Near the start of this year, ConservativeHome and Andrew Sharpe, the Chairman of the Conservative National Convention, put together a rough list. It was a small history exercise – a list of Tories who were either themselves involved in landmark progressive reform, or who symbolise modernising change in some way.
- Lord Shaftesbury: The Ten Hours Act, which restricted the employment of children, and the Lodging Houses Bill, which provided for the registration and inspection of homes for the poor and destitute.
- Robert Peel: His Government (1841-1846) cut working hours, created rail services and abolished the Corn Laws. He is also the father of modern policing (hence “Bobbies”), by means of the earlier Metropolitan Police Act.
- Benjamin Disraeli: First and only Jewish Prime Minister. The 1867 Reform Act, plus the Factory Act, Artisans Dwelling Act, Public Health Act and Pure Food & Drug Act – all passed during his premiership of 1874-80. Disraeli’s Government also saw the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts.
- Lord Salisbury: His second Government of 1888-1892 saw the Free Education Act, which abolished fees for primary education; his third of 1895-1902, the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which made employers liable for accidents at work.
- Lord Balfour: His Government of saw the Education Act of 1902, which set the pattern of elementary education in England and Wales for four decades, and established county councils or boroughs as local education authorities.
- Nancy Astor, first woman MP to take her seat.
- Votes for Women: The Votes for Women Act of 1928 gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Previously, only women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications could vote.
- Neville Chamberlain: first under the Baldwin Governments (1923-1924, 1924-1929) and the National Government (1931-1937), and then as Prime Minister (1937-1940), delivered laws which cleared slums, built thousands of council houses, extended unemployment benefits, improved pensions, made paid holidays mandatory, and limited working hours.
- Rab Butler: As Minister of Education in Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government (1940-1945), his Education Act provided free secondary education for all pupils.
- Henry Willink: As Minister of Health in that Government, he produced a White Paper proposing a National Health Service.
- Harold Macmillan: Drove the building of 300,000 houses a year under the Churchill Government (1951-1955). As Prime Minister (1957-1963), responsible for a Clean Air Act, a reduction in the standard work week and the Robbins Report, which paved the way for new universities.
- Margaret Thatcher, first woman Prime Minister (1979-1990). Radical programme included sale of council houses to their tenants and wider share ownership schemes.
- William Hague, Disability Discrimination Bill, introduced under the Major Government (1990-1997).
- David Cameron: Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, passed under the Coalition Government (2010-2015).
- Michael Gove: As Education Secretary under the Coalition Government, established Free Schools and expanded Academies.
- Sayeeda Warsi, first woman Muslim Cabinet member.
- Theresa May, second woman Prime Minister (2016-2019).
- Sajid Javid, first Muslim Home Secretary and Chancellor of Exchequer.
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- This summary is necessarily partial. For example, much of his own party opposed Shaftesbury; Disraeli was baptised into the Church of England; the 1902 Education Act was opposed by the nonconformist movement; the first woman MP to be elected was Sinn Fein’s Constance Markievicz; and so on.
- Not all the reforms mentioned were popular with the Conservative Party at the time. For example, more Tory MPs voted against Same Sex Marriage than voted in favour. (This site shared their reservations at the time.)
- None the less, the Conservative Party and Tory politicians have, demonstrably and undeniably, a long and vivid history of delivering progressive social change, sometimes alone, sometimes in partnership with other parties. See also the writings of Alastair Lexden, the Party’s official historian, on this site and his own.
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Why tell a summary of this story now? Because this is the week of the Labour Party Conference. Like most of the rest of the Left, much of Labour seeks to delegitimise the Conservatives altogether – in other words, rob them of their right to be heard by suggesting that they are beyond the ethical pale.
A surface response to this is to turn the tables of Labour itself – for example, over its shocking position on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn.
A deeper one is to own, or at least co-possess, the moral high ground. Telling the Tory story is integral to establishing that ownership. The Party is consistently bad at trying to do so. The last senior Conservative who grasped the point was George Osborne. We will be writing more about all this story this week.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The Left grasps the point of Orwell’s line from 1984. Does the Centre-Right?