The outcome of the 1945 election was more than a sensation. It was a political earthquake.
Less than 12 weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Churchill wanted his wartime coalition to continue until Japan too had been defeated, but was not unduly dismayed when his Labour ministers insisted that the country be offered a choice. The prime minister called the election for early July, confident that the British people would back the greatest hero of the hour. Of all Churchill's colossal misjudgments, that was probably the most egregious.
The voters wanted an end to wartime austerity, and no return to prewar economic depression. They wanted change. Three years earlier, in the darkest days of the war, they had been offered a tantalising glimpse of how things could be in the bright dawn of victory. The economist William Beveridge had synthesised the bravest visions of all important government departments into a single breathtaking view of the future.
The 1942 Beveridge Report spelled out a system of social insurance, covering every citizen regardless of income. It offered nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state.
That was the great promise dangled before the British electorate in 1945. Though Churchill had presided over the planning for radical social reform, though he was a genuine hero of the masses - and though, ironically enough, the Tory manifesto pledges were not all that different from Labour's - the people did not trust him to deliver the brave new world of Beveridge.
There were other factors too. The Labour party had held office only twice before, in 1924 and in 1929-31, but during the war years its leadership had acquired both experience and trust. It now looked like a party of government.
Labour's promise to take over the commanding heights of the economy via nationalisation were anathema to committed Tories, but after nearly six years of wartime state direction of the economy it did not seem nearly so radical as it had before the war - or indeed as it seems now.
Then there was the military vote. Britain had millions of men and women in uniform in 1945, scattered over Europe, the far east, and elsewhere. They, more than any other section of the electorate, yearned for change and for a better civilian life. The military vote was overwhelmingly pro-Labour.
Many students of the 1945 election believe that a key role was played by the Daily Mirror, then the biggest selling paper in Britain, and easily the most popular among the armed forces. On VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the Mirror published an immensely powerful cartoon by the brilliant Philip Zec. It showed a battered, bandaged Allied soldier holding out to the reader a slip of paper marked Victory and Peace in Europe. Under the drawing was the caption "Here you are! Don't lose it again."
The same cartoon was published on the Mirror's front page on the morning of the most remarkable general election of the 20th century. But when the result was announced on July 26 - three weeks after polling day to allow military postal votes to be counted - it was clear that postwar politics had changed utterly.
With 47.7% of the vote, Labour secured a staggering 393 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, with 39.7%, won just 210 seats. The Liberal party, which had governed the country less than quarter of a century earlier, was reduced to 9% of the vote, and just 12 seats. The new prime minister was Churchill's deputy in the war time coalition, Clement Attlee.
On the first day of the new parliament, the massed ranks of Labour members bawled out the socialist anthem, the Red Flag. Tories everywhere were scandalised. (There is a splendid apocryphal story of a lady in a grand London hotel who was overheard exclaiming "Labour in power? The country will never stand for it!")
But stand for it they did, over the next six momentous years.
The new prime minister was not obviously cut out for the job. Painfully shy and reserved to the point of coldness, he had the appearance - and often the style - of a bank clerk. Churchill described him, cruelly, as "a sheep in sheep's clothing".
The son of a City solicitor, he was educated at Haileybury College - which specialised in turning out administrators for the British Raj - and at University College, Oxford. Attlee was so far from being a passionate ideologue that his wife Violet once casually observed: "Clem was never really a socialist, were you, darling? Well, not a rabid one."
Yet this essentially herbivorous exterior cloaked a steely determination, and a deepseated devotion to social justice first developed during his voluntary work in London's East End before the first world war. After distinguished service in that war, Attlee entered parliament in 1922, and served in the first two Labour governments. In 1931, he declined to join Ramsey Macdonald's national coalition, preferring to stay with the rump opposition. He became Labour leader in 1935.
