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Conservative Party: History, Beliefs and Environmental Policy
Blog...Conservative Party: History, Beliefs and Environmental Policy

Conservative Party: History, Beliefs and Environmental Policy

Green News
Westminster Parliament
This article examines the Conservative Party's history, beliefs, and environmental policies.
Green News
Westminster Parliament

Tracing its roots back to the 17th century, the Conservative Party has remained a significant player in the UK political landscape, adapting its principles and policies to changing times. While its economic conservatism, law and order priorities, and sovereign perspectives are well-understood, recent decades have seen a more pronounced focus on environmental concerns. 

However, the ascension of Rishi Sunak to Prime Minister has brought new challenges and questions regarding the party's commitment to climate action. This article delves deep into the party's history, evolving beliefs, and recent policy U-turns, particularly in the environmental sector, under the leadership of PM Sunak. 

👉 This article examines the Conservative Party's history, beliefs, and environmental policies.

The history of the Conservative Party

Conservative Party Origins

The Conservative Party, the oldest continuous political party in the UK Parliament, positions itself centre-right on the political spectrum. The party can trace its origins back to the Tory Party, a political faction that first emerged in 1679. 

The Tories - i.e. the earliest form of the party - established a hold over UK politics between the late 18th and early 19th century, under William Pitt the Younger - in fact, the party was sometimes referred to as ‘Friends of Mr. Pitt’. However, it was under the leadership of Robert Peel that the party saw true transformation. Robert Peel issued a political manifesto, known as the Tamworth Manifesto, which many consider to have outlined the principles on which the modern Conservative Party is based.

The Tamworth Manifesto aimed to reform abuses, install law and order, implement an orderly tax system, and support land interests, trade, and industry. 

It was around this time that the party adopted the new title of the ‘Conservative Party’ - though many still refer to the party as the ‘Tories’. 

Conservative Party rise

In 1846 the Conservative Party split due to disagreements over free trade. One side of the party took up the name ‘The Protectionists’, while supporters of Robert Peel joined forces with two other UK political forces - the Whigs and the Radicals - to form the Liberal Party. The remaining Tories adopted the name ‘Conservative’ as their official party name. 

The party would later be re-organised under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli’s emphasis on tackling the huge disparity in living standards between the classes, and his imperialist foreign policy meant that he was able to attract a range of voters from different backgrounds. This broadening of the Conservative Party’s voter base was further facilitated by the expansion of the electoral franchise throughout the 19th century, which increased the number of eligible voters.

The Conservative Party remained in power throughout the end of the 19th century. However, the start of the 20th century was not as smooth sailing, and there were stretches when the Conservative Party did not hold the majority in the UK parliament. During this period, the Labour Party ascended to prominence, securing its position as the official opposition in 2022 - a term denoting the largest political party in the House of Commons not in government.

Yet despite brief periods where the Labour Government held power, it was the Conservative Party that largely dominated UK politics until the end of the Second World War. 

This era also witnessed the ascent of one of the UK's most renowned Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill. As leader of the coalition government, Churchill steered the UK through World War II, overseeing the British role in the Allied campaign against Germany, culminating in victory in 1945.

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Conservative Party in the second half of the 20th century

Despite helping to ensure a victory for the UK and its allies in WW2, Conservative Party leader Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party would lose the 1945 general election. Labour, capitalising on the UK public’s desire for social reform and economic security won the overall majority.  

However, by 1951 the Conservatives would find themselves back in power after voters revolted at the polls against Labour’s imposed food rationing, food scarcity, austerity, and strict government controls. Their victory can also be attributed to the Conservative Party’s efforts to grow party membership and support through the creation of a new youth movement, an education wing, and a research department. 

Notably, when the Conservative Party found itself back in power in 1951 it maintained many of the socialist policies introduced by the Labour government - including the formation of the NHS and the nationalisation of industry. The Conservative Party, recognising its responsibility as the UK's governing body, prioritised economic growth and job creation for its citizens. To this end, the government launched an extensive house-building initiative, lowered income taxes, and amplified spending on the NHS.

