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[edit]

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.[citation needed]


Robert Peel was able to reconcile the new industrial class to the Tory landed class by persuading the latter to accept the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the party adopted laissez-faire economic policies from 1918 until the “post war consensus”.[4] The new coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new Conservative Party.

Development of one-nation conservatism[edit]

Benjamin Disraeli is considered the father of one-nation conservatism.

Conservatism evolved after 1820, embracing free trade in 1846, and a commitment to democracy, especially under Disraeli. The effect was to significantly strengthen 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

This "one nation" conservatism is still a significant tradition in British politics, in both the Conservative Party[11][12][13] and Labour,[note 2][14] especially with the rise of the Scottish National Party during the 2015 general election.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]

An all-party coalition during 1916-22, coupled with the rapid growth of the Labour Party in the bitter battles between H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George for control of the Liberals, caused the collapse of the Liberal Party in the 1920s. 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. This was known as Butskellism, after the almost identical Keynesian policies of Rab Butler on behalf of the Conservatives, and Hugh Gaitskell for Labour.[citation needed]

Rise of Thatcherism[edit]

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).[18] 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."[19] Thatcher was described as "a radical in a conservative party",[19] and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite",[19] both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of conservatism as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention (status quo).[20]

Modern conservatism[edit]

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.[21][22] 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[23] and Christian democracy[24][25] 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,[26] 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[27]

Conservative political parties in the United Kingdom[edit]

In British Overseas Territories[edit]

See also[edit]


  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.


  1. ^ D. Von Dehsen 1999, p. 36.
  2. ^ Eccleshall 1990, p. 39.
  3. ^ Dobson 2009, p. 73.
  4. ^ a b c Lord Norton of Louth. Conservative Party. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  5. ^ Mehta, Binita (28 May 2015). "'You don't have to be white to vote right': Why young Asians are rebelling by turning Tory". The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  6. ^ Worthington, Glen, Conservatism in Australian National Politics, Parliament of Australia Parliamentary Library, 19 February 2002
  7. ^ Gregory Claeys, "Political Thought," in Chris Williams, ed., A Companion to 19th-Century Britain (2006). p 195
  8. ^ Richmond & Smith 1998, p. 162.
  9. ^ Auerbach, The Conservative Illusion. (1959), pp. 39–40
  10. ^ Paterson 2001, pp. 93-94.
  11. ^ Stephen Evans, "The Not So Odd Couple: Margaret Thatcher and One Nation Conservatism." Contemporary British History 23.1 (2009): 101-121.
  12. ^ Eaton, George (27 May 2015). "Queen's Speech: Cameron's 'one nation' gloss can't mask the divisions to come". New Statesman. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  13. ^ Vail, Mark I. (18 November 2014). "Between One-Nation Toryism and Neoliberalism: The Dilemmas of British Conservatism and Britain's Evolving Place in Europe". JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies. 53 (1): 106–122. doi:10.1111/jcms.12206.
  14. ^ Hern, Alex (4 October 2012). "The 'one nation' supercut". New Statesman. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  15. ^ White, Michael (9 May 2015). "Cameron vows to rule UK as 'one nation' but Scottish question looms". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  16. ^ Chris Wrigley (2002). Winston Churchill: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO. p. 123.
  17. ^ Andrew Roberts (2018). Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Penguin. p. 127.
  18. ^ Scott-Samuel, Alex, et al. "The Impact of Thatcherism on Health and Well-Being in Britain." International Journal of Health Services 44.1 (2014): 53-71.
  19. ^ a b c Davies, Stephen, Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, July 1993
  20. ^ Wiktionary:conservatism
  21. ^ "BBC News - David Cameron: I am 'Liberal Conservative'". Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  22. ^ "Can Theresa May even sell her new conservatism to her own cabinet?". The Guardian. 2016-07-16. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  23. ^ Quinn, Ben (2016-06-29). "Theresa May sets out 'one-nation Conservative' pitch for leadership". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  24. ^ McGuinness, Damien (2016-07-13). "Is Theresa May the UK's Merkel?". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  25. ^ ""From Big State to Big Society": Is British Conservatism becoming Christian Democratic? | Comment Magazine". Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  26. ^ "Where The Tory Leadership Candidates Stand On Human Rights - RightsInfo". 2016-07-04. Retrieved 2016-09-30.
  27. ^ Frances Perraudin, ''Tories turning into Blukip': MPs lay out reasons for leaving Conservatives – as it happened' (20/02/19) on The Guardian