Conservative Party


Conservative Party
   The Conservative Party has been the most successful political force in Britain in the twentieth century. It has dominated government in the postwar period and their spell in office from 1979– 97 was the longest of any party for almost two centuries. The Conservative Party is a hierarchical organization dominated by the party leader, who in turn have up until now been elected solely by Tory MPs. In the first ballot to decide a leader, the winner needs an overall majority and 15 percent more than the runner up. The second ballot requires a simple majority, and in a third contest only the two leading candidates participate in a head to head. In practice, the three stages are rarely needed. In 1990, Mrs Thatcher was opposed by Michael Heseltine and accrued 55 percent of the votes, just failing to attain the 15 percent lead. She stood down and Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and John Major contested the second ballot. Major just failed to gain half the votes, but the other two candidates withdrew and Major became Prime Minister. Outside of parliament, the Conservative Party is divided between Central Office and the National Association. The former is the professional, administrative wing of the party, responsible for the coordination and supervision of local organizations and the dissemination of policy initiatives. The Chairman and senior officials at Central Office are appointed by the party leader. The National Association is the federation of Conservative constituency associations and represents the mass membership of the party. Its officers are elected by the governing body, the Central Council, which consists of around 3,000 members and meets annually to discuss policy and internal matters. It is comprised of MPs and prospective candidates, constituency representatives, senior officials of Central Office and members of the Executive Committee of the National Association. The latter body meets every two months and its membership includes the party leader, officials and local representatives. It is advised by various policy committees from the Young Conservatives, local government and the parliamentary party.
   Unlike its Labour Party counterpart, the annual Conservative Party conference is regarded as little more than a cosmetic exercise mounted to demonstrate party unity and support for the leader. There was, however, more genuine debate at conferences in the mid-1990s as party divisions on Europe became more apparent. Nevertheless, the conference has no policy-making functions, so party control remains decisively in the hands of the leader. Some Tory factions, specifically the Set the Party Free Group and the Charter Group, have criticized the undemocratic structure of the Conservative Party. The membership of the party consists overwhelmingly of white, middle-class homeowners. In 1995, over half of the Conservative membership of half a million people was aged over sixty-five, but this was falling by 64,000 members a year. The party attracts most of its votes from the A, B and C1 social categories, but until 1997 also received a significant proportion of the working-class vote, attributed to the embourgeoisement of the working classes and populist Conservative policies on law and order, immigration and reducing direct taxation. The working-class vote reverted to Labour in 1997. Conservative Party candidates have predominantly upper or middle-class occupational backgrounds, many have attended public schools and most are graduates, usually from Oxbridge. This social exclusiveness is even more apparent in the Cabinet, where in 1992 only Major and Lord Wakeham had not been educated at a university. In the 1992 Parliament, the Conservatives had a lower proportion of women MPs than the two other major parties.
   The Conservative Party has successfully evolved over time from the party of the landowning classes to the party of industry and big business. It has been able to move with change in order to win wider support, as witnessed by its attempts to attract working-class votes. Conservatives emphasize the concept of authority and the need for strong institutions of government. They are con-vinced of the merits of private ownership, as the sale of council houses and the privatization programme demonstrate. This also represents a political aim to attract voters, as council houses and public utilities were sold below their market value. Conservatives believe in equal opportunities, but argue against measures such as redistributing wealth as equality of outcome is inevitable, and indeed desirable to provide an incentive for effort. This explains their support for selective education, with Prime Minister Major proclaiming in 1996 his desire for a grammar school in every town. The Conservative Party has been dominated by two ideologies throughout its history; the collectivist tradition and the libertarian tradition. The collectivist policy was prevalent in the twentieth century until Edward Heath’s adoption of the neo-liberal Selsdon Programme in 1970, and continued in the 1980s in the ideology of one-nation Conservatives, whom Thatcher labelled ‘wets’. Major’s Chancellor from 1993, Kenneth Clarke, is identified with this position. Collectivists accept the need for full employment and welfare provisions and for corporate decision making and state intervention in the economy to achieve growth and prosperity.
