The Conservative Party (also known as the Tory Party) is, in terms of membership and sitting councillors, the largest political party in the United Kingdom. It ruled the country for two-thirds of the twentieth century and gave Britain its most enduring political legends of that century - Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. It looks set to rule the country again after the next general election under its current leader David Cameron, who has committed himself to "modernizing" the party by promoting a new brand of moderation, youthfulness, and cosmopolitanism. Once alleged to have described himself as the "heir to Blair", Cameron's tenure has sat uneasily with the party's traditional, rural base among whom hatred of Tony Blair is a signal requirement for membership.

British politics is not nearly so viciously partisan as American, but it has a cultural and social element which often transcends differences of policy. The Conservative Party is strong in the countryside and across much of the south of England, but virtually non-existent in northern English cities, Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives draw their seats in Parliament from the larger, more sparsely-populated constituencies in England, whereas the opposition Labour Party wins its seats in geographically-concentrated and heavily-populated northern urban areas and inner London.

A cursory glance at an electoral map of Britain hence looks heavily blue, the Conservative colour, just as America appears at first glance to be mainly red. These regional differences are not irrevocable - we Britons have our "swing constituencies" as well, the ones the parties battle over in a general election. It remains unthinkable for many people in the post-industrial north to vote Conservative, especially after the impact of Thatcherism; whereas in the rural south a vote for anyone but the Tories is anathema, especially after the Labour government banned fox hunting and mishandled a series of agricultural emergencies. However, the growth of a middle-class who are more pragmatic and less likely to accept the political identity of their parents means that Britain is increasingly less polarized, and this is the perhaps unexpected outcome of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.

The Conservative Party today, like all of Britain, is living with the consequences of the rule of Margaret Thatcher, who was Conservative Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. The history of the Thatcher years are the key to understanding the Conservative Party today. Thatcher transformed the country irrevocably, and every British leader since has embraced substantial portions of her legacy. She dissolved many of the main polarizing blockages in British politics head-on and with a quasi-messianic zeal (not, however, a religious one; religion plays virtually no role in British politics, even among Conservatives), but did substantial damage to her Party's image in the process.

The "centre" in British politics took a dramatic shift rightward as a result of the Thatcher years, bringing it onto ground that the Tories should theoretically be more adept at fighting on. What was once Conservative policy became the policy of the Labour Party as well. However, people today remember the painful nature of the transformational process more than they recognize the results, and the results themselves are now being called into question by the financial crisis. But before the credit crunch came a-calling, Labour Party leader Tony Blair was able to win the largest ever parliamentary majority by embracing key aspects of the Thatcher legacy while vowing to put a human face on others.


When Thatcher came to power in 1979, Britain was in a severe economic crisis. Britain had been forced to take a loan from the International Monetary Fund due to the severe devaluation of sterling - essentially, a vote of no-confidence in the British economy by the rest of the world - and inflation was in double digits. The matter came to a head in the 1978/79 "Winter of Discontent", during which widespread strikes over pay shut down much of the economy and led to the loss of tens of millions of days of work. The economy was locked in a vicious cycle, with unions demanding pay increases that could only be paid for by productivity gains, investment and growth which their strike actions prevented from ever occurring.

Early in the 1970s, the Conservative Party had hit on a telling slogan: "Who governs Britain?" Was it, the slogan challenged, the unions who governed Britain, or was it the people's sovereign representatives in Parliament? Prior to 1979, governments fell due to the actions of unions, whose members were a minority of the public; this, the Tories said, was not right. Thatcher, elected in a landslide shortly after the Winter of Discontent, charged that British politics had for too long been controlled by backroom deals between the unions and government. She set about to smash the power of the unions and to transfer vast reams of state assets into private hands, and thereby broke the institutional logjams that kept the British economy weak and British politics ineffective.

The most notorious of the strike-busting actions was the Miners Strike of 1984-1985, which lost South Wales and Northern England for the Tories for a generation. Thatcher wanted to privatize the heavily-subsidized and economically-worthless coal mining industry, which would result in job losses and social disintegration for a minority while removing a costly burden from the tax-paying majority. Between 1979 and 1995, over £50 billion of state assets were transferred into private hands, which essentially involved the dissolution of the uncompetitive manufacturing sector and the movement to an economy based around finance and services. Utilities and transport were also privatized, to be overseen by special regulators, and a million units of public housing were sold into private hands.

It is this often painful process, in which there were many losers, that people often think of when they think about the Conservative Party today. But the curious thing about Thatcher's legacy is that up until today, mainstream political debate in both parties has taken place within its boundaries rather than outside of it. No serious observer suggests large-scale re-nationalization should take place, whatever the imperfections of the privatized industries, and most disagreements over economic policy are about public debt and taxation. Trade union membership has declined to such an extent - along with the industries they were a part of - that it is anachronistic to talk about a resurrection of their power. Most of the country now self-identify as middle-class, a result of the vast growth in wealth Britain has experienced since 1979.


Thatcher transformed the country to such an extent that she narrowed political debate to the point where the Conservatives and Labour are often indistinguishable on matters of economic policy. Disagreement takes place at the margins - in a few pence on income tax here, or a few million on anti-poverty programmes there - rather than in a fundamental fashion. And while the Tories still have difficulty shaking off the public image of being the party of rich snobs who want to trample the poor, their political opponents continue to embrace the Thatcher legacy which was the Conservative Party's main gift to Britain in the twentieth century. But the rural, traditional base of the Tories is no longer the main driver in the party's internal machinery, meaning the Conservatives now battle with Labour for the soul of the middle class on almost even terms.

The rise of Tony Blair in the Labour Party solidified this transformation. Accepting a broadly middle-class politics and eschewing the working-class roots of the Labour Party - the working-class being a dying breed in this country, partly as a result of Thatcher's reforms - Blair won victory after victory at the ballot box at the expense of transforming his own Party into what appeared to many to be a Conservative Party Lite. As capitalism dissolved regional and class differences, the two parties were increasingly fighting for a less-divided electorate. A premium was placed on pragmatic solutions rather than ideology, and Blair even began to increase the involvement of the private sector in previously-sacrosanct areas like health and education. The Blair premiership was, if anything, the jewel in the crown of decades of Conservative politics.

During Blair's premiership, the originally Conservative idea that economic growth could be based mainly on the financial sector and easy credit gave Britain nearly a decade of growth, while the Conservative Party itself blundered around in the background with a series of inept and untelegenic leaders who seemed to the public to be out-of-touch aristocrats. The Tories dealt with their image problem by electing the young David Cameron as their leader in 2005, and have since worked doggedly to come up with new ideas to steal the initiative from Labour. Cameron's pragmatic nature has meant the Party has undergone a further shift to the centre in an attempt to soften its image and shake off the ghost of Thatcherite cruelty that lives on in the public mind.


Yet as the credit crunch bites, the Tories - and the Labour Party which embraced their legacy - are facing a much more profound problem: now, the Thatcherite economic settlement itself is increasingly coming into question in the mainstream. Growth based on the financial sector no longer looks like a sound proposition on which to run a country, and there is a chance that as the UK's recession gets worse, the country may take a shift leftwards.

At the moment the Conservatives mostly differ from Labour on rates of taxation and the extent to which they would try to borrow and spend their way out of the recession, and it seems unlikely the difference will sharpen into an ideological struggle before the next general election. The consensus has cracked but not yet shattered. However, the party that makes up the next government, with all the expectations of economic recovery weighing on them, will either redeem Britain's post-Thatcher consensus for another generation, or finally take it down with it to its grave.

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