The oldest party in the world?

Posted by Helen Monday, June 05, 2006

A sign of this blog's success is the fact that our readers are offering their own articles for posting, in the hopes that further discussion will be generated. This one is by Tim Roll-Pickering, who has his own blog on matters political.

The Liberal Party was founded in 1859. Labour in 1900. The Liberal Democrats in 1988. Or looking further afield, the US Republicans in 1854, the Irish Fine Gael in 1933 and the Australian Liberal Party in 1945.

But what year was the Conservative Party founded? And is it truly "the oldest political party in the world"?A variety of dates are on offer, but for the purpose of this piece the biggest question is just how far today's Conservatives are the old Tory Party continued?

(One could also ask if there was a single Tory party between the 1670s and the 1830s, encompassing all of Harley and Bolingbroke, Bute, North and Pitt the Younger. Fortunately for our purposes this does not cause a problem when comparing with the dates for the US Democrats.) The Pittite Tories dominated British politics from the 1780s until the 1830s, but from 1827 onwards they fell apart under the leadership of Canning, Goderich and Wellington.

In the 1830s Peel sought to build the new force of Conservatism on a wider basis than in previous years - but was it merely the Tory Party by another name or a new party that took the place of the old?

With no formal constitution there is nothing one can look to for a simple resolution. The continuing use of the term "Tory" as a shorthand or abuse for Conservatives creates the impression of the two being one and the same, even when members in later generations felt very sure of the difference between the two words. Was this a new party? If so then it is to the early 1830s that the Conservatives' foundation can be dated.

However, dating the formation of the Party at any point after the accession of William IV removes the claim that it is the oldest in the world.The US Democrats also have a claim here. Their foundation date is equally confused by their relationship to earlier parties. Today they cite 1792 as their foundation date, claiming to be a direct continuation of the Jeffersonian Republican Party.

Others have argued that they were founded in the 1820s when the original Republican Party fragmented. Since all this falls between the 1783 and 1830s dates for the Pittite Tory Party, this is less of an issue in this dispute. What remains is the question of whether or not Peel's Conservatives were the continuation of the Pittite Tories and what date can be cited for the party's foundation.

And there is one other matter that is sometimes overlooked. The foundation of the Liberal Democrats is invariably dated to 1988 due to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats. What about the 1912 merger of the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists to form the "Conservative & Unionist Party"? Can one make a consistent case to accept the former and ignore the latter?


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Hate to say it, but the Conservative and Unionist merger is probably the real original date for the current party. But I'd like to hear countervailing arguments from those who know the facts better. I hate even more to say that this makes the American Democratic party the oldest -- and I think the modern party can be traced down from the time of Andrew Jackson.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. I have left my comment on the other blog about the oldest party, but think that substantial continuity of personnel is the key to continuity. Not my business to comment on the history of the Liberal party, but suspect that as far as the Conservatives are concerned, the absorption of first the Liberal Unionists after a period in coalition with them, and subsequently of the National Liberals in the 1947, do not indicate a new party. It would be interesting to study what political scientists have to say on the subject, however.

  5. To an extent the question of the continuity depends upon how the party outwardly sells itself and is seen at the time. In 1912 and 1947 there was no attempt at a grandscale relaunch proclaiming a new party and the mergers were primarily a formal pooling of resources for what had pretty much become de facto one unit. Contrast that with the Liberal Democrats in 1988 when Paddy Ashdown oversaw a very clear launch of what proclaimed itself a new party, perhaps overdoing to the point that it denied roots that would have rallied a crucial support base at a time when they received poll ratings that make even the events of 2006 look like good times. (Side-stepping into the realms of what if..., had Alan Beith won the 1988 contest the Lib Dems would probably have presented themselve much more as a continuation of the Liberals to the point that 1988 would be seen as mainly just formalities and the loss of David Owen, rather than a new birth.)

  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. The DEMOCRATIC party of the U.S. is the oldest party in the world founded in 1796 by thomas jefferson

  8. Romartus Says:
  9. The Conservative party changed its name in 1912 to that of Unionist with the formal merger with their Liberal Unionist allies. Indeed between 1886 until 1925 the party was better known as 'Unionists' and usually referred to that name by most contemporary reports. As also the formal name of the party is Conservative & Unionist - I would suggest 1912 saw the creation of a new party. This is not the same as happened with the latter Liberal Nationals/National Liberals. There was no name change then.

  10. The US Democratic party was not founded by Thomas Jefferson. Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson set up the Democratic party from a faction of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican party, but the split was actually specifically due to a difference in ideology and political division, and so it can not be said that Democrats can draw their heritage from the Democratic-Republican party.

    The modern founding year for the United States Democratic Party is 1828. This would make it two years older than the modern form of the Conservative party, founded in 1830. However, the Conservative party can in fact trace a direct history from the Tories established in 1678.

    So, pedantically, the US Democratic Party is the oldest, realistically, the Conservative party is.

  11. Unknown Says:
  12. ANC of South Africa 1912

    How can you possibly miss it?

  13. Joshua Issac Says:
  14. The Liberal Democrats are descended from the Whig Party, which became the Liberal Party before taking its modern form, and was founded in 1678, the same year as the Tory Party.

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