Britain: the rise and fall of the Tory Party

The Conservative and Unionist Party is in the midst of a monumental crisis. This is more than raised voices and red wine on the sofa – this is an existential crisis that threatens to tear the party apart.

The Tory Party was once the envy of the ruling classes across the world. But now the Conservatives are regarded as a laughing stock. The party’s reputation lies in tatters. It is caught in a political vice, threatened from all sides with complete collapse.

And so much for this ‘Unionist’ party. A recent YouGov poll of Tory members found that 63 percent would risk seeing Scotland go independent in order to carry out Brexit. The same survey suggested that 59 percent wanted Brexit even if it led to Northern Ireland leaving the Union.

The Tory Party has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster, with a rank and file to the right of Attila the Hun.

Their electoral support is melting away. As such, the Tories are terrified of a general election, where they fear they will be annihilated. In the recent European elections, the Conservatives gained a mere 9 percent of the national vote, the lowest in the party’s history.

Their funds have dried up to such an extent that the party relies more on money from dead donors – in the form of bequeathed contributions – than from living members. This zombie party is on the verge of an open split, which threatens to cast it to the far fringes of British politics.

Imperialist power

This is a spectacular decline for a party that historically was probably the most successful traditional bourgeois party in the world. In its heyday, its leaders prided themselves on far-sightedness, intelligence, and great ability. Unlike its counterparts abroad, this gave British capitalism considerable social and political stability.

British imperialism Image public domainAt one time, Britain had an empire embracing a quarter of the world, and a far-sighted ruling class. These days are over / Image: public domain

On the continent, governments would regularly fall. But in Britain, parties could rule for a decade or more. The 1951 post-war Tory government lasted for 13 years. The reason for this, among other things, was the global economic upswing and the legacy of being a world imperialist power.

The long view of the Tories’ success was described by Trotsky in his brilliant work The History of the Russian Revolution:

“England had, at any rate, ages at her disposal. She was the pioneer of bourgeois civilisation… She exploited the world. This softened the inner contradictions, accumulated conservatism, promoted an abundance and stability of fatty deposits in the form of a parasitic caste, in the form of a squirearchy, a monarchy, House of Lords, and a state church.

“Thanks to this exclusive historic privilege of development possessed by bourgeois England, conservatism with elasticity passed over from her institutions into her moral fibre.”

That was at a time when Britain had an empire embracing a quarter of the world, encompassing 425 million people – with over 300 million in India alone. With these riches and robbery came the confidence of the ruling class in its historic mission.

In 1826 a British Conservative publicist depicted the age of industry in the following terms:

“The age which now discloses itself to our view promises to be the age of industry...By industry, alliances shall be dictated and national friendships shall be formed...The prospects which are now opening to England almost exceed the boundaries of thought; and can be measured by no standard found in history...

“The manufacturing industry of England maybe fairly computed as four times greater than that of all the other continents taken collectively, and sixteen such continents as Europe could not manufacture so much cotton as England does…”


As a result of this dominance, England possessed a far-sighted ruling class, which fused with the old aristocracy, and ruled through the Liberal (Whig) Party and Conservative Party.

Benjamin Disraeli Image public domainDisraeli was canny in promoting “One Nation” Toryism and extending the franchise to layers of the working class / Image: public domain

These parties rested upon the landowners and industrialists – two wings of the ruling class. They ruled using ‘elasticity’ and flexibility, combined with ruthlessness and cunning, in order to ensure the rule of capital. The capitalist class adapted the refuse of centuries to their needs.

“A wise Tory and a wise Whig, I believe, will agree,” explained Samuel Johnson. “Their principles are the same, though their modes of thinking are different.”

Ironically, at this point the Tories represented the interests of the landlords, while the Whigs represented the industrialists. Over time this changed, and the Tories became the party par excellence of finance capital and imperialism.

Of course, they were ruthless in defence of their class interests. At the time of the Peterloo massacre in 1819, the murderous cabal of Castlereagh, Liverpool and Sidmouth – epitomised in the famous poem of Percy Shelly – ruled the roost. “They determined to put down the multitude,” commented Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Disraeli was more clever and far-sighted in promoting “One Nation” Toryism and extending the franchise to layers of the working class. They would recruit the more politically backward workers to Toryism, thereby expanding its social base. Conservative Working Men’s Clubs were created for the same reason. Imperialism’s plunder allowed for reforms at home, giving them a social basis.

