Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros4The Conservative dilemma


This article examines the organisational and ideological differences between the British Right and the French Right, from a historical perspective, in order to assess the Conservatives' inner tensions over several issues, including Europe, the nature and scope of the crisis which they currently experience, and the solutions offered to them.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1It is a familiar point that, whereas the British Right is united in one party, the Conservative Party, the French Right is and has nearly always been divided. The last split in the Conservative Party was in 1846, over the repeal of the Corn Laws under Sir Robert Peel, and it was traumatic, putting the Conservatives in opposition for nearly thirty years. The Conservatives have always been determined to avoid any repetition of that traumatic split. Indeed, it is sometimes said that the most powerful figure in modern British politics is the ghost of Sir Robert Peel. The Tory Prime Minister, A.J. Balfour clearly had Peel in mind when, in 1903, he refused to commit himself to radical measures of Tariff Reform and Imperial Preference. R.A. Butler also had Peel in mind when, in 1963, he agreed to serve under Sir Alec Douglas-Home, rather than leading a revolt against him. 'The story of Sir Robert Peel splitting the Tory Party was for me the supremely unforgettable political lesson of history', he said later. 'It made an absolutely indelible impression. I could never do the same thing in the twentieth century, under any circumstances whatever'.

2 In France, by contrast, the Right has been split since the Revolution, In his classic work, La Droite en France, Rene Remond isolated three different French Rights – the legitimist, the Orleanist and the Bonapartist. Today, perhaps a different analysis is required. Legitmism seems dead, but perhaps the UDF under Bayrou may be termed Orleanist, De Gaulle may perhaps be regarded as a Bonapartist, but it would be difficult to regard either Jacques Chirac or Nicolas Sarkozy in the same light, except perhaps by someone with a maudlin sense of humour. Moreover, there is now, in France, a powerful radical Right, whose origins lie perhaps with Boulangism in the 1880s, the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s and the Action Francaise. In his controversial work on French fascism, Ni Droite ni Gauche, the Israeli historian, Zeev Sternhell, has insisted that Fascism has been an indigenous part of French political culture since the end of the 19th century, and was by no means an alien imposition.

3 The difference between the Right in Britain and in France is, however, not solely one between unity and division. There are two further differences. The first is that the Conservatives in Britain have been a party of government for much of the 20th century. In the 19th century, Disraeli and Lord Salisbury followed a Bismarckian strategy of using democracy to tame radicalism, in accordance with the dictum of Lord Randolph Churchill that Tory democracy was a democracy that supports the Tory Party. Indeed, the Conservatives were in government, either alone or in coalition, for over two-thirds of the 20th century – 68 years. There were just four governments of the Left in the 20th century with comfortable majorities – in 1906, 1945, 1966 and 1997. Amongst working-class voters, around one-third generally supported the Conservatives. Class consciousness amongst the petit bourgeoisie was even stronger – around 90 % of the self-employed and those in small businesses regularly voted Conservative. Of course, all this may now have been changed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, which may have made Labour the natural party of government in Britain. But, in the 20th century, that role was occupied by the Conservatives.

4 In France, by contrast, parties of the Right were parties of opposition for most of the 3rd and 4th Republics. From 1870, under the 3rd republic, it was the Radicals who were the governing party, and the conservatives, clerical and monarchist, were very much outside the system. In the 4th Republic, also, the conservatives found it difficult to establish a secure position and were exposed to the taint of Vichy and of collaboration. The 5th Republic, however, has changed all that, and, apart from the presidency of François Mitterrand from 1981 to 1995, the Elysee has been occupied throughout by a president from the Right.

5Thus, the British Right has possessed two crucial features that the French lacked – a governing vocation and a cohesive character.

6 But, there is a further difference. For, in the past, the differences between the various factions of the French Right – legitimist, Orleanist, Bonapartist, radical Right – were broadly ideological, being concerned with such matters as the return of the monarchy, republicanism, the role of religion, attitudes towards Vichy, de Gaulle, Algérie Française and the role of the market. By contrast, divisions amongst Conservatives were traditionally about personality and organized interests, not about ideology. The Conservatives were a pragmatic party, geared to government, not an ideological party.

7 Perhaps, however, things are now changing in both countries, It may be that, from the time of Margaret Thatcher’s accession to the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, the Conservatives have become a more ideological party, especially on Europe ; while, in France, since the quarrel between Giscard and Chirac in the 1970s, differences within the ruling UMP and the UDF have come to reflect personality and interest as much as ideology. In France, in any case, there is always a tendency for ideology to be used to cloak what are really personal conflicts.

