What is a Conservative?

The origins of the Whig-Tory dichotomy can be traced to the reign of Richard II at the end of the fourteenth century, with the King himself, who took an elevated view of the royal prerogative, speaking for the Tories, and John of Gaunt, with his notions f an ideally-constituted English community, speaking for the Whigs. Shakespeare, in his highly political play Richard II, described the conflicting attitudes brilliantly, from the standpoint of a sixteenth-century traditionalist. You could push the dichotomy further back, to King John’s conflict with his barons which produced the Magna Carta in 1215. This might be descried as the Ur-document of Whiggism; it has always been considered the first Statute of the Realm, the first Act of Parliament to be inscribed permanently on the Statute Book. Since it went some way o circumscribe the powers of the Crown and assert the rights of the subject, it was distinctively Whiggish and anti-Tory.

Paul Johnson - Saturday, 26th October, 1996