What are the main features of British conservatism, and how have these features changed from one conservative leader to another?

Given that the Conservative Party is the oldest political establishment in Britain, a study of its history and evolution will reflect broader socio-economic changes.  From the earliest days of parliamentary democracy in Britain to the current modern polity, the Conservative Party has withstood many upheavals and challenges.  This essay attempts to identity the main features of British conservatism by way of studying its primary political representative that is the Conservative Party, the implication being that not all policies of the Conservative Party have been consistent with the theme of British conservatism and vice versa.

Conservatives have never been known to support universal health care.  The reluctance of the Conservative party to support an efficient and public funded healthcare system remains one of its major criticisms.  Conservatism in Britain is also associated with staunch nationalism and the concept of “one-nation”.  The Tory party’s attempts to rejuvenate its electoral prospects have taken the form of party brochures and propaganda literature.  The “Renewing One Nation” campaign under the leadership of Stanley Kalms may not have persuaded the electorate, but it nevertheless brought to light the other recurrent theme of Conservative ideology in Britain– that of its links with Christian organizations.  Even if official Conservative rhetoric makes mention of the virtues of separating State and Church, it is one of the open secrets in British polity that the Conservative Party patronizes Christian faith and at elections expects a return favour.  This explains why the Tories have failed to win the trust of the growing numbers of religious and ethnic minorities in the country (Coxall & Robins, 2003).

Yet, in spite of the apparent rigidity in Conservative ideology, the party has shown some flexibility at crucial junctures in the nation’s history.  While the “one nation” policy and its attendant policies of social reform and limited economic planning were significant factors in the Tories’ consistent electoral success for most part of the twentieth century, the party’s policy framework had also shown signs of malleability:

 “When Winston Churchill lost power in 1945, he quickly called on people such as Rab Butler to devise an inclusive, socially reformist postwar policy agenda. The result was a drastically reduced Labour majority in 1950 and a Tory election victory in 1951. In the two subsequent elections, the Conservatives, led by men who believed in the party’s national responsibility and who abhorred the right-wing narrow-mindedness of some of the party’s activists, increased their share of the vote to margins that Margaret Thatcher would only be able to dream of.” (Porter, 1999)

In assessing Britain’s performance in the decade of Conservative party rule in the 1950s, two prominent themes emerge as the backbone of British identity.  The first is a symbolic one, that of the triumph over Nazi Germany in 1945.  While Britain’s days of imperial glory had come to an end by then, it had other prospects to look forward to, namely the prosperity and standard of living of its people.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, the British people saw a “sustained improvement in welfare provision, even after Labour gave way to the Conservatives in 1951. So, too, did the rising level of personal prosperity culminating in a `great leap forward’ into affluence at the end of the 1950s.”  This is all the more commendable when seen in light of the fact that social welfare is not usually associated with British Conservatism.  Indeed the Tory government in the 1950s had admirably “balanced the often conflicting priorities of `welfare’ and `greatness’” (Porter, 1999).

But some commentators are of the view that in the trade-off between ‘welfare’ and ‘greatness’, it was the former that had emerged the stronger.  In other words, “if welfare, broadly defined, was prioritised, was it really such an undesirable outcome? Britain may have lost an empire but there are many who would ask whether this was a morally defensible or economically advantageous arrangement anyway” (Clarke, 2004). The 13 years of Conservative party rule from 1951 to 1964 are crucial to any assessment of the nation past the Second World War period.  For Tory governments of this period, headed first by Winston Churchill and later by Eden, Macmillan and Home, the primary issue was to cope with the reduced stature of Britain in the new global order to go with the rising expectations of Britons at home “as people began to regard welfare as a right and affluence as a reasonable expectation. In this period `the art of the possible’, as politics was once described, required that constant attention be given to the delicate balance between external priorities (greatness) and internal priorities (welfare)” (Clarke, 2004).

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