8 Even so, there is probably still a distinction to be drawn in France between two political families – one that is Bonapartist/Gaullist – nationalist, interventionist and, to some extent, populist. Its sociological constituency is largely that of small business, agriculture and the military – the other family is more sympathetic to the free market and more comfortable with modernity – it is supported by big business and by young professionals. Broadly, the first family can be identified with Chirac and much of the UMP, the second with the liberal wing of the UDF, and with Sarkozy – although Sarkozy is of course the leader of the UMP.

9 These differences between Britain and France result partly, although in my view not wholly, from differences between the electoral systems of the two countries. The first past the post system in Britain demands a unified party. Parties which split, as the Conservatives did in 1846, the Liberals during the First World War, and Labour in 1931 and the 1980s, are severely punished by the first past the post electoral system. Proportional representation and the two ballot system, by contrast, allow competing factions to co-exist and fight each other electorally. For, under the two ballot system, the first ballot tends to be a primary election, indicating which candidates of the Left and Right have the most support.

10 Despite the first past the post system, however, and despite the ghost of Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative Party has been bedevilled by faction fighting since the downfall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The main issue over which the factions have been fighting is Europe.

11It was a Conservative government, under Edward Heath, which took Britain into Europe, in 1973. Heath’s successor and supplanter, Margaret Thatcher, was by no means unsympathetic to Europe when she came to power in 1979. Admittedly, she fought a hard battle to renegotiate the financial arrangements and to secure for Britain a 'juste retour'. But her government ratified in the Single European Act in 1986, the most 'federalist' of the amendments to the Treaty of Rome, providing for majority voting in the Council of Ministers, and the rapid establishment of an internal market. The Single European Act also reaffirmed the commitment of European governments to monetary union.

12 It was not until 1988 that Margaret Thatcher, in her famous Bruges speech, revealed herself as a Eurosceptic. Part of her motivation was a reaction to Jacques Delors’s address to the TUC, in which he said that many of the benefits denied to the British trade unions by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, could be secured through the European Union. Delors’s aim was to make the trade unions and the labour movement more friendly to Europe ; but he aroused Margaret Thatcher’s ire. We have not, she said in her Bruges speech, got rid of socialism in Britain at the front door, only to see it re-enter from Brussels by the back door.

13 Out of office after 1990, her views became more extreme. She excoriated her successor, John Major, for signing the Maastricht Treaty – although Maastricht involved far less of a transfer of sovereignty than the Single European Act had done – and accused Conservative supporters of the Treaty of being traitors to their country. This contributed greatly to John Major’s difficulties. For, after the 1992 general election, his majority was reduced to just 21, and then further reduced through by-election losses and defections. From 1992, any 11 Eurosceptics could put Major’s government at risk. Indeed, it took a heroic feat of parliamentary manoeuvring for which Major has received little credit, to ensure that British ratified the Maastricht Treaty and remained a member of the European Union. Margaret Thatcher, however, proved irreconcilable ; and, in her book, Statecraft, published in 2002, she went so far as to advocate complete British withdrawal from the European Union.

14The European debate, like that on the Corn Laws in the 1840s, like tariff reform at the beginning of the 20th century, and like appeasement in the 1930s, is, fundamentally, a debate about national identity. That is why it is so emotive for the Conservatives. For, since Disraeli, the Conservatives have defined themselves as the party of national identity. For many Tories, Europe threatens British identity. In this sense, perhaps, the pro-European stance of Harold Macmillan from 1961, and that of Edward Heath – and perhaps even that of Margaret Thatcher before the Bruges speech – might be regarded as aberrant and unnatural. But, whether that is so or not, pro-Europeanism has become a distinctively minority position in the modern Conservative Party, and the pro-Europeans have become a threatened species. Indeed, the best known Conservative pro-Europeans – men such as Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, are political veterans unlikely ever to hold office again. Hardly any of the younger Conservative MPs are pro-European.

15 The Conservative crisis is easy to describe. In 1992, the Party won around 14 million votes, the highest number of votes ever cast for any British political party. In 2005, it won just 8.8 million votes. Amongst voters under 35, the Conservatives had become the third party in Britain, having fallen behind the Liberal Democrats. The Party has just 198 seats out of 645 in the House of Commons, fewer than Michael Foot’s Labour Party in 1983. In the last three elections, its percentage of the vote, which has varied between 30 % and 34 %, has been the lowest ever gained by the party in the era of mass suffrage, far lower indeed than when the party suffered landslide defeats in 1906 and 1945.

