What were Conservatism and Liberalism?
INTRODUCTION The words Conservative and Liberal are used in a number of ways today. When they are used with capital letters in their political sense, their precise definition may change a little and vary according to time and circumstance. Nevertheless, in this political context, their meaning is likely to bear some resemblance to the more general explanation outlined in the margin. Today in the early twenty-first century we are familiar with the words Conservative and Liberal with a large ‘C’ and a large ‘L’ to describe two of our major political parties. The Conservatives remain one of the major players in the political game; the Liberals, however (who have changed their name to Liberal Democrats), have long been displaced as the second of two major parties by the Labour Party. This was a twentieth-century development. In the second half of the nineteenth century the Conservative and Liberal parties were the two dominant parties in the British parliamentary system. Yet at the start of the century in 1800 the words were only being used with a small ‘c’ and a small ‘l’ and the two main parties were known as the Tories and the Whigs. What were Whig and Tory? The terms Whig and Tory had been in use ever since the second half of the seventeenth century and stood largely unchallenged until the 1830s as describing the two major political groupings of the day. Parties and groupings emerged gradually after 1660 when it was clear that the role of the king after the restoration of the monarchy was not going to be all-dominant and there were different views on how he ought to be advised and how far his powers should Parties began as informal groupings rather than being founded as an organisation in a formal manner with rules and regulations and a balance sheet. These parties were very different from today: • Only a small number of Members of Parliament would have identified with being Whig or Tory. • Many MPs would regard themselves as independent country gentlemen who were above party and would vote as they chose. • Those who did think about it frequently regarded themselves as Whig or Tory rather than members of the Whig or Tory parties. There was no mass membership of the parties in the country as a whole and little formal organisation. • The proportion of adult males who were entitled to vote for MPs was quite small under the old electoral system before 1832. Moreover, many candidates who stood for Parliament were elected unopposed because of the property or land they owned and/or influence they possessed in a particular area. They did not have to win voters over to the policies they supported by the politics of persuasion. When a dispute emerged as to whether Parliament should be reformed in 1831–2, the differences between Whig and Tory were clearly demonstrated. Tories opposed what they saw as an unwarranted, sudden and drastic interference with the stable and well-established British constitution and Whigs supported what they felt was a moderate, prudent and necessary change to include the respectable middle class among those privileged to vote for their choice of elected Member of Parliament. In passing the Great Reform Bill of 1832 the Whigs seemed to have won an important struggle and taken advantage of the growing demand for reform, especially from the industrial middle classes. THE CHANGE TO ‘CONSERVATIVE’ In the 1830s the use of the terms ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ began to challenge the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’. This challenge came at slightly different times, in different ways and with different results. The historian of the Conservative Party, Robert Blake, records that the first use of the word Conservative to describe the Tory party was in an article in January 1830. This was at the start of the Reform Bill crisis and related to the idea of ‘conserving’, or preserving, the old electoral system. However, it came into common use soon afterwards in the mid-1830s when the dust was beginning to settle on the Reform Bill crisis.