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Adrian Lee: Three lessons from history on how powerful conservative parties can die | Conservative Home


Adrian Lee is a solicitor-advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative parliamentary candidate.

Supporters of Reform UK frequently espouse the notion that the Conservative Party is on its last legs. They are not specifically talking about Tory prospects in the general election, but forever.

This theory’s proponents often ignore the fact that the Conservative Party has fallen on very hard times in the past, such as the twenty-two years in the wilderness following the split with the Peelites in 1846, the 1906 electoral meltdown and the Labour landslides of 1945, 1966 and 1997.

On each occasion, the Party returned to government after a stint in Opposition. However, Reform’s leadership says that things are different now: the Conservative Party will go down heavily and stay down permanently.

It is argued that once decline sets in, their vote share and number of constituencies will decrease with each passing election, like the Liberals after 1923. The counter-argument to this is that the Conservatives still represents a constituency of economic interests: property-owners, independent business people, and those dedicated to preserving the status quo.

So, are there any contemporary examples of conservative parties in similar democracies that simply died off? I can think of three that fit the bill.

Italy

The Italian Christian Democracy (Democrazia Cristiana, ‘DC’) had a long and fractious history. Founded on 15 December 1943 within the boundaries of the Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, the first two years of its existence were spent “underground” as part of the anti-fascist resistance and, as such, initially cooperated with the Liberals, Socialists, and Communists.

The Christian Democrats were the successor to the Italian People’s Party, which was founded in 1919 by a Roman Catholic priest, and eventually came to attain 20 per cent of the vote in the 1921 general election. Mussolini seized power the following year and banned that party in 1926.

When the Allies liberated Italy, plans were made for the first democratic elections in two decades. The following year, DC received 35.2 per cent of the vote. Afterwards, the party broke with the Leftist parties and by 1948, D.C. enjoyed 48.5 per cent support amongst voters. Despite frequent changes of prime minster, between 1953 and 1979 DC never dipped below 38 per , occasionally went as high as 43 per cent.

In the 1980s, their support started its slow decline, plagued by the Lira’s constant devaluation and the debt burden following excessive budget deficits.

In addition, the party was internally divided between its left and right wings. During the 1960s, the Left faction dominated it, who invariably formed “organic centre-left” coalitions with the Socialists. To voters, it became increasingly hard to distinguish between DC policies from those of the Socialists. The situation deteriorated further between 1976 and 1979, when DC even received parliamentary support from the Communists.

The end came in the early 1990s, when a series of mafia corruption scandals hit the party leadership. However, before it dissolved itself in 1994, right-wing rivals had already started making headway, notably the Lega Nord (Northern League, today’s Lega) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

France

Our second example comes from France. Gaullism had dominated French conservatism since that country’s liberation in 1944. French historian Serge Berstein has attempted to explain Gaullism as “a peculiarly French phenomenon” that is “neither a doctrine nor a political ideology”.

It is a broadly nationalistic creed, but one that has come to accept republican values; early Gaullists recommended an association between capital and labour to end class struggle.

In contrast, the pre-war Right rejected the French Revolution, remained devoutly Roman Catholic, and clamoured for either authoritarian civil rule or restoring one of three competing dynasties as king or emperor. (For an insight into French society’s bitter divisions before 1939, I recommend Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 satirical novel, Clochemerle.)

Gaullism differs from the English-speaking world’s conservatism by favouring a strong central state and the construction of political and social unity. Free enterprise is tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged, but must not disrupt social stability and lead to class conflict.

The first Gaullist political party, the “Rally of the French People,” was founded de Gaulle in 1947. Within six months, it had recruited one million members. By 1951, it formed the largest group in the French Assembly, but it did not attain power. De Gaulle himself only came to power in May 1958 by threatening a military coup following the worsening war in Algeria.

From then until 1976, the Gaullist party (initially called Union for a New Republic, and later the Union of Democrats for the Republic) dominated government.

After a period in coalition with Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s Independent Republicans, and most of the 1980s in opposition to Mitterrand’s Socialists, the Gaullists returned to government as Rally for the Republic under Jacques Chirac in 1993. His political successor was Nicholas Sarkozy, who changed the party’s name to The Republicans.

