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Conservative Party / Tory Party - 20th Century History

Arthur Balfour was Lord Salisburys nephew and his successor, and the period from 1902 to 1914 was the worst period of defeat and disunity in the Party's modern history - principally because of divisions over Joseph Chamberlain's programme of pro-Empire tariff reform, which was strongly opposed by a small group of free traders. More seriously, working-class fears that duties on food imports would raise the cost of living made it an electoral liability.

The internal divisions which followed caused a purge of the Cabinet in 1903 and did much to cause three successive electoral defeats - the landslide of 1906, which left only 157 Conservative MPs, and narrower reverses in January and December 1910. The Party was further divided over resistance to the Liberal government's reform of the House of Lords in 1911, and Balfour finally resigned the leadership.

The defeats also led to organisational reforms, and in 1911 the post of Party Chairman was created to oversee the work of the Central Office. Balfour's unexpected successor, Andrew Bonar Law, restored Party morale with a series of vigorous attacks upon the government and by his support of Ulster during the passage of the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912-1914.

The First World War transformed the position of the Conservative Party. As the 'patriotic' party, its advocacy of vigorous prosecution of the war led to increased popularity, and it also benefited from the splits and eventual decline of the Liberal Party. In May 1915 the Conservatives agreed to join a coalition under the Liberal Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith.

In December 1916, concerned over lack of direction in the war, the Conservative leaders supported the supplanting of Asquith by a more energetic and charismatic Liberal, David Lloyd George. When victory came in 1918 Lloyd George was at the height of his popularity and Bonar Law readily agreed that the Coalition should continue in order to tackle the problems of peace-making and reconstruction. However after economic depression and failures of policy in 1920-1921, the Coalition became increasingly unpopular amongst Conservative MPs and local activists.

In March 1921 Bonar Law resigned for reasons of health, and Austen Chamberlain became the Conservative leader. A revolt against the Coalition swelled up from the lower ranks of the party, and Chamberlain was defeated at the meeting of Conservative MPs held at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922. Bonar Law led the victorious rebels, and thus ousted both Chamberlain as Party Leader and Lloyd George as Prime Minister.

The fall of the Coalition was the formative event in Conservative politics between the wars. It marked a decision to return to normal party politics, with Labour replacing the Liberals as the main opposition. Stanley Baldwin replaced the dying Bonar Law as party leader and Prime Minister in May 1923. Despite leading the Conservatives into an unnecessary defeat in December 1923 and a serious assault upon his position in 1929-1931, Baldwin remained leader until 1937. Between 1918 and 1945 the Conservative Party were the largest party in the House of Commons for all but two and a half years.

In the crisis of August 1931 the Conservatives agreed to serve under the former Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in a National government in which the Conservatives formed by far the largest element. In 1935 Baldwin replaced MacDonald as Prime Minister, and in 1937 he handed on both the Premiership and the Conservative leadership to Neville Chamberlain.

The latter's period as leader was dominated by controversy over the policy of appeasement. Chamberlain was strongly supported by the grass-roots and almost all MPs. However, he seemed less suited to the demands of wartime, and a revolt of Conservative MPs in the Norway debate of 8-9 May 1940 forced his resignation as Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill, an isolated Conservative critic during the 1930s, now became Prime Minister and later in the same year he succeeded Chamberlain as party leader. Churchill rallied the nation but even his prestige could not shelter the Conservative Party from popular blame for the failures of the 1930s. This led to its second major electoral defeat of the century in 1945, when it was reduced to only 210 MPs.

The Conservatives adapted to this setback whilst in opposition during the 1945-1951 Labour governments, and overhauled both organisation and policy. As a result, between the late 1940s and the early 1970s the Conservatives accepted the pillars of the post-war 'consensus': the Welfare State, the public ownership of certain industries, government intervention in economic affairs, and partnership in industry between trade unions and employers. Although Churchill remained rather unenthusiastic, these policies enabled the Conservatives to regain power in 1951 and then to remain in office continuously until 1964.

The key figures in this period were Anthony Eden, who succeeded Churchill in April 1955 but retired after the failed Suez invasion in January 1957; Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister and Conservative leader from 1957 until November 1963; and R.A. Butler. Butler twice seemed on the brink of becoming leader and Prime Minister but in 1963 Macmillan was instead unexpectedly succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Macmillan's sudden resignation was due to ill-health, but since 1961 his ministry had been mired in economic stagnation and public scandal, and by 1963 defeat seemed likely.

Although his aristocratic lineage was an easy target for the meritocratic campaign of Labour, Douglas-Home managed to regain some lost ground and the Conservatives only narrowly lost the general election in 1964. In August 1965 Douglas-Home stood down, and the first formal party leadership election by a ballot of MPs took place; it was also the first change of leadership whilst in opposition since 1911. The victor was Edward Heath, whose lower middle-class background was thought more publicly acceptable than the aristocratic image of Macmillan and Douglas-Home. Heath survived the Party's loss of further seats to Labour in the 1966 election, but never secured the affection of the public or Conservative backbenchers. To general surprise, he won the 1970 election and became Prime Minister.

Despite Edward Heath's personal achievement in taking Britain into the Common Market, the failures of the Heath ministry of 1970-1974 were the catharsis of modern Conservatism. The reversals of policy, the failure to control inflation or contain the trade unions through legislation on industrial relations, and two defeats at the hands of the coal-miners led first to the fall of Heath and second to the rise and development of Thatcherism. After losing the two elections of February and October 1974, Heath was forced to hold a ballot for the Party leadership in February 1975 in which he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher.

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Page last modified: 05-06-2016 20:47:22 ZULU