Why are Conservatives called Tories? Is it an insult? History and meaning of the term explained

Here’s why Conservatives are called Tory or Tories in UK politics.

The Conservative party has been in power in the UK for more than 12 years, under Prime Ministers David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson.

It is one of the two major political parties in the UK, with the other being Labour.

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But Conservative politicians and supporters are often called Tory (or Tories plural), with the terms becoming almost interchangeable.

Boris Johnson, the current leader of the Conservative Party, and James II, the former Duke of York (Getty Images / Peter Lely)
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Here’s where the term ‘Tory’ came from, including its history and etymology.

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History of Tory political term and etymology

The term Tory dates back to hundreds of years before the Conservative Party was formed.

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It first originated as a phrase during the Exclusion Crisis in the reign of King Charles II in 1679.

Two new political factions formed – one in support of Charles’ brother James the Duke of York’s succession to the throne, and one which did not as he was Roman Catholic.

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They were given the pejorative names of the Tories and the Whigs respectively.

The term Tory was derived from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe, which meant outlaw or robber. While Whig came from the word whiggamore, used to describe Scottish cattle drivers who came to Leith to buy corn. ‘Whig’ was meant to imply the politicians were country bumpkins.

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Both names stuck and the Tories lasted for more than 150 years. The party was dissolved in 1834, when they began to transform into the Conservative Party.

Is calling someone a ‘Tory’ considered an insult?

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Although the term originated as an insult, today ‘Tory’ is generally considered acceptable to use.

Newspapers often use it as a shorter form of Conservative when writing headlines, or to add variation in articles. Conservative MPs and campaigners often refer to themselves as Tories.

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However, the word Tory is sometimes used in a derogatory way still. Former Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston told the BBC: “When people call me a Tory they're often doing so pejoratively: if they're being nice they're more likely to call me a Conservative".

In Scotland, the term is sometimes used to refer to Labour as ‘red Tories’ due to the party’s policy against Scottish Independence.

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Likewise, more conservative SNP supporters have previously been called ‘Tartan Tories’ by those on the left of them politically.

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