Tory Research Paper

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The term Tory is colloquially used as a synonym for a British Conservative. However, it is best defined as a particular tendency within conservative thought that stresses order over liberty. Conservatism is marked by a tension between two of its fundamental principles, the necessity of order and the desirability of liberty. The former is concerned with how government is conducted; the latter with the role and limits of government. For example, conservative communists can exist in Russia in the first sense, but not in the second. Often, perhaps usually, these two elements of conservatism are mutually reinforcing, but not always. In this tension, Tories emphasize order. This research paper will examine six issues: origins; principles; history; contemporary forms; relevance outside the United Kingdom; and future.

1. Origins

The origin of the word ‘Tory’ comes from the Irish toraighe, an Irish thief dispossessed of his lands and existing on raids on English settlers. It was used in British politics as a term of abuse during the debate on the succession to Charles II in 1679. His natural heir and brother, James, Duke of York, was a devout follower of the Catholic church, which made him unacceptable to a largely Protestant people. Those who insisted that he should become King, despite his religious views, were called by their opponents ‘Tories.’ In return they accused their opponents of being ‘Whigs,’ or Scottish bandits.

For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‘party’ is too formal to describe the loosely allied groups and factions based around particular individuals. The Tories were those who favored the Crown, the Church of England (‘the Tory party at prayer’), and rural or ‘Country’ interests, and largely drawn from the local squirearchy of small landowners, in opposition to the aristocratic Whigs. The first identifiably Tory thinker was Henry Bolingbroke. In The Idea of a Patriot King (1738), he articulated several recurring Tory themes: a reliance on experience against abstract theory; the significance of social groups such as the family; a constitution based on historical liberties; a suspicion of power; and the need to abandon unsustainable positions that undermine stability, in this case sympathy for the Jacobite cause.

2. Tory Principles Within Conservatism

  1. H. Greenleaf (1983), in his magisterial study of the British ideological tradition, identified a tension between libertarian and collectivist thinking within all parties. The collectivist element within conservatism is described as Tory paternalism, sympathetic to state intervention in the economy and the welfare state, and associated with humanitarianism, duty, piecemeal concessions, and social and economic reforms. His terminology of dualism exaggerates these differences into deep and irreconcilable divisions.

The most extensive attempt to distinguish between Tory and Whig within conservatism is to be found in Norton and Aughey (1981). They contrast Tory themes of traditionalism, original sin, order, and authority, with Whig themes of capitalism, rationalism, faith in human progress, and the creation of wealth. Toryism is associated with security and stability, concern for the moral and economic well-being of the people, trust, instinct, honor, loyalty, authority, discipline, prejudices, traditions, customs, and obligations. ‘Toryism is sceptical, with a touch of fatalism’ (Norton and Aughey 1981, pp. 64–5). The problem with this distinction is that Whiggery is given a solely economic orientation, which ignores its perspectives on other issues, while Toryism is left bereft of an economic position.

Norton and Aughey identify four subdivisions within Toryism. Pessimistic or fatalistic Tories accept change as inevitable though undesirable. Paternalists are motivated by a strong sense of noblesse oblige, of responsibilities and duties toward others. Progressives seek to update paternalism and demonstrate its contemporary relevance. Combative or reactionary Toryism is opposed to any attempt to undermine the values of society. These categories are primarily ones of style rather than substance.

3. Toryism In The History Of The Conservative Party

When did the Tory party become Conservative? How has the Tory tendency expressed itself within Conservative party politics? The emergence of British parties is usually associated with the divisive reaction to the French Revolution, between those who feared and decried it around William Pitt the Younger, and those who hailed it around Charles Fox. The former were known as Tories, although Pitt always described himself as a Whig.

The founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, was also a Whig, of the Rockingham persuasion. He was the chief critic of the French Revolution, and provided intellectual sustenance to the Pittites. Burke combined Tory and Whig elements into conservative philosophy, the scepticism of the Tory David Hume and the economic liberalism of the Whig Adam Smith. The chief Tory features of his thought were: the limits of reason, the inherent weakness of human nature, the wisdom of institutions, the defence of private property, the necessity of reform for stability, and the protection of the social order. The term Conservative was first used to describe the party in January 1830 by the Quarterly Review. The modern Conservative party is usually dated from the 1832 election and the Tamworth Manifesto written by Robert Peel.

Peel came under increasing criticism from a group within his party over his support for religious toleration for Catholics and free trade. While predominantly based on the landed aristocracy, its spokesman was Benjamin Disraeli, probably the first writer to identify distinctively Tory thinking within conservatism. In Sybil (1845), he declared ‘Toryism will yet rise from the tomb … to bring back strength to the Crown, liberty to the subject, and to announce that power has only one duty—to secure the social welfare of the people’ (Blake 1985, p.5). The Conservative party broke over free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which Peel felt was essential to address the famine in Ireland. In conservative historiography, Peel is the epitome of the Whig tendency of economic rationality and Disraeli of romantic Toryism.