Divide and rule

Britain produced far-sighted leaders, but also a few philistines, such as Gladstone. Above all, these Tory gentlemen were equipped with the utmost flexibility, in complete contrast to today's incompetent Conservative leaders. They had little time for theorising, as they were too busy conquering the world. They relied upon empiricism and utilitarianism – so-called ‘common sense’.

In the world of diplomacy, they played rival powers off against one-another, and used a policy of divide and rule to defend their own interests and privileged position. This was perfected in the age of imperialism. In the words of Lord Hugh Cecil, uttered in 1912:

“Toryism, or defence of Church and King, the reverence for religion and authority; and…imperialism, a feeling for the greatness of the country and for that unity which makes its greatness.”

Home Rule Image public domainHistorically, the British ruling class played rival powers off against one-another, and used a policy of divide and rule to defend their own interests and privileged position / Image: public domain

This policy of divide and rule was developed in Ireland when Tory Lord Randolph Churchill played the Orange card, turning Protestants against Catholics. In 1881 he wrote: “I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. (Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play. Please God may it turn out to be the ace of trumps and not the 2.” As intended, this strategy created huge sectarian divisions.

The aristocrats and capitalists of the Ulster Unionist Council were helped and financed by the reactionary wing of the British establishment, most notably the Tory Party. Tory leader Bonar Law linked with Dublin Unionist Edward Carson, who stoked mutiny and rebellion against Home Rule.

When the Home Rule Bill was offered for its final reading, troops were ordered to the north and were faced with a mutiny by army officers based at the Curragh in County Kildare.

Managed decline

Of course, there were always arguments within the Tory Party of how best to deal with the working class. “My party, what is my party?” asked Stanley Baldwin. “Diamond Jubilee Diehards and Tory democrats pulling me two ways at once.”

While there were periodic divisions within the Tory Party, the ruling class took care to ensure that such splits and arguments took place behind closed doors for fear of a ‘third party’ listening in – the working class.

What terrified them more than anything else was the rise of the Labour Party, which they tried to undermine and destroy. They feared that Labour would be taken over by ‘wildmen’ and become a threat to the system. But Labour’s right wing ensured that the party remained a ‘safe pair of hands’.

At this point in history, the Tory and Liberal leaders carried out their function with great flexibility, combining ruthlessness with concessions. This was especially the case with the sly old fox Lloyd George, as well as Stanley Baldwin. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was far more hamfisted – an open cudgel of his class. He travelled from the Liberal Party to the Tory Party as easily as a man changes his shirt.

Churchill Image Socialist AppealBritain’s decline as a world power continued after the Second World War, but this was masked by the global economic upswing / Image: Socialist Appeal

Since the First World War, Britain faced a period of managed decline. Britain had in fact been in decline since the late 19th century, but this accelerated throughout the 20th century. This was, however, masked by the Empire. In the face of the colonial revolution, Britain was forced to abandon the Empire. This was soon reflected in “the winds of change” that Macmillian talked about.

Britain’s decline as a world power continued after the Second World War, but this was largely masked by the global economic upswing. She had long been overtaken by Amerian imperialism and reduced to a second-rate power. This loss of prestige diminished the self-esteem and confidence of the British ruling class.

The 1950’s boom saw a political converging of the Tory and Labour Parties. Both now accepted the welfare state, the mixed economy (capitalism), state intervention, Keynesianism, full employment and the rest. In 1953, Churchill remarked that, “party differences are now in practice mainly those of emphasis…” So close had the Tory Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell become that the economic paradigm of the period was called “Butskellism”.

In his book The Middle Way, Harold Macmillan stated his belief that, “if capitalism had been conducted all along as if the theory of private enterprise were a matter of principle”, and all intervention by the state had been resisted, “we should have had civil war long ago”.

“There is no Tory equivalent of the Labour Party’s Clause 4,” noted Ian Gilmour, a Tory strategist of the period.

They could afford to talk about class peace, as typified by MacMillan’s “You have never had it so good” slogan in the 1959 general election. Even then, the pace of Britain’s decline was proceeding under the surface.


