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The Lessons of Tory Democracy

Tory Democracy offers a lesson for all those interested in taking up the challenge.

Credit: Electric Egg

“The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy.”

Benjamin Disraeli, 1848


The year is 1900, and a fierce debate is raging in Liverpool’s City Council. On one side, Sir Archibald Salvidge is pressing for a “fair wage clause” to be inserted into council contracts. This is opposed by the leader of the Liverpool Conservatives, Sir Thomas Hughes. In the course of the heated debate, Salvidge claimed Hughes had never been known to advocate anything in the interests of the working man.

What makes this spat interesting is that Salvidge was a Conservative councilor. As the chairman of Liverpool’s Working Men's Conservative Association (WMCA), he was closely attuned to the demands of the working class (he was also the owner of a pub). Salvidge recognized that the only way to face the threat from a rising Labour Party was to take a more active role in local civic culture and to focus on economic regeneration. Under his leadership of Liverpool City Council, the city not only adopted his fair wage clause, but also, as Charlotte Wildman writes in her contribution to The History Boys: Lessons from Local Government’s Past, invested “in ambitious programmes of urban regeneration. In doing so, their vision and innovation revitalised local culture and ensured Liverpool not only survived but thrived during the most severe economic depression Britain has ever seen.”

Salvidge was one of a cast of Conservative politicians who came to embody the idea of “Tory Democracy.” As today’s U.K. Conservative Party flounders in the polls, a rediscovery of Tory Democracy provides a fresh approach to today’s economic, social, and civic decline to reheated technocratic managerialism.

Tory Democracy is a political ideology that emerged within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rooted in conservative principles, Tory Democracy sought to strike a balance between traditional values and the pressing need for social reforms to address the challenges posed by industrialization and social inequality.

For Benjamin Disraeli, Tory Democracy’s greatest proponent, “the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”


One of the main drivers of Tory Democracy was the passing of the Reform Act in 1832, which expanded the franchise and forced local Conservative parties to engage with newly-enfranchised voters. The Reform Act in 1867, passed by Disraeli’s government, enfranchised part of the urban male working class by allowing all male heads of household to vote. As such, the Tory Democrat wing of the Conservative Party became more attuned to the demands and hardships of the working classes, and increasingly saw the state as a vital agent in addressing social problems in contrast to the laissez-faire free marketeers, who saw poverty as a sign of personal and moral failing. At its core, Tory Democracy is best summed up by Disraeli in his 1872 speech in the Crystal Palace, where he stated that the “great object of the Tory party, and one not inferior to the maintenance of the Empire, or the upholding of our institutions, is the elevation of the condition of the people.”

Tory Democracy was, of course, still Tory, and aimed to alleviate social suffering without undermining traditional institutions like the monarchy, the established church, and the House of Lords (as the Liberals wanted) or eroding class boundaries and stifling enterprise (as the Socialists sought). This is not to say Tory democrats were opposed to reform of these institutions, but rather that the value of these institutions was that they could alleviate the plight of the poor.

To this end, Disraeli utilized a rhetoric that claimed traditional institutions as being more concerned for the welfare of the people than the “oligarchs of Parliament,” who were cast as the enemy of the laborer and who sought power for power’s sake. This approach was so successful that historian William J. Wilkinson notes in his Tory Democracy that Disraeli was responsible for “stamping a tradition so indelibly upon the imagination of the workers, that when a Labour Government assumed office forty-two years after his death, the capitalist and not the monarch regarded the event with apprehension.”

If the class system is a British institution which should be kept, contra the goals of the Socialist, Tory Democrats see paternalism as the main method of alleviating the plight of the poor and thus ensuring the maintenance of social stability. Harking back to an idealized feudal system for inspiration, whereby the “hall” and the “cottage” had a common sympathy with one another, so wealthy employers should make it their duty to provide their workers with good conditions and good pay, from a sense of noblesse oblige, rather than striving solely for profit maximization.

Outside of the employer-employee relationship, the ruling elite should be responsible for the well-being of society as a whole, through philanthropic work and effective, responsible, and moral government that strove for social reform to smooth out tensions within society. As a result, the label Tory Democracy is a misnomer. Tory democrats did not especially value government by the people, in which the majoritarian will of the people is sovereign, but rather the idea of government for the people.

The paternalist obligation at the core of Tory Democracy is in clear contrast to 19th-century Liberals and laissez-faire Tories who believed the free market and free trade would deliver prosperity, and that social obligations outside the market did not have value.

As noted by Robert Eccleshall, the rhetoric of class reconciliation served several purposes. Many Tory Democrats did care for the plight of the poor and did want to advocate for a program of social reform. To them, society could be conceptualized as an organism, and like any organism, a sickness in one area harmed the whole. For others, social reform was good insofar as it held any socialist revolution at bay.

For others it served as a stick with which to beat the party leadership for lack of flair, or for aristocratic Tories to lament the decline of feudal responsibility in a party where the “moneyed interests” were in the ascendency. Later, in the early years of the twentieth century, it was used to urge a pragmatic yet progressive conservatism capable of steering a middle course between laissez-faire and doctrinaire radicalism.