Disraeli proclaimed the principles of the Conservative party as the upholding of established institutions, the maintenance of the empire, and the elevation of the condition of the people. The emphasis on the latter, through social legislation aimed at benefiting the working class, absorbed the Tory Radicals, such as Robert Southey and the poet Samuel Coleridge, who favored an alliance of the aristocracy and the working class against the commercial middle class. This strand of social reform can be traced through Tory Democracy, led by Lord Randolph Churchill, to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and to the contemporary One Nation Tories. In the 1940s, R. A. Butler and the One Nation Group articulated a progressive Toryism, accepting an extensive role for the state. This found expression during the premiership in the 1950s of Harold Macmillan, who earlier had advocated a Middle Way between capitalism and communism. Edward Heath belonged to this tradition of progressive Toryism. The reaction to it led to Margaret Thatcher, who combined Whig and High Tory elements together in the New Right, despite the tensions between them. Two groups of Tory critics, High and One Nation, emerged against the Whig dominance within the New Right, who represent the current state of Toryism.

4. Contemporary Toryism

The leading intellectual exponent of High Toryism is Roger Scruton, editor of the Salisbury Review. He identifies the features of High Toryism as: legitimacy based on custom, history, popular morality, religion, and patriotism; the value of a ruling class; the validity of private property; suspicion of unbridled capitalism; and a belief in one nation of different classes held together by mutual obligations. He protests that Toryism has been undermined by commitments to democracy, liberalism, and the market economy. He uses the unusual term ‘low Toryism’ of business and free enterprise, and deplores its influence over the Conservative party (A Dictionary of Political Thought, Macmillan, London, 1983, p. 466). Critics see a strong Hegelian and continental influence in his writing, in contrast to Burkean conservatism. The Salisbury Review is the main mouthpiece for High Tories, with its fascination with the Established Church, fox hunting, rural life, and the nation-state. With the exception of the issue of the European Union, their problem is the appearance of irrelevance to the concerns of the average person.

The other school is the One Nation Tories, consciously echoing Disraeli. They criticize Thatcherism for promoting economic reform at the expense of a divided nation, and surrendering the tradition of social legislation. They were dismissed by Mrs Thatcher as ‘wets.’ Their most prominent intellectual was Ian Gilmour who wrote a series of withering attacks on Thatcherism, which he portrayed as abandoning traditional Tory scepticism towards ideology. He became ever more virulent towards Thatcher for dancing with dogma and her successors for drifting with dogma. The weakness of One Nation Tories is the lack of a coherent program, with their most distinctive policy, European integration, clashing with their own terminology of One Nation.

5. Toryism In The English-Speaking Diaspora

Those colonists who opposed the American Revolution against the Crown were known as Tories, and most were forced to migrate to English Canada. Toryism is associated in the USA with monarchy, aristocracy, class, and hostility to change, ideas incompatible with American values of individualism, freedom, progress, and natural rights, embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is viewed as fundamentally alien to the liberal society that is America. However, Russell Kirk provided numerous favorable references to the Tory tradition in The Conservative Mind (1952), which invigorated the conservative movement in the 1950s. He happily embraced the term Bohemian Tory. His description of conservatism has been attacked as more Anglo than American, and fails to convey the distinctive nature of American conservatism from its British cousin. George F. Will defends Tory notions of scepticism towards capitalism and an affirmative role for the state in promoting virtue. Beyond the UK, Tory can be found in extensive use only in Canada, as a synonym for the Progressive Conservative party, more collectivist than its British counterpart and close to One Nation Toryism. Historically Toryism was associated with strong links to Britain, Crown, and Empire.

6. The Future Of Toryism: Three Scenarios

First, Toryism could disappear as an influential political voice. Outside of its use as a synonym, Tory has an old-fashioned flavor. Tory themes of hierarchy, elitism, authority, and deference appear out of step with the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. Toryism has always suffered from several weaknesses: uncertainty as to whether it is an ideology; problems in turning instincts into a political program; difficulty in clearly articulating its principles; a tendency to narrow nationalism; and a lack of appeal to the young who believe in the capacity to improve the world. Its deepest flaw, as Hayek (1962) notes, is its inability to provide an alternative direction; it can only slow the process of change, it cannot direct it. In this scenario, Toryism will be seen as an obsolete relic of the past.

A second scenario is that, as conservative parties surrender to neo-liberalism and neglect their concern for order, Tories will seek alliances with the left, especially the green movement, which opposes the destructive trends of capitalism, as the only genuinely conservative, if not reactionary, force in modern politics. This is the conclusion of John Gray in his numerous jeremiads against neo-liberalism. The third scenario is that Toryism will once again become the dominant thinking amongst conservatives and that Whiggery will be recognized as an alien import that should be expunged. This is the aspiration of both High and One Nation Tories, despite their distinctive political goals.


  1. Beer S H 1965 Modern British Politics. Methuen, London
  2. Blake R 1985 The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, rev. edn. Fontana, London
  3. Butler G 1957 The Tory Tradition. Conservative Political Centre, London
  4. Gilmour I 1977 Inside Right: A Study in Conservatism. Hutchinson, London
  5. Greenleaf W H 1983 The British Political Tradition 2: The Ideological Heritage. Methuen, London
  6. Hayek F A von 1962 The Constitution of Liberty. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  7. Kirk R 1986 The Conservative Mind. Regnery, Washington, DC
  8. Norton P, Aughey A 1981 Conservatives and Conservatism. Temple Smith, London
  9. Scruton R 1984 The Meaning of Conservatism. Macmillan, London
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