The Conservative Party, Put Simply

By blog writer Luke Jeffrey

This article is the first in a new series of 'Politics Put Simply', profiling the history and ideologies of the main political parties in the UK. They seek to clarify the ideologies of the parties and explain what the different factions really believe, as opposed to the often one-dimensional analysis seen in general election campaigns. To begin this new series, we start with the current governing party: The Conservative Party.

The Conservative Party is one of the oldest political parties in the UK, and considered to be the most successful in British history. It was formed by Sir Robert Peel, after the Whig Party’s (later the Liberal Party and even later the Liberal Democrat Party) landslide in the 1832 election, from numerous different factions in the Commons. One of those factions was the Tory Party, founded in 1812- hence the Conservative Party’s nickname: the Tories. The Conservatives went on to compete as one of the main two political parties with the Liberals until 1924 and with the Labour Party until the present. Since their formation in 1834 they have never received less than 30% of the popular vote.

The Conservatives have presided over some of the most difficult and transformative periods of British history. Winston Churchill led the National Government during the Second World War; the spirit of defiance and togetherness that developed during the war paved the way for Labour’s landslide in the 1945 election and the creation of the welfare state and NHS. Margaret Thatcher arguably oversaw the most transformative period of post-war Britain in 1979 to 1990. She moved away from the large state and high taxation model brought in by Labour (and accepted by the Conservatives) since 1945. Thatcher introduced a smaller state and lower tax economy which, after a short recession in the early 80s, dragged Britain forward out of the difficult 1970s, although her legacy is a controversial one.

Since the Second World War the Conservatives have been in power for 43 years (out of 73) and won 11 elections, securing landslide victories (where they had a majority of 100 or more) in 1959, 1983 and 1987. Subsequently, they have gained the reputation as one of the most successful parties in political history. Their ability to hold their different ideological factions together has helped them immensely, as the Tories only tend to lose elections after a long or tumultuous period of government (as was the case in 1945, 1964, 1974 and 1997).  The different ideological factions in the party are more interconnected than in other parties (like Labour) which has resulted in party leaders like David Cameron and Theresa May using ideologies which mix ideas from across the party factions. Now the ideologies themselves:

One-Nation Conservatism

One-nation conservatism was prominent in the Conservative Party in the post-war period. It came about because the Conservatives saw that the only way to regain power, after Labour’s landslide in 1945, was to accept the creation of the welfare state by Clement Atlee’s  government between 1945 and 1951 (in the 1947 Industrial Charter). One-nation conservatives are in favour of institutions like the NHS as they believe that they aid social cohesion. They believe that a cohesive society, where people can achieve as they want, will prevent radical change, which is of course the primary goal of conservatism.

Notably, one-nation conservatives are more socially liberal than the traditional wing of the party, and are in favour of extending rights for all; for example, the introduction of equal marriage rights under the coalition government 2010-2015 (while a primarily Liberal Democrat idea it was supported by the One-nation wing). Nonetheless, the faction is still conservative and so is not as fast to adopt calls for sweeping reforms as other parties. 

In the post-war period one-nation conservatives supported a mixed economy where some industries are nationalised, and the state plays a larger role in the economy than it does today. For example, for a time under Edward Heath (Prime Minister 1970-1974) the Conservatives had a policy of controlling both wages and prices (in an attempt to combat high inflation). After Thatcher’s reforms they no longer support such strong interventions in the market, although they are willing to intervene when they believe that the status quo is failing people. An example of this was the energy price cap proposed by Theresa May in the 2017 election. Humorously enough this was a policy derided as Marxist by the Conservatives when it was proposed by Ed Miliband before the 2015 election.

Traditionally the one-nation conservatives have comprised the pro-EU wing of the party as they see the EU as an institution capable of improving social cohesion and providing access to the world’s largest trading bloc. 

Prominent one-nation conservatives include Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister 1956-1963), Kenneth Clarke (former Chancellor of the Exchequer 1993-1997) and Damian Green (former first Secretary of State and effectively Theresa May’s deputy June 2017 – December 2017).


Thatcherism is the ideology of Margaret Thatcher who was Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. It came about due to the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s when inflation hit 25%. Thatcher sought to dismantle the post-war consensus supported by the One-nation conservatives by radically reducing the size of the state. This meant privatising nationalised industries, clamping down on the unions (whose strikes regularly brought the country to a halt, most infamously during the 1979 Winter of Discontent) and lowering taxation.