A factor in the long-sightedness of the Tory Party was that it tended to choose its leaders from the old aristocracy, the so-called ‘upper crust’, and not from big business. The same was true of the armed forces. The old patricians could rise above the immediate concerns of ‘money making’ and thereby safeguard the general interests of capitalism. This allowed them the necessary degree of flexibility needed to preserve the capitalist system.

The last of these patrician leaders was Sir Alec Douglas-Home. However, the selection of aristocratic leaders by a small clique of privileged aristocrats was dropped. The results were becoming too embarrassing.

Margaret Thatcher 1983 ImageThatcher represented that wing of the Tory Party that wanted to crush the unions and restore the balance towards big business / Image: public domain

The Tory Party has adapted itself skillfully throughout history. But this reached its limits. The setup radically changed in the 1970s with the ditching of Edward Heath and the election of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader.

Thatcher was no aristocrat, but a shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham. She began to epitomise the short-termism of British capitalism – the ‘get-rich-quick’ financiers. With the world economic slump of the 1970s and the deepening crisis of British capitalism, the capitalists were now demanding more brutal methods to make the working class pay.

Thatcher represented that wing of the Tory Party that wanted to crush the trade unions and restore the balance towards big business. The state had to be cut down to size by reducing taxes on the rich. British capitalism could no longer afford the trappings of the welfare state. Public expenditure had to be reduced to more ‘sustainable’ (i.e. lower) levels.

By 1974, the ruling class were talking about a coup in Britain with Labour in office. But this quickly had to be dropped, such was the radicalisation amongst the working class.

This was cut across with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In contrast with the post-war consensus, this was a declaration of war against the working class and its organisations. The mission was to restore the fortunes of British capitalism. This resulted in a rise in mass unemployment and the closure of swathes of manufacturing industry. Under Thatcher, Britain was becoming increasingly a rentier economy, based on services and finance

Given the failure of the TUC, the working class sustained one defeat after another during the 1980s. The defeat of the miners, then the print workers and dockworkers, opened up a period of mild reaction and a swing to the right in the trade unions and the Labour Party. ‘Thatcherism’ coloured the decade of the 1980s, with the Tories winning general elections in 1979, 1983, and 1987.

Thatcher was eventually brought down by the massive non-payment of her hated Poll Tax. Even then, John Major was able to win the 1992 general election, following the failure of the Kinnock Labour Party leadership.

Swivel-eyed loons

The Tory government applied to join the Common Market in 1961, but Britain was kept out by the French President De Gaulle. Britain was belatedly allowed to join in 1973, again at the request of a Tory government, which hoped to benefit from a larger market and greater influence.

“In a world of superpowers Britain could by herself have little influence,” explained Gilmour. The Tory Party were united over Europe, except for a few outsiders like Enoch Powell. However, it was Europe that would eventually poison the Tory Party.

Before 1965, the leader of the Tory Party was not elected but would ‘emerge’ from an agreement between upper-class ‘men in grey suits’. It was a ‘reliable’ method of choosing a leader.

ToryCivilWar13 Image Socialist AppealThe degeneration of British capitalism has reflected itself in a degeneration of the Tory Party / Image: Socialist Appeal

But after this, Tory MPs were given a vote on choosing their leader. And then, following its defeat in the 1997 general election, new rules were brought in whereby a shortlist of two would be chosen by Tory MPs and then sent out for a ballot of party members.

It was a fatal mistake to allow the reactionary ranks of the Tory Party – the “mad, swivel-eyed loons” as one senior Conservative described them – to select their leader.

The degeneration of British capitalism has reflected itself in a degeneration of the Tory Party. This includes its leaders, who have become increasingly inept and stupid.

Thatcher shifted the party far to the right, embracing English nationalism. The Tories developed a hostile approach to the European Union, painting them foreigners interfering in British affairs. This chimed with the underlying racism of the Conservative Party, with its yearning for the days of Empire and nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past. Islamophobia has now infected the party.

Gambles and splits

None of this suited big business, but the Tory leaders pandered to these prejudices. Perhaps the more far-sighted was David Cameron, elected leader in 2005. He realised the need to ‘modernise’ the party, broaden its appeal and make it more electable. He seemed quite astute.

Cameron managed to cobble together a Tory-Liberal coalition and embark on a programme of austerity. He won an outright Tory majority in 2015. However, Cameron miscalculated badly over the Scottish independence referendum, which nearly destroyed the Union.