16The problems of the Conservative Party really began shortly after they were returned to power with a reduced majority of 21 in 1992. In September, just 5 months after the general election, Britain was compelled to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System, which she had joined in October 1990 in the dying days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The pound then floated freely on the exchanges, as it has done ever since, although John Major had declared that our departure from the ERM was only temporary – “c’est seulement le provisoire qui dure”. Leaving the ERM was followed by high interest rates and bankruptcies, although, in the long run, some have argued, the floating pound helped Britain recover from the recession. Thus, while pro-Europeans lamented our departure from the ERM on Black Wednesday, Eurosceptics christened it White Wednesday.

17However, the immediate consequences of leaving the ERM were deleterious and destroyed the reputation of the Conservatives for sound economic management – the basis for their electoral success in the 1950s and 1980s. The party has still not recovered this reputation. Between 1992 and the 2005 general election, the Labour Party was continuously ahead in the opinion polls, except for very brief periods. Never, since opinion polling began in Britain in 1937 has one party – Labour – held a lead for so long a period, for much of which it has been in government. Indeed, it is rare in Britain, and perhaps in other democracies also, for a party to be in the lead at all when it is in government. Between 1995 and 2005, just five published polls put the Conservatives in the lead, and the Conservatives scored under 34 % of the vote for most of that decade.

18Labour, by contrast, under the Chancellorship of Gordon Brown, has gained for itself a reputation for economic competence and sound management. That, too, is a transformation. Labour’s image in the past was that of a set of decent and kindly people, but unskilled at management. Nearly every previous Labour government had been derailed by a serious economic crisis, and sometimes more than one – the 1931 crisis, the 1947 convertibility crisis, devaluation in 1949, devaluation again in 1967, and then, in 1978-9, the `Winter of Discontent’, the strikes of public sector unions which brought Britain to a standstill. Now, however, Labour had come to be seen as the party of competent management, while the Conservatives were seen as incompetent. In one of his election speeches in 2005, Tony Blair declared `The Tories used to run on the economy. Now they just run away from it’. Britain’s departure from the ERM in 1992 was thus a seismic political event, comparable to the 1931 financial crisis which put Labour in opposition for the rest of the 1930s, and the winter of discontent in 1978-9, which put Labour in opposition for 18 years ; and we are still living with the consequences of it. Perhaps it will take another seismic political event to eject Labour from government.

19 The Conservatives have now been in opposition for 10 years, their longest period of opposition since the 18th century. Never before, during the era of mass suffrage, have the Conservatives lost three consecutive general elections. Moreover, from 1997 until the election of David Cameron as party leader in 2005, they did not look even remotely credible as a party of government.

20 But, the Conservatives face an ideological as well as an electoral crisis, and it results, paradoxically, from the fact that, in the 1980s, they won most of the ideological arguments – on the role of markets, on pushing back the boundaries of the state, on lowering taxation, and on the role of trade unions. In 1997, for the first time since Labour had become a national party, nationalization was no longer on the political agenda. Why, then, have the Conservatives lost support ?

21 They have lost support for precisely this reason perhaps, that there are no longer any dragons left to slay. In his standard history of The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, published in 1998, Robert Blake declares that Lord Salisbury, Conservative Prime Minister in the 19th century, `used --- to declare that Mr. Gladstone’s existence was the greatest source of strength which the Conservative Party possessed --- He did not shrink from facing the fact that according to his views, the success of his own party was dependent on the existence of the other. `I rank myself no higher in the scheme of things than a policeman – whose utility would disappear if there were no criminals’. The Conservative Party has performed best when people are frightened – of Napoleon, during the early 19th century, of Irish Home Rule in Gladstone’s time, of socialism in the 1920s, and of the trade unions in the 1980s.

22 Today, however, the criminals have all gone. Communism has disappeared ; so has state socialism ; the trade unions are too weak to cause trouble. What, then, should the Conservative Party stand for ?