From 1964 to 1979, the UK experienced a succession of alternating Conservative and Labour governments. During these years, the Conservative Party initiated policies to deregulate the finance and industry sectors. This era also saw escalating economic challenges in the UK, intensifying tensions between the party and trade unions - most notably the National Union of Miners. This would set the stage for the widespread strikes that came to plague Margaret Thatcher’s rule during the 1980s. 

Margaret Thatcher era

After Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher is probably the most famous Conservative leader (or infamous depending on your political slant). 

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK in 1979 after Conservative Party leader Edward Heath stepped down. She introduced a series of reforms in an attempt to “roll back the state”. Policies were introduced to reduce welfare programs and weaken the power of trade unions. This was also combined with ambitious economic reform, including the privatisation of state-owned industries and the sale of social housing (council houses). Thatcher was also sceptical of growing European power through the European Economic Community (which would later be replaced by the European Union). 

Despite growing social unease, Margaret Thatcher would lead the Conservative Party to victory in both the 1983 and 1987 general elections. However, Thatcher would eventually be forced to resign from her leadership position in November 1990. Her downfall is largely attributed to the decision to introduce the ‘Community Charge’ (also known as the poll tax). This was a system of taxation that created a single flat-rate, per-capita tax on every adult. It was criticised as being unfair to lower-income households and led to large-scale protests across the country. 

After Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, she was replaced by John Major, who would go on to win the next general election in 1992.

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The rise of new Labour

Prolonged economic recession and internal party disagreements over EU integration resulted in poor polling for the Conservative Party in the 1990s. This coincided with the rise of ‘New Labour’ under Tony Blair. Blair would become Prime Minister in 1997 after a devastating loss for the Conservative Party. 

Recognising that it was facing a reputational challenge, the Conservative Party, led by William Hague, made efforts to try and reform the party and its public image. However, it wasn’t until 2010, under the leadership of David Cameron that the Conservative Party found itself back in government - albeit under a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

By 2015 however, the Conservatives would have the votes they needed to form a majority government once more. 

👉 To learn more about the history of the Labour Party, its political views, and environmental stance head over to our article


For several years, tension had been mounting within the Conservative Party regarding the UK's ongoing EU membership. This led David Cameron, in 2013, to promise a national referendum on the matter should the Conservatives win the forthcoming general election.

After the Conservative Party won the majority of votes in 2015, Cameron followed through with his promise, and a national referendum was held in 2016. The UK population was largely split on the matter, and the Conservative party was no different, with David Cameron supporting the Remain campaign, and London Mayor, Boris Johnson, heading up the Leave side. 

Voting was close but the Leave side would eventually win, resulting in the UK leaving the European Union after 47 years of membership. 

What followed was several years of unrest within UK politics starting with the resignation of David Cameron in response to the Brexit vote. Cameron was replaced by Theresa May, who opted to hold a snap general election. Despite polls indicating that the party was positioned for a secure win, they failed to obtain a legislative majority and were forced to form a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. 

May struggled to win party approval for the UK’s EU exit agreement and was eventually forced to resign as leader. She was replaced by Boris Johnson in July 2019. 

Pandemic and political scandal

Boris Johnson initiated a snap UK general election in December 2019 following his election as the Conservative leader, resulting in a landslide victory. This success was followed by his achievement in overseeing the UK’s exit from the EU. However, the spread of COVID-19 around the world would mark the start of Johnson’s downfall. 

Scandal hit the Conservative Party when it was discovered that despite lockdowns, Johnson and his staff had been involved in social gatherings. The so-called ‘Partygate’ scandal resulted in a vote of confidence in June 2022. And although Boris Johnson survived, he was forced to resign in July after another separate scandal was uncovered. 