Though many on the left opposed Labour participation in Churchill's wartime coalition (at least during the early years when Hitler was allied with the Soviet Union under Stalin), Attlee responded to the national crisis by guiding his party into the national government. He became Lord Privy Seal and, from 1942, deputy prime minister. He was 62 when he entered Downing Street.
The great tide of new Labour MPs who entered the Commons in 1945 included some eager youngsters who were to make their mark on the party, and indeed the country. They included Denis Healey (who made an impassioned maiden speech urging world socialist revolution), Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, and James Callaghan. But the men Attlee leaned on were of course of Labour's old guard. His principal props were Ernest Bevin, a pragmatic trade unionist who had made his mark during the war as an energetic labour minister, Labour stalwart Hugh Dalton, and Stafford Cripps, an aloof intellectual (Churchilll once remarked of him: "There but for the grace of God, goes God.").
The Attlee-Bevin alliance was particularly important in protecting the administration from some of its own hotter blooded members, who shared the young Healey's enthusiasm for revolution. Their most potent figurehead was Aneurin Bevan, a fiery orator from the Welsh valleys, who constantly urged the government to embrace radical reforms, and bitterly resisted any suggestion of pragmatic trimming of policy. Bevan eventually was to deal the Attlee administration a hammer blow, when he resigned over the reintroduction of NHS prescription charges. For six years, though, his was the voice of radical Labour.
"The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it." The stark sentence is buried in the party's 1945 election manifesto, which promised that Labour would take control of the economy and in particular of the manufacturing industry. The manifesto pledged nationalisation of the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel. And with a majority of more than 150, the party could not be denied.
One by one the key industries of the postwar economy tumbled into the public sector, where they were subject to elaborate planning controls. For the most part the takeovers were highly popular; none more so than the nationalisation of the coalmines. Pit owners still employed a million men, many of them in dire and dangerous conditions. The new national coal board was seen as much as a humanitarian institution as an economic one.
Other nationalisation operations were regarded more cynically. No sooner had British Railways taken over the old regional semi-private networks than jokes began to circulate about unreliable, crowded trains, crumbling stations and that old standby of British comedy, the buffet sandwich.
After the initial euphoria of nationalisation, it wasn't long before doubts began to emerge. The state industries were smothered by bureaucracy and the demands of Labour's economic gurus, both amateur and professional. Their bolder ideas were often subsumed in the delicate balance between principle and pragmatism.
It became clear that the lumbering machinery of economic planning could not deliver what the voters had demanded and Labour had promised: full employment, secure jobs with fair wages, an end to wartime rationing and - above all perhaps - decent homes for all.
It has sometimes been argued that the Attlee government's main disadvantage was that Britain had been on the winning side in the war. British cities and industries had been bashed around by German air raids, but had not suffered the wholesale destruction which allowed the renascent German economy to start from a clean sheet. More importantly, British economic class structures - and bitter enmities - survived the war unscathed, in contrast to those countries which had been traumatised by invasion and occupation (none more so than Germany) into rethinking their economic cultures.
But there were other obstacles in the path of Labour's would-be revolutionaries. The country, to put it brutally, was broke. It had poured its wealth into the war effort and in 1945 was groaning under a mountain of debt. It had pawned many of its most valuable assets, including a huge slice of overseas investments, to service that debt.
And even when the war was finally over, the victorious, impoverished British maintained vast numbers of men and resources tied up in an empire on which the sun was about to set. In Europe, Britain paid for a huge army of occupation in Germany. The dawn of the nuclear age, and British pride, demanded handsome investment in the new terrible weapons which would keep us allegedly a first class power. The disarmament, which some in the Labour party craved, proved illusory as - in Churchill's words again - an iron curtain descended across Europe, and the cold war began.
Speaking of cold, even the weather seemed at times to conspire against Labour. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the most severe ever recorded, causing widespread misery and disruption. One of the few truly cheering aspects of life was the imminent arrival of the Beveridge reforms.
The welfare state
The Attlee government is rightly seen as one of the great reformist administrations of the 20th century. It is a pleasant irony that the impetus for the more durable reforms came from outside the party.