Thatcher drew her inspiration from Friedrich Hayek’s book: The Road to Serfdom (1944) which suggested that states which sought to centrally plan the economy would eventually lead to an authoritarian dictatorship. Hayek wrote his book in reaction to the Nazi regime and in an attempt to prevent other countries sleepwalking into a totalitarian regime, by gradually giving up economic freedom in the name of efficiency.

Currently, Thatcherism does not have a cohesive faction within the Conservative party, however her economic liberalism is widely accepted throughout the party, albeit to differing degrees. The Thatcherite faction was undoubtedly in control of the party throughout the 1980s, but it split over the issue of Europe. The pro-EU Thatcherites generally joined with the one-nation Conservatives, who had by this point moved away from supporting a mixed economy and had accepted Thatcher’s changes. The anti-EU Thatcherites split, some joining with the very socially conservative traditionalists to form the Eurosceptic faction of the party and the others forming alliances between the primary factions on an ad-hoc basis. Today, the vast majority of the Conservative Party can be described as being a part of the broadly pro-EU one-nation Conservatives and the others as the Eurosceptics. This polarisation came about during the 1990s and early 2000s, when the disagreements within the party over Europe caused endless problems, both in government and in opposition. John Major’s government (1990-1997) almost collapsed over the Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union; before 1992 it had been called the European Economic Community (EEC).

The two most prominent Thatcherites were, of course, Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson (Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-1989). Both played vital roles in the transformation of the UK in the 1980s.


The Traditionalists are one of the oldest factions in the Conservative Party and are considered to be descended from High Toryism, whose roots can be traced back to the 17th century. This faction stresses traditional British values and the importance of the Church and the family- which they see as the building blocks of society. In promoting such values, they hope to fix what they see as broken society; they believe if these foundations are strong and have entrenched protection, then the rest of society will remain healthy as well. This faction has consistently been against progressive social reform like equal marriage rights, as many of them are strongly religious and believe that religious teachings should form the basis of society’s ethics.

Whilst the traditionalists do not make up the entirety of the Eurosceptic faction, as there are Eurosceptics who are not as socially conservative as them, they are united in their scorn for the EU. The Eurosceptic faction are against the transfer of sovereignty, either upwards to the EU or downwards to the nations and regions of the UK. They are also anti-immigration, as they believe it interferes with traditional British culture and values.

Prominent Eurosceptics and Traditionalists include Jacob Rees-Mogg (MP for North East Somerset), Sir Edward Leigh (Former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee 2001-2010) and Nadine Dorries (MP for Mid Bedfordshire).

Cameron and May

Something that you may have noticed, is that I have not included either Theresa May, or David Cameron as a part of any of these factions. This is because as leaders they used electoral strategies which bridged the divides in the party and encompassed a wider base. This is seemingly inspired by Tony Blair’s third way ideology, which sought to bring different ideas together. This kind of strategy became a necessity for the Conservatives after 1997, as they often appeared out of touch and therefore needed to detoxify the party’s image to win elections. Cameron’s strategy was to combine one-nation social policies and Thatcherite economic policies with a distinctly Eurosceptic outlook (placating the backbenchers and eventually leading him to the 2016 referendum). In this way, middle-class voters, who had been swayed by Labour under Blair, could be brought back to the Conservatives. They no longer, publicly at least, extolled the socially conservative aspects which had driven such voters away. This strategy paid off in the 2010 election; Gordon Brown’s left wing Labour further repelled middle class voters, allowing Cameron to form a coalition and regain power. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition paid dividends in the 2015 election, as Cameron could blame the Liberal Democrats for their failures and thus bolster the claim of his own party- achieving the first Conservative majority since the 1992 election. 

Theresa May’s strategy was to use the Brexit vote to attract the so-called JAM (just about managing) voters who had backed Brexit and who, she hoped, would deliver previously solid Labour seats. This is known as Red Toryism and is again an amalgamation of one-nation conservatism and Euroscepticism. In this combination May advocated a more interventionist economic model to, hopefully, benefit JAM voters who would then back the Conservatives and a Hard Brexit stance which would appeal to Brexit voters. It was hoped that this would increase the Conservative’s seats- but in reality, May lost her majority. This was primarily because Labour managed to attract Remain voters and ex-UKIP voters due its vague Brexit policy. 

This article is the first in a series profiling the UK political parties and the ideological factions within them. Next time; The Labour Party.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency @Flickr

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