The straw that broke the camel's back? Boris Johnson was accused of being aware of sexual misconduct allegations against a senior Conservative Party member. This scandal proved to be one too many for Johnson and he was forced to step down in July 2022. 

Boris was replaced by Lizz Truss, who quickly implemented economic reform - something that spooked the financial markets and resulted in revolt within the Conservative Party. After a mere 44 days in office, Lizz Truss was forced to resign, making her the shortest-serving British Prime Minister. 

Truss was then replaced by Rishi Sunak - the UK’s current Prime Minister. 

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Conservative Party views and politics

The UK’s Conservative Party has maintained its core ideology as a centre-right political entity, but its political views have evolved in response to the changing socio-political climate of the 21st country. Let’s explore some of the core beliefs for which the Conservative Party is best known.

  • Economic Conservatism - The Conservative Party upholds the virtues of free market capitalism, emphasising limited state intervention in the economy. They advocate for fiscal prudence, tax reductions where possible, and reduced public spending while striving to maintain efficient public services.
  • National sovereignty - A significant event in the 21st century for the Conservative Party was the Brexit referendum in 2016. And although there was not uniform support for Brexit within the party, a significant portion championed the UK's exit from the European Union, arguing for reclaiming sovereignty and establishing more controlled immigration policies.
  • Law and order - Maintaining law and order is one of the party's cornerstone beliefs. They support robust policing, stricter sentencing for serious crimes, and increased funding to security services to combat threats both domestic and international.
  • Social values - The Conservative Party has traditionally been associated with more socially conservative stances. However, in the 21st century, they've shown adaptability, notably with the legalisation of same-sex marriage under Prime Minister David Cameron. Still, factions within the party remain more traditional in their outlook on social issues.
  • Global Britain - In a post-Brexit era, the party promotes a vision of a "Global Britain", emphasising international trade, forging new alliances, and maintaining the UK's influential role on the world stage.
  • Health and social care - While the party is fiscally conservative, they recognise the significance of the National Health Service (NHS) to the British public. They have pledged increased funding to the NHS and reforms in social care to cater to the ageing population.
  • Environmental and climate concerns - Previous Prime Ministers - and particularly Boris Johnson - have recognised the importance of sustainability and environmental issues. In recent years the Conservative Party has pledged commitments to combat climate change, aiming for the UK to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seems to bring this into question after he U-turned on a  number of important green policies in September 2021 - but more on this later.

What is the Conservative Party’s environmental stance?

In the last few decades, the UK Conservative government has displayed an increasingly pronounced commitment to environmental concerns, aligning itself with global efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainability. This shift was emblematic of a broader global recognition of pressing environmental issues and the critical role nations play in addressing them. One of the most ambitious pledges from the Conservative government has been the commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This promise, legislated in 2019, made the UK the first major economy in the world to pass laws legally binding the UK government to eliminate emissions by the mid-century.

The Conservatives have backed this overarching goal with a series of policies and initiatives. The government has championed the phasing out of coal-fired power stations, set out plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and invested in renewable energy infrastructure, especially offshore wind farms. Green finance has been promoted as a means to facilitate sustainable projects, while a 10-point plan for a "green industrial revolution" was unveiled, targeting up to 250,000 British jobs. Furthermore, the Conservative government has taken steps to safeguard natural habitats, with pledges to halt the decline in biodiversity and expand protected areas across the country.

However, while the government has set these commendable targets, it has faced criticism from environmental groups and experts who argue that the pace of actual implementation is lagging and that more immediate, robust actions are essential. 

Even more concerning is Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to water down a number of green policies - potentially signalling a shift within the party with regard to its environmental stance.

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Who is Rishi Sunak and what are his views?

Rishi Sunak ascended quickly through the ranks of the Conservative Party. After a career within the financial sector, Rishi Sunak was elected to the House of Commons in 2015 and by 2019 he was appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and then promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020. 