Since 2017, however, the traditional party of the Right has been in freefall. In 2017’s presidential elections, it fell to third place and in 2022, it came fifth. Likewise, in the National Assembly elections of 2017, the party lost 82 seats, reducing their representation to 112. In 2022 they lost a further 51 seats, leaving them today with just 61.

So, what happened? Put simply, they lost huge support to Marine Le Pen’s party, originally called Front National and now Rassemblement National (National Rally), which currently holds 88 seats in the National Assembly. In 2019, the Gaullists even suffered the defection of Thierry Mariani, a former Sarkozy cabinet minister.

United Kingdom

My final example of a dying conservative party is much closer to home: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Formed in March 1905 as the Ulster Unionist Council, the party dominated Northern Irish politics until the 2001 general election.

Initially led by a combination of landed gentry, aristocracy and industrialists, the Ulster Unionists eventually directly affiliated to the British Conservative Party. Ulster Unionist MPs regularly held junior ministerial posts in Conservative Governments up until 1972.

Following Heath’s prorogation of Stormont, the Unionists resigned the Conservative whip, but still had representatives on the National Union Executive of the voluntary Conservative Party until the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The last Ulster Unionist to address the Conservative Party Conference was John Taylor MP in 1984, on the morning after the detonation of the “Brighton Bomb”.

In the 1997 election, the onetime-‘Official’ Unionists returned ten MPs; By the 2001 election, their representation had fallen to six, and by 2005 they had been further reduced to just one MP. They officially lost their solitary Member of Parliament in 2010, following Sylvia Hermon’s resignation.

With the fleeting exception of Danny Kinahan’s short stint as MP for South Antrim from 2015 to 2017, the UUP has not won a parliamentary constituency since; even with proportional representation used for Northern Ireland Assembly Elections, they only hold 9 of 90 seats.

The decline of UUP fortunes can be traced back to the 24 March 1963, when Terence O’Neill became both Party Leader and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, succeeding Lord Brookeborough. O’Neill wanted to bring reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. To this end, he invited Sean Lemass, the Irish Republic’s Taoiseach, to visit him in Belfast.

At the time, the Irish constitution laid claim to Ulster, and Unionists were appalled at O’Neill’s attempt to open talks. Into this controversy strode the Rev Ian Paisley and his Protestant Unionist Party. Paisley was a hitherto-obscure Free Presbyterian preacher, who rejected all talks with Dublin. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics formed the Civil Rights Association and started protest marches across Ulster.

As riots flared up across the province, some Protestants started to turn to Paisley. In 1970, Paisley was first elected to Stormont and two months later was returned as MP for Antrim North. The party changed its name to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and by 1983 had three Westminster MPs.

The DUP remained at this strength for many years, with many UUP voters regarding them as crude and extreme. But the 1998 Good Friday Agreement changed everything. A power-sharing executive was established at Stormont and for the first time, Sinn Féin looked set to enter public office.

UUP members started defecting to the DUP and at the subsequent general election, voters too began to switch political allegiance. They never returned to their former party; indeed, liberal millennials looking for an alternative to the DUP have transferred directly to the Alliance Party.

What, then, are the common factors in the decline of each of these conservative parties?

Firstly, it requires the establishment of an alternative right-wing party. Without this, dissenting conservative voters often just abstain at elections when disenchanted with their party, but a separate party acts as an alternative political home.

Secondly, the original conservative party must drift away from its core, usually by becoming consciously more centrist. This upsets the true believer, without necessarily attracting new voters from the Left. After all, why should they join a political party traditionally associated with the Right, when they are usually happy supporting their regular party of choice?

Thirdly, for the spiral of decline to begin, leading members of the original party must lose touch with the minimum requirements and aspirations of their electorate.

The longer they spend in the halls of power, the more contemptuous these politicians become to seemingly “unsophisticated” grass-roots opinions. Consequently, once-loyal supporters eventually realise that the old party no longer meets their needs and starts looking around for alternatives.

Could our Conservative Party go the way of these others? Yes, it is possible. But all the requirements are not currently in place. We still have the power to prevent these events in Great Britain. The clock, however, is ticking.



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