The history of modern Britain is to a considerable degree the history of the Tory Party, Europe's - and perhaps the world's - oldest political party. Or at least the equal oldest party, since it is unusual for the supporters of the status quo to initiate partisan politics. Conservative politics are reactive, a poor second best to the conservative's preferred condition, one of no politics at all. Conservatives organise only when challenged. But whenever one dates the origins of the British party system, whether with the attempt to exclude the Catholic James from the succession to Charles II, with the rivalry between the Younger Pitt and Charles James Fox, or with the battle over Parliamentary Reform in the 1830s - Lord Blake prefers the second of these - it is evident that the two parties arose simultaneously. They have not shown equal powers of survival. Whiggery has long disappeared, though 20th-century Conservatives have included a few Whiggish eccentrics. The Liberal Party of David Steel bears little resemblance to it, except in some residual link with religious dissent and the geographical periphery. The old-style Labour Party inherited some Whig nostrums, especially in foreign policy and constitutional matters. The Tory Party, on the other hand, has survived, metamorphosed but whole.
LRB 6 June 1985 | PDF Download