Alongside a number of other prominent government figures, Sunak resigned in 2022 citing differences of opinion over economic policies, and concern over government conduct - a reference to the ‘Partygate’ and sexual misconduct scandals. Following Boris Johnson’s resignation in July 2022, Rishi Sunak became a front-runner in the race for the Conservative Party leadership. 

He narrowly missed out to Liz Truss, however, after a disastrous start, Truss was forced to resign a mere 44 days later. Rishi Sunak was then selected as party leader and therefore became Prime Minister of the UK in October 2022.  

In the summer 2022 Tory leadership contest, Rishi Sunak emerged with a youthful and liberal facade, distinguishing himself from the older guard of the party. However, beneath this polished exterior, Sunak has proven to be one of the most traditionalist leaders the Conservative Party has seen since the era of Margaret Thatcher. 

Whereas leaders like David Cameron and Theresa May had gradually tilted the party towards more liberal perspectives on social issues, Sunak's political ethos seems to be rooted in deeper conservative principles. This is evident in his approach to issues like immigration; he has introduced stringent policies that have made it increasingly challenging for refugees to gain asylum in the UK. Actions like docking a barge in Dorset to accommodate asylum-seekers aren't just strategic moves for Sunak – they represent a genuine reflection of his beliefs.

Sunak's divergence from the liberal leanings of his predecessors extends to social policies as well. While Cameron championed gay rights and May explored gender transition reforms, Sunak has exhibited more conservative views on these matters. His opposition to certain trans rights measures has been highlighted by actions like vetoing the Scottish First Minister's gender reform bill and showing support for amendments that limit trans women's rights in single-sex spaces. Furthermore, Sunak, who has his daughters in single-sex schools, believes in informing parents when a child grapples with their gender identity, a position that has garnered criticism from LGBTQ+ organisations fearing the potential negative repercussions on the child.

Sunak's political decisions have also raised eyebrows in the environmental sector. Recent decisions to backtrack on green policies have cast doubts on his commitment to achieving net-zero emissions and combat climate change.

👉 To find out more about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his views, and his recent controversial green policy U-turn, head over to our article.

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Environmental battle lines being drawn

In September 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a significant move away from the UK's existing climate commitments, hinting at a radical shift in policy aimed at bridging the political gap with the Labour Party in anticipation of the next general election. 

Two of the major policy alterations included postponing the deadline for the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales and delaying the phasing out of gas boilers. These decisions were met with intense criticism in the UK and around the world. 

While Sunak asserted an unwavering commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, he emphasised a "more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic approach" without detailing alternative measures to reach the target. This stance, combined with his decision to cancel the Manchester HS2 rail branch in favour of road expansions, starkly contrasts with the nation's goals. Considering that transport was responsible for 34% of the UK's territorial carbon dioxide emissions in 2022 and remains its largest emitting sector, such policies risk exacerbating environmental challenges.

Sunak's rationale behind these policy shifts appears to focus on immediate cost considerations. Highlighting the high short-term expenses associated with green transitions, such as the cost disparities between electric vehicles and fossil-fuel-powered cars or between heat pumps and traditional gas boilers, Sunak seems to be appealing to voters' immediate economic concerns.

This strategic manoeuvre aims to cast the Conservatives as the party prioritising financial relief, potentially forcing Labour into a corner, characterised as supporting costlier options for the electorate. However, critics argue that this approach not only undermines the longer-term benefits of a decarbonised economy but also risks polarising the nation's perspective on climate change, turning it into a contentious political tool. Suella Braverman, the UK's Home Secretary, recently added fuel to this fire by dubbing net zero and other progressive agendas as a "luxury belief" of the affluent, despite data showing that emissions from wealthier regions disproportionately affect underprivileged countries. Such tactics suggest that the UK's climate commitment is being sidelined in favour of short-term political gains.

👉 Read more about Rishi Sunak’s support for new oil and gas exploration licenses in the North Sea on our website

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What about Greenly?

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If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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