The 1944 Education Act, which had introduced the concept of selection at 11 and compulsory free secondary education for all, was based on the work of a Tory, Richard Austin 'Rab' Butler, who went on to conquer all but the tallest peak of British politics.
The introduction of the welfare state rested very largely on the work of two Liberal economists: John Maynard Keynes, who argued the virtues of full employment and state stimulation of the economy, and William Beveridge.
Beveridge's ideas were culled from every nook and cranny of Whitehall. His formidable task was to put together a coherent plan for postwar social reconstruction. What he came up with extended hugely the framework of national insurance first put in place before the first world war by David Lloyd George. Every British citizen would be covered, regardless of income or lack of it. Those who lacked jobs and homes would be helped. Those who were sick, would be cured.
The birth of the National Health Service in July 1948 remains Labour's greatest monument. It was achieved only after two years of bitter resistance by the medical establishment, with consultants threatening strike action and the British Medical Association pouring out gloomy warnings about bureaucracy and expense.
Alas, those warnings proved to have more than a grain of truth, and the government was forced to retreat from its first grand vision of free, comprehensive health care for all. In the beginning, everything was provided: hospital accommodation, GP cover, medicine, dental care, and even spectacles. But with Britain showing few signs of economic take off, the budgetary burden was enormous. In 1951, chancellor of the exchequer Hugh Gaitskell was obliged to reintroduce charges for NHS false teeth and glasses. Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and junior minister John Freeman stormed out of government, and Attlee's goose was cooked.
Attlee's government took office in a world changing at bewildering speed. The war had forged new alliances, the greatest and most nebulous of all the United Nations. The USA and the USSR were undisputed superpowers; Britain and France deluded themselves that they were too.
In the far east, the embers of nationalism had been stirred into flame by the brutal advance and subsequent stubborn retreat of Japan. Britain's ignominious surrender of Singapore in 1941 had sent a clear signal to Asia that the daysof European imperialism were numbered.
With hindsight it was a blessing for Britain, as well as for its vast numbers of subjects around the world, that Winston Churchill lost the 1945 election. The old warrior was, at heart, a Victorian romantic, hopelessly in thrall to the so called romance of empire. His antipathy to India's independence struggle, in particular, was well established.
Attlee, on the other hand, recognised that the British Raj was doomed. He had been to Haileybury College, after all, and had paid an official visit to India in 1929. Even if the prime minister had harboured any illusions about Britain's duty to its 300m Indian subjects, he was constantly reminded by Washington that the US would not tolerate the continuance of empire. Wisely, he bowed to the inevitable, and prepared for withdrawal.
But even as it bade farewell, Britain was to visit two disasters on the subcontinent. One was Attlee's appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy. Conceited, impatient, and breathtakingly arrogant, he took to the grandeur and the raw power of the job with unholy relish.
Mountbatten decided that independence would come on August 1947, on the second anniversary of the day he had accepted the surrender of the Japanese in south-east Asia. Nothing was to stand in the way of this vainglory - not even the unresolved issue of Muslim demands for a separate state, and the gathering storm clouds of communal violence.
In a few summer weeks, colonial servants scribbled lines across the map of the mighty subcontinent, carving East and West Pakistan out of Mother India, and sparking a bloodbath so frightful that no one to this day knows exactly how many millions died. The holocaust even consumed Mahatma Gandhi, the father of free India and of freedom movements everywhere, who was assassinated months after independence. Thus ended 300 years of history, and 90 years of Raj. King George VI would be the last British monarch to style himself emperor of India.
There was another colonial retreat, in a way just as disgraceful, on the extreme west of Asia. For just over a quarter of a century British administrators had tried, and on the whole failed, to make sense of their League of Nations (later United Nations) mandate to rule Palestine. They tried partition, appeasement, manipulation and bald coercion. Nothing helped assuage the bloody friction between the rising tide of Jewish immigrants and the native Palestinians.