Disraeli’s government in 1874 to 1880 was transformative. His government effectively decriminalized trade unions by allowing a breach of contract by an employer to be tried in a criminal court rather than a civil court, held that a trade union could not be prosecuted for an act which would be legal if conducted by an individual, and legalized peaceful picketing.

The Artisans’s and Labourers’s Dwellings Improvement Act 1875 allowed for councils to engage in slum clearance and to build new dwellings. The Public Health Act 1875 improved living conditions. For instance, local authorities had to provide sewage systems, all new dwellings had to include running water and drainage, and introduced compulsory authority medical officers and sanitary inspectors while the Factory Act 1874 reduced the working day for women and children to ten hours on a weekday and six hours on a Saturday. The Factory and Workshop Act 1878 consolidated all previous Factory Acts and made their enforcement much easier. So consequential was the Disraeli government that one of the first Labour M.P.s, Alexander Macdonald, said to constituents in 1879 that “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.”

The phrase “Tory Democracy” entered public discourse when it was used, like many terms in British politics which soon became commonplace, as a pejorative, to describe Arthur Forwood when he contested (and narrowly lost) the 1882 Liverpool by-election. Forwood embraced the label, as “an indication of his commitment to ‘active and enlightened Conservatism’.” He presented a classic Disraelian policy platform: safeguard national institutions, uphold the empire, and deliver a “safely progressive policy” to prevent a working-class embrace of “Revolutionary or Socialistic ideas.” Not only did Forwood speak in principles, he also listed the types of progressive measures the Conservative Party should adopt: extension of the Employers’s Liability Act, household suffrage in the counties, redistribution of the endowments of the established church for the benefit of poor parishes, reform of Irish land laws, and in doing so, Eccleshall writes, “Forwood went into rather more detail than Disraeli was apt to do.” Forwood later became the MP for Ormskirk.

One man who was not happy with Forwood’s use of the term Tory Democracy was Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who claimed Forwood used the phrase “without knowing what he was talking about,” although, as noted by Eccleshall, Churchill “himself failed to provide even a rudimentary prospectus of progressive legislation. On some issues, indeed, Churchill was palpably unenlightened, and he used Tory Democracy, not to advocate extensive legislation in the interests of the working class, but principally as an oratorical device for persuading the electorate to cherish old-style conservatism.” A few years later, however, in 1886, Churchill, now in the cabinet, did flesh out Tory Democracy with a program including free elementary education, provision of smallholdings for agricultural laborers, changes in local government, and land reforms for Ireland.

It is important not to overstate the extent to which Tory Democracy gripped the Conservative Party at the time. Many contemporaries saw it as an inconsistent ideology. Lord Rosebery, a biographer of Lord Randolph Churchill, described it as “the wolf of Radicalism in the sheep-skin of Toryism.” For others, including within the Conservative Party at the time, such as Arthur Baumann, a hardline Conservative M.P. for Peckham, Tory Democrats were akin to radicals on the Left, whilst for Lord Eustace Cecil, later a Conservative M.P. in Essex, the Tory Democrats’ proposals simply appropriated Chamberlain's radical program. For critics, Tory Democracy was nothing more than opportunism for pseudo-liberals who were simply in the wrong party.

However, Tory Democrats admitted opportunism was one part of the drive for Tory Democracy. Disraeli that the policies in the Employers and Workmen Act 1875 would “gain and retain for the Conservatives the lasting affection of the working classes.” Support for the Reform Act 1867 was an opportunity to “dish the Whigs,” as was Lord Randolph Churchill’s opposition to the Liberal Government’s Employers’s Liability Act 1880 and Reform Act 1884. The irreverence of the Tory Democrats, however, hid a deeper acknowledgement that reform was inevitable given the changes in the electorate, and thus it was better the Tories, with their respect for tradition and the constitution, oversaw change rather than leaving it up to radicals, who would undoubtedly, and recklessly, go further. Furthermore, in the new electoral arena, the Conservatives had to win votes, and the ability to offer social reform offered another reason for the working man to vote for them over the Liberals or any nascent labour movement.

Tory Democracy was eclipsed by post-war Keynesianism, which itself fell as the global political and economic context changed, to be replaced by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The context has changed yet again, as the rising tide of global liberalism ebbs. Globalization, liberal economics, and increasingly individualistic societies have hollowed out our communities. Economies do not serve the people, but instead multinational capital flows. People do not feel like politics works for them.

Elements of the British Conservative Party recognized this, jolted to reality by the vote to leave the European Union. In the U.K., this has been given intellectual heft by the postliberal movement. Trumpism has dragged the U.S. Republican Party to an America-First political economy that has been somewhat aped by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act.

However, Tory Democracy teaches us a muscular political economy is necessary but not sufficient for a transformative right-program that appeals to the working classes. Economic reform must go alongside social reform. In the U.K. this means dealing with high housing costs and decentralizing political power.

The greatness of Disraeli was in identifying the fractures present in society and recognizing that the state was vital in combatting them. The challenge today is no lesser, but neither is the prize: a reforging of the alliance between popular conservatism and the working class. Tory Democracy offers a lesson for all those interested in taking up the challenge.

This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.