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.


Edmund Burke is often considered the father of modern English conservatism in the Anglosphere.[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] One Australian scholar (Glen Worthington) says: "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]

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan in 1981.


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]

Peel and Disraeli

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, and adopted laissez-faire economic policies from 1918 onwards.[4] The new coalition of traditional landowners and sympathetic industrialists constituted the new Conservative Party.

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 defense 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 attention between me growing numbers of wealthy businessmen on the one side, and the aristocracy and 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 Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.[citation needed]

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

A Liberal-Conservative coalition during World War I, coupled with the ascent of the Labour Party, hastened the collapse of the Liberals 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]

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 (known as Thatcherism).[16] As one commentator explains, "The privatization of state owned industries, unthinkable before, became commonplace [during Thatcher's government] and has now been imitated all over the world."[17] Thatcher was described as "a radical in a conservative party",[17] and her ideology has been seen as confronting "established institutions" and the "accepted beliefs of the elite",[17] both concepts incompatible with the traditional conception of conservatism as signifying support for the established order and existing social convention (status quo).[citation needed]

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.


  1. Christian D. Von Dehsen (21 October 1999). Philosophers and Religious Leaders. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 36–. ISBN 978-1-57356-152-5. Retrieved 1 March 2013. 
  2. Robert Eccleshall (1990). English Conservatism Since the Restoration: An Introduction & Anthology. Routledge. pp. 39–. ISBN 978-0-04-445773-2. Retrieved 1 March 2013. 
  3. Andrew Dobson (19 November 2009). An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of José Ortega Y Gasset. Cambridge University Press. pp. 73–. ISBN 978-0-521-12331-0. Retrieved 1 March 2013. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 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. Charles Richmond; Paul Smith (1998). The Self-Fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge UP. p. 162. 
  9. Auerbach, The Conservative Illusion. (1959), pp. 39–40
  10. David Paterson (2001). Liberalism and Conservatism, 1846-1905. Heinemann. 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). doi:10.1111/jcms.12206. Retrieved 28 May 2015. 
  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. 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.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Davies, Stephen, Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, July 1993