The end of the second world war brought new waves of refugees from Nazi tyranny to the shores of the holy land, and the conflict became more unholy than ever. Washington was adamant that nothing should stand in the way of the establishment of Israel and when the mandate finally dribbled into the sands of history in May 1948, the new state was born, fighting for its life.
Elsewhere, of course, Britain's imperial might remained intact. The Union flag still flew over huge tracts of Africa, whole archipelagos in the Caribbean and Pacific, jewels of Asia like Singapore and Hong Kong. But there was another much greater reality: British adherence to, and even dependence on, the patronage of the United States. We tagged along with Washington in the occupation of Germany and the establishment of Nato; we acquiesced in the new division of Europe between east and west; we willingly did our bit in the great airlift which saved west Berlin from the Soviet blockade of the late 1940s, and we sent our troops to South Korea to fight for the United Nations - under US direction - against China and the North.
At the insistence of Attlee and the Labour right, we developed our very own nuclear weapons and insisted that they kept us independent. In reality, the north Atlantic connection was the only one which ultimately mattered.
It is tempting to think of the Attlee years as an anti-climax. After the clamour of victory, the peace was a drab disappointment. And after all the fervent promises of a new dawn, British life remained to a large extent grey and grim. At times, food restrictions were even tighter than during the war - bread was rationed for the first time. Class enmities flourished; social and economic inequalities remained palpable. Here and there were little pockets of a new prosperity: television broadcasts were resumed, the first Morris Minors appeared, and British designers were working on the world's first commercial jet, the De Havilland Comet. But of that great universal prosperity which seemed to glow from the 1945 manifestos, there was little sign.
And yet, and yet... Britain in the Attlee years changed more than under any other government, before or since. The welfare reforms, and to a lesser extent the great experiment of state control of industry, had a profound effect on the way the people saw themselves and their country. And what they saw, on the whole, was pleasing.
In 1950, after five exhausting years, it was inevitable that the great electoral tide of 1945 would be turned. But in the general election of that year the Labour vote dipped less than 2%, and it was only the vagaries of the first past the post system that saw the Tories gain 88 seats.
Still, Attlee remained in power, at the head of an increasingly fractious government rent by ideological divisions, and fatally wounded by the illness and withdrawal from public life of men like Cripps and Bevin. When the NHS prescription charge issue finally ripped the party apart, the prime minister was obliged to go to the country again in 1951.
Even then, Labour retained the faith of the people, gaining its highest ever share of the vote: 48.8%. Indeed, it was the closest any party came in the 20th century to achieving a popular majority mandate, but it was still not enough. The key turned out to be the Liberal vote, which suddenly evaporated, leaving the party with just 2.5% support and six MPs. The Conservatives ended up with fewer votes than Labour, but 26 more MPs. Winston Churchill was back in Downing Street.
Building the welfare state
Academic analysis of the welfare state
More about Clement Attlee
1945 election manifestos
The 1945 result
The 1950 result
The 1951 result
Results of all general elections since 1945
The Conservative Party is the heir, and in some measure the continuation, of the old Tory Party, members of which began forming “conservative associations” after Britain’sReform Bill of 1832 extended electoral rights to the middle class. The name Conservative was first used as a description of the party by John Wilson Croker writing in the Quarterly Review in 1830. The first Conservative government was formed by Sir Robert Peel, whose program, set out in the Tamworth Manifesto (1834), stressed the timely reform of abuses, the necessity of law and order, an orderly system of taxation, and the importance of both landed interests and trade and industry.
Prospects of an extended period of Conservative rule disappeared in 1846 when the party split over the repeal of protectionist regulations known as the Corn Laws, and for most of the next 30 years they were out of government. The party was reorganized by Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister for a few months in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. The Conservative Central Office, a professional organization established by Disraeli in 1870, and the newly formed National Union, which drew together local voluntary associations, gave the party additional unity and strength. At the same time, Disraeli’s emphasis on social reform to reduce the enormous disparity in the living conditions of rich and poor, combined with a strong, activist imperial and foreign policy, helped the party to transcend class barriers. Disraeli’s contribution was to transform the party from one that spoke primarily for landed interests to one that could draw supporters from the middle class and from newly enfranchised workers.