   ‘Stagflation’ in the late 1960s caused disillusionment with the achievements of the postwar consensus and gave renewed impetus to the party’s libertarian wing. Margaret Thatcher’s ideology was essentially libertarian, influenced by New Right writers such as Hayek and Friedman and by thinktanks. She believed that the state role in the economy should be limited to providing the conditions for a free market, and public expenditure should be cut. Welfare would ideally be provided by the family or the private sector, but not the ‘nanny’ state which created a dependency culture. Privatization would provide competition to bring about efficiency and consumer choice, the notion behind the internal market in the NHS. Thatcher advocated conviction politics, as opposed to the pluralist approach of one-nation Conservatism. This explains her attacks on the trade unions, local government and pressure groups whose vested interests she decided threatened the will of the people as expressed by their election of her as Prime Minister. Thatcher solved the ideological conflict in her party by systematically removing the ‘wets’ from her Cabinet and replacing them with ministers who shared her opinions. Vociferous appeals to nationalism, emphasis on the need for law and order, and a tough stance on crime and immigration were also elements of Thatcherism. These policies were attractive to much of the electorate, and have been termed ‘authoritarian populism’. John Major followed a similar agenda, despite policy initiatives like the Citizen’s Charter, which were designed to improve public services by introducing more competition and choice, complaints procedures and better quality service to the citizen. His personal style was very different to his predecessor, however, amounting to ‘Thatcherism with a human face’ (according to Clarke). Reforms of government, the NHS and education continued under his premiership, as did privatizations and legislation against the unions. Major suffered due to the smallness of his majority in his second term, which was eventually eroded and he was forced to depend on the Ulster Unionists to support his minority government from 1996. This meant that rebellions over Europe could cause the government to lose crucial votes. Major’s attempts to assert his authority included a confidence vote on the Social Chapter in 1993 and withdrawing the whip from eight ‘Euro rebels’ in 1994, only to reinstate it unconditionally after his defeat on a budget measure and resignation as Prime Minister in June 1995. He stood for reelection against the Eurosceptic John Redwood, on a European platform of ‘no change’, an election he won by 218 to 89 votes (with 20 abstentions). The general election of 1979 was a watershed for the Conservative Party, which capitalized on Labour’s failures in the Winter of Discontent and offered a clear alternative based on freedom from wage controls and lower taxation. They reestablished themselves as the ‘natural party of government’ and were in office for eighteen consecutive years.
   Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for eleven years, but in 1982 she was the most unpopular prime minister in history according to opinion polls, largely due to a rapid rise in unemployment. The turning point in her administration was the Falklands conflict, which restored her prestige in the eyes of the electorate. She gained successive victories in 1983 and 1987 with formidable Conservative majorities. Thatcher benefited in 1983 from a divided opposition with the emergence of the SDP/Liberal Party alliance and by the disarray of the Labour Party. In 1987, Conservative economic policies were seen to be working, the opposition remained divided, and a majority of white-collar workers and the changing geography of the vote resulted in more Conservative voters.
   In her third term in office, criticism was levelled at Thatcher’s leadership style as conviction politics came to appear like overbearing bossiness, a charge previously aimed at her during the Westland Affair. The introduction of the poll tax and her increasing intransigence in Europe made her unpopular with the public and amongst some of her own government. This resulted in the 1990 leadership contest, which ultimately brought her resignation. Although Thatcher’s chosen successor was John Major, she soon publicly disagreed with him on certain policies, along with her Bruges Group and No Turning Back Group allies. This damaged Major’s credibility as prime minister going into the 1992 election, when opinion polls predicted a narrow Labour victory.
   In the event Major achieved a majority of twenty-two seats in 1992, a victory attributed to the strong media bias towards the Conservatives and the public’s distrust of Labour to run the economy, in spite of the 1990s recession under the Conservatives. The party’s divisions over Europe became more intractible from 1992, as witnessed by the appearance of Euro rebels over Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) membership, the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency. Sir James Goldsmith’s creation of the Referendum Party also received the tacit support of some right-wing Eurosceptics. Major was derided in the press as a weak leader unable to control his party’s warring factions. He suffered further due to Britain’s undignified retreat from the ERM on Black Wednesday, and the consequent devaluation of the pound. Major as Chancellor had persuaded Thatcher to join the ERM just prior to her downfall, and the public identified him with this policy. This tarnished the Conservatives’ reputation for astute running of the economy. Criticism was also directed at the largest increases in taxation since the Second World War, the state of the public services and ‘sleaze’. The latter phenomenon destroyed Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign, intended to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour but associated in the press with the string of sexual and financial scandals concerning Conservative MPs in Major’s second term.
   The Labour Party’s move to the right attracted many voters and some of the previously hostile tabloid press, notably the Sun, which claimed to have won the 1992 election for Major but backed Labour and Tony Blair in 1997. Eighteen years in opposition had forced Labour to review their policies and to impose tight discipline on the party and marginalize the radical left. Most privatized industries would remain in the private sector, trade unions would not regain their pre-1979 powers, and the free market would be accepted alongside social justice. In 1996, Blair committed a future Labour government to the Conservatives’ spending targets in his attempt to woo the voters of middle England. Despite evidence of economic recovery, the 1997 general election was a disaster for the Conservative Party, which received its lowest share of the vote since 1832. No Conservative seats were left in Scotland or Wales, seven Cabinet members lost their seats and Conservative representation in the House of Commons slumped to 165. There was considerable evidence of tactical voting to oust the Conservatives, and Labour came to power with their best-ever majority of 179. The average swing against the Conservatives was 10.5 percent, though it was substantially greater in marginal constituencies. Amidst recriminations about who was to blame for the defeat, Major stood down and campaigning for the party leadership began, leading eventually to the accession of William Hague.
   Further reading
    Cole, J. (1987) The Thatcher Years: A Decade of Revolution in British Politics, London: BBC Books.
    Kavanagh, D. and Seldon, A. (eds) (1994) The Major Effect, London: Macmillan.
    Ludlam, S. and Smith, M.J. (eds) (1996) Contemporary British Conservatism, London: Macmillan.
   COLIN WILLIAMS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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