During the century that has elapsed since Gladstone's famous Midlothian Campaigns of 1879–80, the British political parties have had to adjust to a series of major changes and developments in both the structure and the substance of politics: the extension of the parliamentary vote to all men and women over the age of eighteen; the move toward the direct taxation of incomes; the rise of a “welfare state”; the steady, if unspectacular, decline of British industry; two debilitating world wars; the retreat from empire; and the loss of major-power status. At first sight every one of these changes represents a problem for British Conservatives: they appear to have been perpetually working against the grain of history. Yet in the general election of 1885 the Conservatives achieved a 43.5 percent share of the popular vote, while in the election of June 1987 they won just 43 percent. Far from being pushed to the margins by more adaptable or more popular parties, they appear to be as strong and as central in the British political system as they ever were.
Of course, Conservative support has not been quite as stable as a comparison between 1885 and 1987 suggests. Their vote has indeed fluctuated, though within a fairly narrow range; the minimum is usually 38 percent to 39 percent, and the maximum around 48 percent (table 1).