The Conservative Party was further strengthened in 1886 when it allied with the Liberal Unionists, a faction of the Liberal Party that opposed the policy of Home Rule in Ireland put forward by the Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone. Thus reinforced, the Conservatives held office for all but 3 of the next 20 years, first under the leadership of Lord Salisbury and then under Arthur Balfour. A split over tariff policy caused them to lose the election of 1906 in a disastrous landslide, and they did not regain power until they joined a wartime coalition with the Liberals in May 1915. In the election of 1918, most of the candidates elected to support the coalition were Conservatives.
In 1922 Conservative backbenchers forced the party’s withdrawal from the coalition and thereby precipitated the resignation of party leader Austen Chamberlain. The rebellion owed much to the revulsion felt by many backbenchers toward the Liberal leader and prime minister, David Lloyd George, and to their unease over some of the more interventionist reforms introduced by Liberal ministers. A surprise election called in December 1923 by Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin proved to be a miscalculation that briefly reunited the ailing Liberal Party and opened the way to a minority Labour Party government, though the Conservatives remained the largest single party and were able to regain power the following year. Apart from another brief Labour administration in 1929–31, the Conservatives dominated national office until 1945. Baldwin emerged as a popular figure and the architect of what he called the “new Conservatism,” an attempt to appeal to the middle class through a modest movement away from the laissez-faire economic policies that the party had advocated since 1918.
Baldwin’s successor as party leader and prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was forced from office in May 1940 by his own backbenchers because of his poor leadership in the early months of World War II. Chamberlain was replaced by another Conservative, Winston Churchill, who formed a coalition government with the Labour Party. Although Churchill led the country to victory in the war, he failed to lead his own party to success in the first postwar election in 1945. The party’s stunning defeat can be attributed to the electorate’s desire for social reform and economic security, as well as its inclination to blame the Conservatives for not having done enough in the 1930s to alleviate mass unemployment or to thwart the aspirations of dictators. While in opposition, the party reformed its policies and organization. It created a new youth movement (the Young Conservatives) and an education wing (the Conservative Political Centre), revived the party’s research department, and undertook a drive to increase party membership. The party returned to power in 1951 and maintained office until 1964. Under the leadership of Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative Party came to accept the key tenets of the “postwar consensus” with Labour—that is, it recognized the state’s responsibility for maintaining full employment and endorsed the use of techniques of economic-demand management, based on the theories of John Maynard Keynes, to achieve that objective. Moreover, the party did not seek to reverse the welfare measures nor most of the public ownership of industry that had been introduced by Labour in 1945–51. The Conservative government did embark on an extensive house-building program and was able to reduce income taxes while increasing spending on the National Health Service. In the early 1960s, however, an economic downturn and a series of scandals—one of which involved an adulterous affair between the secretary of war and an alleged Soviet spy—undermined the party’s support.
From 1964 to 1979 the Conservatives held power alternately with the Labour Party. Under the prime ministership of Edward Heath (1970–74), the party pursued policies designed to deregulate finance and industry. Economic problems led to confrontations with the trade unions, especially the National Union of Miners, and to internal party dissension. Heath called an election in 1974 and the party lost, allowing Labour to form a minority government. After losing a second national election to Labour in 1974, Heath was succeeded as party leader by Margaret Thatcher, who during her four years as leader of the opposition (1975–79) frequently stated her determination to pursue deregulation and supply-side economic reforms.
