Prospects of an extended period of Conservative rule disappeared in 1846 when the party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws, and, from that time until the formation of the Liberal-Conservative coalition government in 1915, political power alternated between the Conservatives and the Liberals. The party was reorganized by Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister for a few months in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. Disraeli established a Conservative Central Office (1870), which merged with other elements of the party organization, resulting in greater unity and strength. At the same time, his emphasis on social reform to reduce the enormous disparity in the living conditions of rich and poor, combined with a strong, activist imperial and foreign policy, made a permanent impress on Conservative principles and programs.
The party was further strengthened in 1886 when it allied with the Liberal Unionists, a faction of the Liberal Party that opposed the policy of Home Rule in Ireland put forward by the Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone. Thus reinforced, the Conservatives held office for all but 3 of the next 20 years, first under the leadership of Lord Salisbury and then of Arthur Balfour. In 1906, however, a split over tariff policy caused them to lose the election in a disastrous landslide; they did not regain power until they joined a wartime coalition with the Liberals in May 1915.
In 1922 Conservative backbenchers brought about the resignation of their leader, Austen Chamberlain, and forced the party's withdrawal from the coalition. This rebellion owed much to a personal revulsion that many of the backbenchers felt toward the Liberal leader and prime minister, David Lloyd George, and also to their unease over some of the more interventionist reforms introduced by Liberal ministers. A surprise election called in December 1923 by the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin proved a miscalculation that briefly reunited the ailing Liberal Party and opened the way to a minority Labour government, but the Conservatives remained the largest single party and were able to regain power the following year. Apart from another brief Labour incumbency in 1929-31, the Conservatives dominated national office until 1945. Baldwin emerged as a popular figure and architect of what he referred to as the "new Conservatism," consisting of a modest movement away from the laissez-faire economic policies that the party had maintained since 1918 and toward the forging of a new appeal to the middle classes.
Baldwin's successor as party leader and prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was forced from office in May 1940 by his own backbenchers over his lack of leadership in the early months of World War II. Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill, whose stunning defeat in the first postwar election in July 1945 can be attributed to the electorate's desire for a new degree of social reform and economic security, as well as its inclination to blame the Conservatives for not having done enough during the 1930s to alleviate the problems of mass unemployment or to thwart the aspirations of dictators. Now in opposition, the party set about reforming its policy and organization, and it was able to return to power in 1951 and maintain office until 1964. Under the leadership of Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative Party came to share in the key tenets of the "postwar consensus" with Labour--that is, it accepted the state's responsibility for maintaining full employment and approved the use of Keynesian techniques of economic demand management to achieve that objective. Moreover, the party did not seek to reverse the welfare measures and the public ownership of industry that had been introduced by Labour in 1945-51.
After 1964 the Conservatives held power alternately with Labour. Under the prime ministry of Edward Heath (1970-74), the party began to flirt with notions of deregulating finance and industry, but in 1975 Heath was succeeded as party leader by Margaret Thatcher, who, during her four years as leader of the opposition, frequently stated a determination not to be deflected from the goals of deregulation and supply-side economic reform in the way that Heath had been. With the Conservatives' victory over Labour in 1979, Thatcher's philosophy translated itself into a series of efforts to "roll back the state" in the economic sphere, to weaken the power of the trade unions, and to curb welfare provisions. Thatcher combined this program with moral traditionalism and nationalistic resentment of the European Union (EU). Critics both inside and outside the Conservative Party contended that the "cult of the market" did much to disintegrate the social order, yet Thatcher was able to lead her party to resounding victories in the general elections of 1983 and 1987. When she was finally forced to resign the party's leadership (and therefore the prime ministry) in 1990, it reflected the combined impact of a number of factors. Among these were: public protests over a proposal to finance local government through a flat-rate "poll tax"; a series of bitter conflicts with some of Thatcher's senior ministers; her strident and authoritarian style of dealing with colleagues; and a growing sense among backbenchers that she might prove unable to withstand the electoral challenge of a newly united and considerably reformed Labour Party.
Thatcher's successor, John Major, had held senior ministerial office for only a brief period prior to his elevation to the prime ministry. Major's less charismatic political style did not prevent him from winning the general election of 1992, but he had to contend with a prolonged economic recession, internal party conflict over the question of European integration, and dismally low opinion-poll ratings. The Conservatives suffered a crushing loss in the general election of 1997, losing more than half their seats in Parliament. A return to opposition did little to promise an end to the factional strife hat had characterized the party during its last years in power.
The three principal structural elements of the Conservative Party are the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, the Central Office, and the Parliamentary Party. The National Union is organized at the local level into constituency associations, whose executive councils screen prospective parliamentary candidates for final selection by the members of the constituencies. At the national level the National Union is led by a Central Council, which is made up of the party leader, other prominent Conservatives, and representatives from the local constituency associations. The National Union holds an annual conference, which serves as a focal point for membership activity and for grassroots feedback to the leadership.
The party's Central Office, whose chief officers are appointed by the party leader, has the primary task of guiding the work of the party throughout the country. Within the Parliamentary Party, Conservative members are organized into a system of committees, the most influential of which is the 1922 (so called because its founding members were first returned to Parliament in 1922). Since 1965 the party's leader has been elected by fellow members of Parliament. The leader is the fount of policy and is not formally constrained by external bodies.
The membership of the modern Conservative Party is heavily dependent upon the landowning and middle classes, especially businessmen, managers, and professionals. Its electoral base, however, has extended at times well beyond this class to incorporate approximately one-third of the working class. Working-class votes were a necessary condition of the extraordinary electoral success that the party enjoyed after World War I. Since the 1950s, a regional alignment of the party's electoral support has become apparent, so that it is now concentrated in nonindustrial rural and suburban areas, especially in the south of England. Indeed, in the 1997 election the party returned no members of Parliament in either Scotland or Wales.
Although the party has long been highly circumspect about revealing the
precise sources of its funds, these are almost certainly derived largely
from corporate donors and wealthy individuals. The party does not maintain
accurate records of its national membership, but estimates suggest that
the rolls have declined greatly since the 1960s and now stand between one-half
and three-quarters of a million individuals.
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