More seriously, fearing the challenge of UKIP, he decided to call a referendum over Britain’s membership of the EU. In other words, he gambled with the fate of British capitalism for narrow party political interests.

BrexitCameronResigns14 Image Socialist AppealGiven the chaos around Brexit, and the anger in society, the Tory Party is heading for a humiliating defeat in a general election. This could result in a further shift to the right / Image: Socialist Appeal

The referendum opened up the biggest split within the ruling class (and society) since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. At that time, Sir Robert Peel’s aim of introducing free trade was to rebalance the Tories as a party of the ruling class, away from landed interests and towards industrialists. However, the deep Tory split over the Corn Laws, with a third remaining with the ‘Peelites’ and two-thirds remaining outside, kept them out of power for a generation.

As we know, Cameron lost his gamble and a majority of people voted for Brexit. This opened up a Pandora’s Box, feeding the Euroscepticism within the Tory party. This, in turn, has placed them into direct conflict with the dominant sections of the capitalist class.

The Conservative Party, supposedly the party of big business, had shifted to become almost anti-business. Incredibly, the ruling class had lost control over the Tory Party – its first choice political representatives – with the likes of Boris Johnson responding to the concerns of the bosses about Brexit by saying “f***k business”.

Brexit is likely to divide the Tory Party, with the pro-Europeans splitting away. This will shift the party further to the right under a pro-Brexit leader, such as Boris.

They could be forced into a general election. Given the chaos around Brexit, and the anger in society, the Tory Party is heading for a humiliating defeat. This could result in a further shift to the right.

The Tories could end up absorbing the Brexit Party, taking on the form of an openly pro-monarchist, English nationalist populist party. Within such a formation are the seeds of an openly fascist organisation – but that is not an immediate prospect.

Uncharted waters

The mask of ‘moderation’ has been openly discarded, which is again a reflection of the deep crisis of British capitalism. It means the complete polarisation of politics in Britain, where the Labour Party will also move sharply to the left.

As in the past, there will be a question mark over democracy. The same question would be asked as that posed by Winston Churchill in 1930: “Whether institutions based on adult suffrage could possibly arrive at the right decisions upon the intricate propositions of modern business and finance.” At that time he was an admirer of Mussolini and Fascism.

In the same year, Lloyd George said that if Parliament failed, the working class would not “believe any longer in the old inadequate windmill set up by Simon de Montford to mill the corn for the people, and they may be incited to do their own milling in their own way.”

Boris Brexit Image Socialist AppealThe old two-party system has broken down, where ‘moderate’ Tory governments alternated with ‘moderate’ Labour governments. The splits at the top are a harbinger of crisis / Image: Socialist Appeal

Britain has entered uncharted waters. The robotic Theresa May has been forced to fall on her sword, consumed by Brexit. Her likely replacement is Boris. He is not a safe pair of hands for big business.

“He is not a signpost but a weather vane,” states the Economist, “and, at the moment, the winds in Britain are blowing in a dangerous direction.” The ruling class could end up with their worst nightmare: a general election and a Corbyn-led Labour government.

A book written by Ian Gilmour more than 40 years ago prophetically warns of the dangers for the establishment of a left Labour government:

“The danger is therefore obvious. The Wilson and Callaghan governments have done grave damage to the constitution, to the economy and to personal freedom. The next Labour government, led perhaps by Mr Wedgwood Benn, would very likely complete the process. British freedoms would be obliterated; they could not survive in a fully socialist economy. The constitution would become an irrelevance, to be disregarded at will before being finally buried, and the British people would enjoy an Eastern-European standard of life.”

This explains their fears of a Corbyn Labour government, which has sent the ruling class into a panic. They are preparing a strike of capital.

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad,” remarked Leon Trotsky, commenting on the fall of the Russian Tsars, and the feudal monarchs of Louis XVI and Charles I before them. The same could easily be said of the British ruling class and its Tory leaders today. The likely election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Tory Party is a clear reflection of the degeneration of the political representatives of capital.

The old two-party system has broken down, where ‘moderate’ Tory governments alternated with ‘moderate’ Labour governments.

A new epoch of storm and stress is opening up in Britain. A new world slump will only exacerbate the situation. The splits in the ruling class are a symptom of the crisis of British capitalism and a harbinger of future revolutionary crises.

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