As prime minister after the Conservatives’ victory over Labour in 1979, Thatcher attempted to “roll back the state” in the economic sphere, weaken the power of the trade unions, and reduce welfare programs. She combined this ambitious economic agenda—which included the privatization of several state-owned industries and the sale of more than 1.5 million council houses (publicly owned houses) to their tenants—with moral traditionalism and skepticism toward further European integration through the European Economic Community (ultimately succeeded by the European Union). Critics both inside and outside the Conservative Party contended that the “cult of the market” did much to disintegrate the social order, yet Thatcher was able to lead her party to resounding victories in the general elections of 1983 and 1987, owing in part to her decisive leadership in the Falkland Islands War (1982) and to deep divisions in the opposition. Her eventual resignation as party leader (and therefore as prime minister) in 1990 reflected the combined impact of a number of factors, including public protests over a proposal to finance local government through a flat-rate “poll tax,” a series of bitter conflicts with some of her senior ministers, her strident and authoritarian style, and a growing sense among backbenchers that she might prove unable to withstand the electoral challenge of a newly united and considerably reformed Labour Party.
Thatcher’s successor, John Major, had held senior ministerial office for only a brief period prior to his selection as prime minister. His less charismatic political style did not prevent him from winning the general election of 1992, but he had to contend with a prolonged economic recession, internal party conflict over the question of European integration, and dismally low opinion-poll ratings. The party’s economic policies were questioned after Britain was forced to leave the European exchange-rate mechanism and devalue the pound in 1992. Further hampered by a series of personal scandals involving prominent officials of Major’s government and facing a rejuvenated Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Conservatives suffered a crushing defeat in the general election of 1997, losing more than half their seats in the House of Commons.
Soon after the 1997 elections, Major resigned as party leader. With some potential leaders suddenly ineligible because they had lost their parliamentary seats, William Hague, former secretary of state for Wales, was elected party leader. Like Disraeli more than a century earlier, the 36-year-old Hague—the youngest Conservative leader in 200 years—set out to reform the party’s organization, reestablish its appeal outside traditional Conservative strongholds, rebuild its image, and end the factional strife that had plagued the Conservatives during their last years in power. Despite those efforts, Hague’s tenure was marked by continued discord, and in 2001 the party suffered a second consecutive landslide defeat to the Labour Party. In 2005, under former home secretary Michael Howard, the Conservatives won some 30 additional seats in the House of Commons but remained well shy of a parliamentary majority. Howard promptly resigned as party leader, and David Cameron presided over the gradual ascent of the Conservatives over the next five years. Having captured 307 seats in the general election of 2010, the Conservatives became the largest party in the House of Commons, but their failure to win an outright majority led to a hung Parliament. Conservative and Labour Party leaders met with the Liberal Democrats over the ensuing days in an effort to secure enough seats to form a new government. When it appeared that those talks would result in a formal “Lib-Con” coalition, Brown announced his resignation and Cameron was confirmed as prime minister of Britain’s first coalition government since World War II. In midterm local elections in 2012, however, neither the Conservatives nor their coalition partners fared well, with the Conservatives losing more than 400 seats in England, Scotland, and Wales. That trend continued in the May 2014 elections for the European Parliament, in which the Conservatives lost seven seats to finish not only just behind Labour but in third place; the United Kingdom Independence Party finished in first place. Opinion polling before the May 2015 U.K. general election promised more of the same, with the Conservative and Labour parties seemingly in a dead heat as late as the eve of the election. In the event, however, the Conservatives pulled off a stunning victory—winning 331 seats, a gain of 24 seats over their showing in the 2010 election—that allowed Cameron to form a majority government.
For several years disaffection had been growing within the party over Britain’s continued membership in the European Union. In 2013 Cameron first promised a national referendum on the issue, and in February 2016 he succeeded in winning concessions from EU leaders that were aimed at pleasing Euroskeptics. The party divided in the lead-up to the referendum in 2016, with Cameron leading the “Remain” side and former London mayor Boris Johnson heading up the “Leave” side. In the event, voters chose to leave the EU, and Cameron announced his intention to resign as prime minister and party leader. In July 2016 he was replaced by his home secretary, Theresa May, who became the second woman in British history to serve as prime minister.
