The Vilification of the Conservative Party in the Classroom

Lauren Landon

For the historian, the results of the 2015 General Election confirmed the existence of the working-class Conservative, a neglected, underexplored and mythologised phenomenon in modern British history. This neglect, to some extent at least, has arisen from the tendency to impose political affiliations within historical frameworks. In light of Sir John Seeley’s famous affirmation that ‘history is past politics; and politics is present history’, it is unsurprising how deeply politics pervades the way we conceptualise – and teach – the past. Indeed, popular history permeated the 2015 General Election, where constructed narratives of Victorianism were utilised to demonise the Conservative Party through the allegation that austerity measures ‘send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’.[1] The classroom is not so different. Ultimately, history is mobilised by a leftwing majority to – at times unwittingly and most certainly unfairly – disseminate leftwing political opinion.

Contrary to the belief of many in higher education, I believe that the Conservative Party has never wanted to punish the poor. Nor, as my reading lists so often tell me, is it a dehumanised political machine, operating to cut welfare regardless of the living standards of the most vulnerable in our society. I believe it is a party for working people, dedicated to improving the lives of British citizens and valuing them as equal – and free – individuals above anything else. This involves reducing the role of a patronising and incredibly strained state, which for so long has trapped people in dependency. Rather, Conservatism encourages and propagates aspiration through the value it places on work and equal opportunity to work – so that people have the power to participate in active citizenship.

Voicing these views on social media that fateful Friday morning was like a lamb to slaughter. Keyboard warriors described Conservative voters as ‘Tory scum’ and used lazy political caricatures to vilify personal democratic choices. In an article published in The Telegraph, Labour voter Bryony Gordon depicted social media as a ‘narcissistic echo chamber’.[2] Is this also a fitting way to describe the classroom? I had experienced ‘shy Toryism’ long before the 2015 General Election and I believe it is the result of the vilification of the Conservative Party in the classroom. From my experience, it was deemed morally wrong to identify with Conservatism and the ideology, despite its heterogeneity, was persistently framed as elitist, regressive and cruel. I remember, in a seminar discussion on the Channel 4 programme Benefits Street, Channel 4 was virulently critiqued for airing such a ‘divisive’ programme (‘an objective of the Tory government’), whilst the class was absolutely silent on the potential problems caused by an over-burdened benefit system. It was clear that a ‘false dichotomy’ had developed, which assumed ‘that lower earners are always hard-working while the better off are rapacious and should be taxed more’.[3]

Identifying as a Conservative has not been easy at university. I will never forget the time my admiration for Margaret Thatcher or belief in Milton Friedman’s equality/freedom theory was met with irritated whispers and nasty glares.[4] Or the moment I was told that I could not be both a feminist and a Conservative, which prompted my dissertation research that the two ideologies were not historically antithetical. My research has suggested the contrary; the Conservative Women’s Organisation campaigned just as vehemently for women’s rights as any leftwing women’s organisation. Indeed, the Conservative Party was always vilified in my modules on the history of politics, owing to partisan reading lists, left-wing peers and a very biased field itself. I have also been taught to feel uncomfortable with the leading Conservative historians, whose challenging and often controversial conclusions are shunned out of ideological affinity. Given the popularity of Conservatism, why am I always a minority in my seminars? Is this a characteristic unique to the study of history? Do Conservative economists or geographers feel this way too? Or are students more comfortable to express ‘opposition’ views? Should lecturers practice impartiality or is this not realistic?

It is my inclination that over-polarising ideological divisions are harming the discipline. They are restrictive and precariously limiting, particularly in the classroom. Historians and students should not feel that their ideas are somehow less worthy of discussion or historical recovery, because they envision an alternative strategy, or history, to that which has been written by the left. This is not to say that this work has not already begun. In the case of the history of the welfare state, we are beginning to discover the shared values between the 1909 Minority Report and the Majority Report; including the belief in an organic vision of society, a disdain for amateurism and do-goodism, as well as the advocation of a mixed economy of welfare between state intervention and voluntarism. The stark divisions in the conceptualisation of a welfare system between the left and the right throughout history, then, have often been overstated. At the simplest level, both ideologies recognised a national social security system, a mixed economy of welfare and the very idea of citizenship based on contribution. An understanding of the left and the right as part of a political spectrum is also imperative, as it reveals the tangled, complex and often overlapping ideologies that function in the welfare state trajectory. But to write, and teach, the history of modern Britain, in such a way that more often than not devalues, neglects and vilifies those on the right– despite the central role its actors have played in the advance of society – is a great shame.


[1] T. Hunt, ‘Tory spending cuts send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’, The Mirror (London), 21st October 2013.

[2] B. Gordon, ‘Stop your whingeing: why the Left are such bad losers’, The Telegraph (London), 12th May 2015.


[4] ‘A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both’ – Milton Friedman


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