The less reformist of the (normally) two main parties in British politics. It has a longer history than any other political party, perhaps anywhere, with an institutional continuity under that name from the early 1830s, though it drew upon older traditions including a church and king Toryism. The matrix of 19th‐cent. Conservatism lay in the younger Pitt's government, a cause given wider appeal and sharper focus by its resistance to the Jacobinism of revolutionary France. A long near‐monopoly of government ended only in 1830 when issues like catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform broke up old solidarities. The Reform Bill struggle of 1831–2, though a defeat, was a crucible of party development and the newly named Conservative Party set itself to limit further damage to established institutions.
The party operated in competition with the Whig Party, which, with its radical allies, developed into the Liberal Party. The disintegration of the Liberals in the early 20th cent. meant the Conservatives' main challenge came from the trade union‐based Labour Party mobilizing the working‐class vote. That change also involved a shift in the dominant issues. The Victorian Conservative Party had been identified with the defence of the constitution and the interests associated with it: the monarchy and House of Lords, the established churches, the Union with Ireland, landownership, property rights and inheritance, a limited franchise. From around the Great War these traditional causes were largely superseded by socio‐economic issues. The main threats identified by the party were now trade unionism, egalitarianism, redistributive welfare, socialism, and Bolshevism. The Conservatives became more a party of business and more clearly the party of middle‐class interests. Its leaders now came to be drawn from the business and professional classes rather than the landed and titled. At the same time nearly a third of the working classes has usually supported the Conservatives for reasons of patriotic identity, resentment of immigrant groups, hostility to catholics or dissenters, or just a sense of economic interest.
The Conservatives spent most of the period 1830–86 in opposition. Only two general elections, 1841 and 1874, were won. Franchise extensions and advancing urbanization and industrialization handicapped the party and its 1846 split over the Corn Laws left long‐term damage. It then benefited from the comparable Liberal split over Irish Home Rule in 1886 and was maintained in office by the Liberal Unionists for most of the next 20 years. Though hit by the Parliament Act removing the absolute veto of the Conservative‐dominated House of Lords in 1911 and by the progress of Home Rule, the Conservatives gained from the Great War, which brought them back into government and divided the Liberals again. After the war, the Conservatives, who gained most of the disintegrating Liberal vote, established themselves as the dominant party, and controlled the National Government coalition from 1931. The Second World War undermined this position: it brought Labour into government and to the management of the ‘home front’, and the 1945 general election was lost decisively by the Conservatives. The 1945–51 Labour government established a ‘post‐war consensus’ around a mixed economy, the welfare state, and a commitment to full employment. Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964 were founded on acceptance of this legacy. What was left of the colonial empire was liquidated. The party had come to terms with full democracy. With the breakdown of this domestic consensus by the 1970s under pressure of rising inflation, labour disputes, increasing unemployment, and declining economic competitiveness, the party turned (perhaps returned) sharply towards the free‐market economics represented by the Thatcher government of 1979–90. This tenure of office and four successive general election victories were assisted by divisions within the Labour Party. Though the 20th cent. stands more than the 19th as ‘the Conservative century’, Conservative dominance of government owed much to the fragmentation of the political left.