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 over two years before being defeated by Michael Howard. After the party's third successive electoral defeat in 2005, despite gaining 35 seats, Howard announced his intention to stand down.
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.
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.
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. Before 1965, Conservative Party leaders were chosen by senior members of the party, but since 1965 part leaders have been chosen through a ballot of all Conservative MPs. 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.
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. The Macleod Group was formed in 1995 by party left-wingers, but several on the left defected to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
The party spent £11 million on the 1992 general election campaign, and received £7 million from undisclosed foreign sources. In 1993 the party had a deficit of nearly £20 million. In 1996 the overdraft had fallen to £2 million, but party membership had fallen to below Labour's 365,000.
Labour snatched the Wirral South seat from the Conservatives in February 1997, driving them again into a Commons minority; it was the party's eighth by-election loss since the 1992 general election. 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. In September 1998 a £1 million recruitment drive was launched, with the aim of doubling membership from 325,000 within two years. The party's new chief executive, the supermarket tycoon Archie Norman, announced plans to reduce running annual costs by £3 million through cutting staff numbers from 235 to 188 and, influenced by the Labour Party, creating a central ‘war room’ of policy researchers and ‘spin doctors’. The party was unable to win back support at the 2001 general election. Despite a low turnout the Labour Party won comfortably.
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.