23 A Party’s first response when it suffers a heavy defeat – as with Labour after 1979 – is to turn in on itself, to seek reinforcement of its traditional ideology. David Frum, the former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, said of the Democrats after 2000. `When a political party offers the voters ham and eggs and the voters say, `No thanks’, its first instinct is to say, `OK then – how about double ham and double eggs’.’ That was what the Conservatives did after 1997. They emphasized what opinion pollsters call the `dog-whistle issues’ – issues such as immigration, crime and Europe – of considerable salience to the party faithful, but far less so to floating voters. During the general election of 2005, those Tory pronouncements which had the most positive impact upon the enthusiasm of Conservative voters were also those which had the most negative impact on floating voters. In particular, the Conservatives made little impact amongst the professional and managerial classes, who used to be their strongest supporters, ethnic minorities, or young voters. Symbolically, the three seats which the Party won in the 2001 general election – Romford, Upminster and Castle Point – resembled the Tory core in that they had higher percentages of the geographically and socially immobile and the retired, but lower percentages of graduates and members of ethnic minorities than the average Greater London constituency. The Conservatives, however, cannot regain power simply by mobilizing their existing voting base since it is too narrow for electoral success. If, in these circumstances, a party does not change, it is saying that it is the voters who are wrong. It is engaging in an argument with the British people which it is unlikely to win.

24 It took the Conservative Party three consecutive lost elections before it stopped talking to itself. With the election of David Cameron as leader in 2005, the Party has begun, once again, to talk to the British electorate.

25 David Cameron’s central insight is that voters do not want to be asked to choose between a good economy and strong public services, and they will resent any party that asks them to do so. They want both. In recent years, the Conservatives appeared to be questioning the safety net of social welfare. Yet, it is that safety net which makes the pressures of globalization tolerable. For globalization inevitably involves an increase in uncertainty and risk – some business will succeed, while others will not – new jobs will be created but old jobs will be lost. Voters will accept the uncertainties of globalization only if they are combined with strong welfare policies so that they will not lose everything when markets move. In a world of globalization, therefore, a world ruled by the market, the social safety net becomes more, not less important. That is perhaps more easily understood in France than it is in Britain, where the Conservatives seemed not to understand that, for most people, security against risk was more important than the enhancement of choice. In the past, the working-class had to live with insecurity, and voted Labour to protect itself against it. Globalisation extended that insecurity to professionals, who are also voting Labour to protect themselves.

26 Moreover, the Conservatives faced the need to come to terms with the Britain of today, rather than the Britain of 50 years ago – a Britain seen through rose-tinted spectacles – a Britain which was ethnically homogeneous, and in which deference was strong and alternative lifestyles barely tolerated. The social groups whose votes the Conservatives seek – professionals and university graduates – will not support a party which seeks to tell them how to live their lives or intrude into their personal decisions. Perhaps we in Britain are becoming French. We are becoming disinclined to accept moral sermons from politicians. If people want morality, Harold Macmillan once said, they should get it from their archbishops.

27 Even so, and despite the heroic efforts made by David Cameron to modernize the Conservatives, perhaps the best they can hope for from the next general election is a hung parliament. In a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats would be pivotal. To win their support, the Conservatives would have to abandon Euroscepticism, to become more forthright in their support of civil liberties, and to agree to a referendum on changing the electoral system to one of proportional representation.

28 The Conservatives, however, are no nearer to resolving their fundamental ideological problem. They still have to find an answer to the questions - What is the meaning of Conservatism in the modern world – what should the Party be seeking to conserve ? The problem is that the market philosophy adopted by Margaret Thatcher undermined so many traditional institutions. It involved permanent revolution, what the political philosopher, John Gray, has called 'a Maoism of the Right' ? Perhaps it swept away many of the traditional practices which Conservatives exist to defend ? Can the Conservative Party any longer be a guardian of continuity – what, after all, is left to be conserved in a market regime ?

29Much current political debate is about the limits of the market and the cultural and social preconditions for its success. That is the common thread linking Robert Putnam’s ideas of social capital with Francis Fukuyama’s call for a renewal of trust. But has modern conservatism anything to contribute to this debate ? Where is the Conservative Party to go – how is it to rediscover its beliefs ? David Cameron has begun to embark on what could prove a long voyage of discovery. It is vital for the Party that he succeeds. Parties which have lost faith in themselves deserve to die.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Vernon Bogdanor, « The Conservative dilemma »Observatoire de la société britannique, 4 | 2007, 169-178.

Référence électronique

Vernon Bogdanor, « The Conservative dilemma »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 4 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Vernon Bogdanor

Professeur de sciences politiques à l'Université d'Oxford

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés), sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search