defined the party’s liberal conservatism. He rallied landed interests, expanded party organization, and included appeals to trade unionists. The National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations was formed in 1867; it grew into the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations. In 1872 Disraeli was instrumental in uniting the National Union and the Conservative central office. Despite his advocacy of social legislation, the Conservatives failed to win the election of 1880. After gaining support from the Liberal Unionist Members of Parliament in 1886, the Conservatives added the term unionist to the formal name of the party. That term has generally been used in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Liberal Party was the principal opposition to the Conservatives from 1832 until after the end of World War I in 1918. With its national or coalition governments during wartime and depression, the Liberals steadily lost popularity and the Labour Party became the second major party in Britain. After two short periods in power, Labour won an overwhelming victory in May 1945. After undergoing a thorough reassessment of organization, policies, and campaign strategy, the Conservatives regained government leadership in the 1950s. Labour governed from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1979. Despite continued emphasis on private enterprise and the free market, Conservatives generally did not try to abrogate social legislation introduced while Labour held power. During the 1980s, however, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privatized many industries that had been nationalized by previous Labour governments. Thatcher vigorously pushed for market economy, private enterprise, and reduction of public regulations, as well as for strong ties with the United States. Her domestic policies became increasingly unpopular in 1990; she resigned in November and was succeeded by her protégé, John Major, who then led the party to victory in the parliamentary elections of April 1992. However, an economic recession in Britain and several scandals caused the popularity of the Conservatives to drop drastically, despite Major’s historic dialogue with Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds in 1993 over the future of Northern Ireland. In 1995, in an attempt to solidify the party, Major resigned as head of the Conservatives, forcing an election for a new leader. Major was reelected as party leader, but by a narrow margin.

In 1996 and 1997 Conservative fortunes continued to wane, as the party’s parliamentary majority was gradually reduced in by-elections and local elections by the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair. The Conservatives were further weakened by growing internal dissension over government policy towards the European Union (EU) – most specifically whether or not the EU’s adoption of a single currency would threaten British sovereignty. In national elections in May 1997, the Conservatives were swept out of office by Blair and the Labour Party. The Conservatives only garnered about 30 percent of the vote and lost almost half of their seats in the House of Commons, finishing with 165. By contrast, Labour received almost 45 percent of the vote, finishing with 419 seats and a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. It was the worst loss by the Conservatives in more than 150 years. After this defeat, John Major resigned as Conservative Party leader, and William Hague succeeded him.

The Conservatives’ fortunes did not improve substantially under Hague. In national elections in June 2001 the Conservative Party suffered a second consecutive defeat to the Labour Party, emerging with 166 seats in the House of Commons compared to Labour’s 413 seats. Hague’s election campaign, based on opposition to the EU’s single currency and promises of lower taxes, failed to capture the support of most British voters. Hague resigned as party leader after the elections and was replaced by Iain Duncan Smith.

Smith attempted to challenge the Labour government over the provision of public services and taxation rather than over European issues. Nevertheless, he was perceived as having made little headway after two years in the job and was removed by a vote of no confidence among the parliamentary party in October 2003. He was replaced by Michael Howard, a former Cabinet minister and home secretary, the following month.

The Conservatives mounted an aggressive campaign for the 2005 general elections. Their campaign was coordinated by Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, who had helped Australian prime minister John Howard achieve four consecutive election victories. The Conservatives highlighted the issues of immigration and crime, and questioned the integrity of Labour leader Tony Blair. However, the Conservative leadership’s support for British involvement in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 limited the party’s ability to capitalize on the widespread unpopularity of the war among voters (see U.S.-Iraq War). The Conservatives gained 33 seats in the House of Commons, bringing the party’s total to 197 of 646 seats. But the party’s share of the vote increased by only 1.6 percent from the 2001 election results. The Conservatives trailed the Liberal Democrats in Wales and fell behind both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party in Scotland. After the poor showing in the elections, Howard announced that he planned to stand down as the party leader. (1)

In this Section: Conservatism, Conservative Party, Conservative Party Organization and Conservative Party History.


Notes and References

  1. Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

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Schema Summary

  • Article Name: Conservative Party History
  • Author: W.S.M. Knight
  • Description: The forebears of Conservatives were the Cavaliers of the 17th century and the Tories of the 18th and 19th centuries. The [...]

This entry was last updated: March 26, 2014


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