Seeking a mandate to bolster her hand in negotiations on the British exit from the EU (“Brexit”), May called a snap election for June 2017. Opinion polling had led her to anticipate big gains in the House of Commons. However, instead of increasing its presence in the Commons through the election, the Conservatives lost their legislative majority, falling to 318 seats. May was forced to enlist the support of Northern Ireland’sDemocratic Unionist Party to empower a minority government.
Policy and structure
In comparison to other European conservative movements, British conservatism has proved unusually resilient, having succeeded in adapting itself to changing political and social agendas. The party is essentially a coalescence of several ideological groups, the most important of which are a centrist “One Nation” bloc that stresses economic interventionism and social harmony and an economic-liberal bloc that emphasizes a free-market economy. Neither of these two blocs are monolithic, and their heterogeneous nature usually allows them to avoid serious conflict with each other. The One-Nation Conservatives, for example, include progressives, who advocate change, and paternalists, who are more concerned with social order and authority. Nevertheless, disagreements between the two major blocs and between other groups occasionally produce dramatic splits in the party. Factional discord was sharpened during the late 1970s and ’80s, as Thatcher’s free-market followers, who called themselves “Dries,” wrested control of the party from their One-Nation opponents, whom they labeled “Wets.” The differences between the Wets and the Dries were particularly acute on the issue of European integration. Dries tended to be highly skeptical of moves toward European integration, whereas Wets tended to favour it.
At the head of the party is the leader, who is the fount of all policy. Formerly (1965–98) chosen by Conservative members of Parliament, since 1998 the leader is elected by the entire party membership; the parliamentary members may still remove a leader, however, through a vote of no confidence. Below the leader there are three principal elements: the voluntary wing (comprising the local parties in the constituencies), the professional wing (the Central Office), and the parliamentary party. All three elements are represented on a Management Board, which was created in the organizational reforms following Hague’s election as party leader. The board has responsibility for organizational matters within the party and has the power to expel members.
The voluntary wing is organized in constituency associations, each of which elects its own officers and is responsible for fund-raising, campaigning, and the selection of candidates to compete in local and parliamentary elections. Specific sections within the constituency associations—such as the party’s think tank, the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF)—help to integrate the views of members in the formulation of party positions on a variety of issues. Association members also attend an annual party conference. The party’s Central Office, whose chief officers are appointed by the party leader, exists primarily to assist the leadership and the work of the party throughout the country. Backbench members of the parliamentary party belong to a body known as the 1922 Committee (so called because its founding members were first returned to Parliament in 1922), through which they keep the leadership informed of their opinions; they also serve on a variety of specialized committees. The committees, covering subjects such as foreign affairs and finance, meet regularly to discuss issues and to listen to invited speakers.
The membership of the modern Conservative Party is drawn heavily from the landowning and middle classes—especially businessmen, managers, and professionals. Its electoral base, however, has extended at times well beyond these groups to incorporate approximately one-third of the working class, and working-class votes were essential to the extraordinary electoral success that the party enjoyed after World War I. Since the 1950s a regional alignment of the party’s electoral support has become apparent, so that it is now concentrated in nonindustrial rural and suburban areas, especially in the south of England. Indeed, the party’s decline outside England was so great that in the 1997 election it returned no members of Parliament in either Scotland or Wales.
Although the party has long been highly circumspect about revealing the precise sources of its funds, the central party organization has tended to rely heavily on donations from corporations and wealthy individuals. The income of constituency associations derives from membership subscriptions and fund-raising events. In the 1990s, responding to a marked decline in corporate giving, the party attempted to increase the income it receives from individuals, relying on measures such as targeted mailings and the creation of patrons’ clubs, whose members contributed a fixed amount of money per year.
The party also has had to cope with declining membership. Although claiming about three million members in the early 1950s, it was believed to have 750,000 members in 1992 and only about 350,000 by the beginning of the 21st century.