By Simon Basketter
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The Tories’ ability to adapt brought dominance

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Our new series begins with the birth and development of the Conservatives
Issue 2202
Benjamin Disraeli, key Tory leader of the Victorian age
Benjamin Disraeli, key Tory leader of the Victorian age

Who are the Tories? The simple answer is that they are the political party of the British ruling class.

The party has shown great adaptability as the political expression of this class.

The Tories emerged as a tendency inside the Whig party after the English Revolution in the 17th century. It existed to back the monarchy.

It didn’t get anywhere until the threat of revolutionary change at the end of the 18th century when it became a separate party.

The Tories’ resistance to radical change from below was combined with ushering in structures to aid capitalism.

In 1787 the Tories carried nearly 3,000 resolutions through the House of Commons to abolish and cut taxes.

In the early years of the 19th century the word Tory became a by-word for reaction.

Their refusal to adapt to the pressure from below meant that the Liberals became the dominant party of the British establishment until the 1870s.

The Liberals held office between 1848 and 1874 with just two brief interruptions. The Tories didn’t win a general election from 1841 until 1874.

Yet they were in office for all but eight years from 1875 until 1906. What happened to bring about this sea change?

Britain was leading the world manufacturing economy.

In 1870 the country produced a third of all the world’s manufacturing goods.

But over the next 40 years the US and Germany outstripped it in a period of technological change centring on steel, electricity and machine tools.

By 1915 Britain produced just

15 percent of the world’s manufactured goods.

Opposition to this industrial decline and the revival of working class resistance from the 1880s helped the Tories become a cohesive force.

The Tories expanded because they changed tack and emphasis to suit the changing needs of British capitalism.

For instance, Benjamin Disraeli, their key leader of the Victorian age, heaved the party into line with the demands of the new industrial capitalists.

The Tories drove through a murderous imperial expansion across the globe.

The party has frequently attacked the poor during its history.


But it’s important not to underestimate the ability of the British ruling class to shy away from drastic confrontation whenever it needs to.

So a Tory administration passed the 1867 Reform Act, which extended the voting franchise, after an illegal mass workers’ protest in Hyde Park.

It was a Tory administration which in 1875 repealed the hated Master and Servant laws, again as a result of pressure from organised workers.

Three quarters of Tory seats were in the English county shires until 1865.

But over the next 30 years they won in Lancashire, Scotland and London—where the Tories went from no seats in 1865 to taking 51 out of 59 seats in 1895.

The chief weapon in the Tories’ hands was support for imperialism—particularly British rule in Ireland.

Their enemy were Irish nationalists and socialists.

Sections of the British ruling class encouraged sectarianism in Ireland in response to demands for home rule.

They were terrified that even a limited version of this would encourage other colonies to demand independence.

The Tory Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, argued to mobilise a Protestant movement to beat the Catholics.

In 1886 the Liberals broke apart over the issue of home rule. A significant section, led by the Birmingham manufacturer Joseph Chamberlain, saw any concessions in Ireland as undermining Britain’s empire.

The Tories played on support for the union with Ireland, and for queen and the empire, to build a popular base.

There was a flight of the wealthy and the propertied to the Tories.

Labour historian James Hinton wrote:

“Alarmed by the spectre of socialism, by industrial depression, by the rise of competing imperialisms; aware that they now had more to lose than gain by continuing the campaign against aristocratic privilege, large numbers of middle class voters turned to the Conservatives as the party of order, stability and national greatness.”

The Tories’ ability to adapt to the needs of British capitalism made them successful, and hated.

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